Learning From (Immigration) History

#StandOnEveryCorner in St. Paul
#StandOnEveryCorner in St. Paul

Cycles of immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment mark U.S. immigration history. At the very beginning, Benjamin Franklin denounced German immigrants to Pennsylvania, saying they “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” 

From Benjamin Franklin to Henry Ford to Donald J. Trump, from the Know Nothings to the Ku Klux Klan to the Immigration Restriction League and the Center for Immigration Studies, anti-immigrant sentiment is as American as apple pie. (Apple pie, of course, is also an immigrant, having originated in England.) 

Throughout our history, a lot of people who opposed immigration insisted they weren’t being racist, said Jia Lynn Yang, speaking during the first day of the Leading the Way 2020 (#LWT2020) conference of the National Immigration Forum. Yang, a senior editor at  the New York Times, wrote One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, which traces U.S. immigration history from 1924 to 1965. Yang said people insisted they opposed immigration in order to preserve the country, to preserve democracy, to preserve a stable America, or to protect jobs. All of those arguments are still with us today. 

Fellow panelist Michael Clemens, program director at the Center for Global Economics, said that we need to keep teaching facts about immigration. For example, when were Chinese people first allowed to become U.S. citizens? The shocking answer: Not until 1952. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) prohibited most immigration from China. That law and judicial decisions held that Asian immigrants were “racially ineligible for naturalization.” Despite a few exceptions, that bar to citizenship for Asian immigrants remained in effect until the passage of the McCarran Walter Act in 1952. Even after the legal bar to citizenship was lifted, quotas kept Asian immigrants out of the United States. The quota for Chinese immigrants, for example, was set at 105 persons per year.   

The 1950s and 1960s marked major changes in U.S. attitudes toward immigration and in U.S. immigration laws. Yang describes the 1950s ascendancy of a “new nationalism built around immigrants and immigration as part of American mythology and creation myth.” This “nation of immigrants” vision was created by conscious political effort, replacing a foundational myth built on pioneers and the “American West.” 

“We didn’t always have that,” Yang says of the “nation of immigrants” phrase and idea. “People had to create that message.” In her book, she traces the paths of people who created the message, including Emanuel Celler, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. 

In 1965, the decades-long struggle for change brought a major reform of U.S. immigration laws, which eliminated national origin quotas. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act remains the basis of today’s U.S. immigration laws.

Clemens says there is nothing inherently progressive in pro-immigrant policies and nothing inherently conservative in anti-immigrant movements. He points to the progressives of the early 1900s who opposed immigration and later supported the New Deal, and to Ronald Reagan signing the amnesty law that allowed three million unauthorized immigrants to become legal permanent residents. While the Republican Party has chosen to go all-out against immigration under Trump, he says, it “doesn’t have to be that way at all.” 

An earlier panelist at #LWT2020, Republican political strategist Stuart Stevens, said that “If the Republican party wants to exist as a governing national party, it must embrace comprehensive immigration reform.” He noted the demographic basis for his conclusion: “The majority of Americans 15 and under are nonwhite. Odds are that they are going to turn 18 and still be nonwhite.” 

His co-panelist Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change, said that “This election was a referendum on who belongs in America, who this country is for.” She advocates holding the new administration to its promises, not just on the “threshold issue” of immigration, but on other crucial issues, such as economic recovery. 

“We are going to cause some good trouble,” she says, “not by using a single tactic but by using all the tools available to us as organizers. … Donald Trump did not hold back. Stephen Miller did not hold back. We should not hold back. Our vision speaks to the values of this country.”

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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