Trump’s immigration ban evokes a dark period in US history
The political firestorm sparked by US President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travellers and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries as well as all Syrian refugees, though now blocked by a federal appeals court, has reawakened debate in the United States about what it means to be American. What is less widely known is that fear of immigrants and efforts to restrict immigration have antecedents in US history.
The great wave of immigration to the United States occurred from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries when millions of people fleeing poverty or religious/nationalist persecution, mainly from Eastern and Southern Europe, headed to the United States. The vast majority of these immigrants had unhindered access, largely to provide a cheap source of labour for American industry.
This welcoming atmosphere changed as fear of the new immigrants started to grow among so-called native Americans, who believed that the immigrants were infiltrating the United States with radicals inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and anarchists from Southern Europe who would change the United States for the worse.
In addition, in the early 20th century dubious American scientists propagated the theory of eugenics — a belief that races of people from North-Western Europe were superior to others, a sentiment that gained popularity among Americans.
This culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and the Middle East. The act based immigration ceilings from any particular country at 2% of their representation in the 1890 census. Immigrants from China and Japan were barred altogether.
As the bulk of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in the decades after 1890, this legislation was a blatant attempt to severely reduce the number of immigrants from those regions. Italians and Eastern European Jews were particularly hard hit but other groups, such as Armenians, were adversely affected as well.
For example, in the decade after 1890, about 200,000 Italians migrated to the United States annually. Under the 1924 law, fewer than 4,000 Italians were allowed in each year. Under the same 1924 law, only 100 Syrians were allowed in per year.
The 1924 legislation passed overwhelmingly.
One of the sponsors of the 1924 act, US Senator David Reed, R-Pennsylvania, explained at the time that “unless immigration is numerically restrained [the United States] will be overwhelmed by a vast migration of peoples from war-stricken Europe”.
Reed added that the “races of men who have been coming to us in recent years are wholly dissimilar to the native-born Americans [and] are untrained in self-government” and went on to decry the creation of “foreign colonies” within the country, which he described as “groups of aliens, either in city slums or in country districts, who speak a foreign language and live a foreign life and who want neither to learn our common speech nor to share our common life”.
Sound familiar? Trump is taking a page out of this dark history and applying it to the present time, fed by his chief adviser Steve Bannon, a self-described American nationalist. Trump and his team are stoking fear among a large segment of the American people who say Muslim immigrants cannot be fully trusted because they are or will be infiltrated by terrorists.
Such sentiments were expressed January 30th to a CNN reporter who interviewed middle-aged and elderly people in a restaurant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Ironically, some of the people who were interviewed and expressed such views had last names suggesting that their parents or grandparents were probably the objects of similar scorn a century ago. They have conveniently forgotten this history and now seem to play the role that Americans did back then.
Fortunately, as former president Barack Obama often said, the arc of American history is upward even with setbacks.
Although it was not until 1965 that the Immigration Act of 1924 was replaced, over time prejudicial attitudes do dissipate in the United States. During the second world war, millions of immigrant Americans and their American-born offspring were no longer considered foreigners as they showed by their sacrifices that they were just as patriotic as anyone else, and that helped to break down barriers.
It took a couple more generations for African Americans to be given their full rights, and while problems of discrimination remain, they have been able to make significant strides in the last several decades.
The demonstrations against Trump’s Muslim-centred immigration ban, often led by young people of varied backgrounds, give hope that this latest attempt at immigration restrictions against and fear of the other will dissipate. This time, the waiting time for a return to tolerance and acceptance is likely to be much shorter, even if Trump continues to play the fear card.