After Donald Trump chose Attorney General Jeff Sessions to deliver Tuesday’s announcement that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would be gradually rescinded, enterprising commenters unearthed a very telling 2015 radio interview Sessions gave to Steve Bannon at Breitbart. Sessions’ comments in that interview help us understand how the DACA debate, and all conversations over “legal” and “illegal” immigration, are linked to longstanding, exclusionary visions of American identity and community.
In the interview, Sessions approvingly cited the 1924 Immigration Act (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act or the Quota Act) as a precedent for dealing with immigration in 21st century America. He argued:
In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.
If we take Sessions at his word and consider the 1924 law as a model for those (like both Sessions and Bannon) who have helped shape the Trump administration’s immigration policies, those histories offer a clear and helpful way to think about these current debates. More exactly, they make clear that debates over DACA and immigration policy are never simply about “legality.” They, like the history of immigration laws itself, are centrally linked to the battle between exclusionary and inclusive visions of American identity.
The 1921 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Act were the first truly national immigration laws, but they built directly on the legacy of the prior half-century of laws, each of which were created solely to exclude particular groups. The 1875 Page Act, the first immigration law, excluded very specific groups: the insane, convicted criminals, “prostitutes” (a blatant attempt to exclude single Chinese women). The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act extended such exclusions to a particular national community for the first time, and over the next few decades that same principle was applied to many Japanese immigrants (in 1907) and then arrivals from the many nations in the “Asiatic Barred Zone” (1917).
This first half-century of immigration laws did two interconnected things. They established a direct link between immigration law and exclusion, making clear that the creation of such laws at all reflected an attempt to keep particular groups out of the national community (even, if not especially, when those groups were already very well established here, as was the case with Chinese Americans by 1882). And they did not affect in the slightest immigrants outside of those categories—as of 1920, that is, an immigrant from a nation such as England or Germany was still not subject to any laws.
The 1921 and 1924 Acts changed that, establishing for the first time a more truly comprehensive system of immigration laws. But they did so by explicitly extending the principle of exclusion: creating a quota system (based on a highly arbitrary calculation using the 1890 census) that was overtly and solely intended to establish a national and ethnic hierarchy, privileging arrivals from certain nations and regions and severely disadvantaging those from others. After 1924, for example, arrivals from Germany had an annual quota of over 51,000 and those from Great Britain just over 34,000; while Italy had a quota of less than 4000, and nations such as Greece, Turkey, and Syria had the minimum of 100 annual “legal” arrivals.
Such numbers speak for themselves, but they don’t have to, as supporters of the 1924 Act outlined its exclusionary goals, and their link to a white supremacist vision of America, quite blatantly. In a speech on the Senate floor, for example, South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith argued:
It seems to me the point as to this measure … is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. … Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock … and it is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood.
In 1928, arguing that the 1924 Act’s exclusions should be extended to Mexican arrivals (who were initially exempt, partly because of labor needs and partly because the southern border remained largely un-patrolled and difficult to regulate in this era), Texas Congressman John Box made clearer still the bigoted and exclusionary vision of non-Anglo arrivals underlying the 1924 law. He argued, “every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border.”
That’s how immigration laws developed and evolved in the U.S.: to exclude or severely limit certain communities and prioritize others, in service of a set of exclusionary, white supremacist ideas about American identity and community. The 1924 Act and its follow-ups were the culmination of that development, and reigned as the law of the land for more than four decades.
The 1965 Immigration Act to which Sessions objected in his Breitbart interview did reverse that white supremacist emphasis, removing national or ethnic quotas as the defining factor in creating categories of “legal” and “illegal” immigrants. The law and its many subsequent revisions did still rely on certain categories and priorities, and thus still privileged certain arrivals and penalized others, but it did so based on other factors (such as family connections, professional training, or educational backgrounds).
That is of course one reality of immigration laws: if we’re going to have them at all, they do have to categorize and prioritize arrivals in one way or another. Some of our current (pre-Trump, at least) priorities I find more troubling, such as the so-called “million dollar visa” (established in 1990) which allows immigrants who invest $1 million in a business to obtain a green card far more immediately and smoothly than most others. Others seem like common sense, such as prioritizing arrivals who have family members already in the nation. But in any case we can and must acknowledge this reality of immigration laws, and consider how it affects different arrivals quite distinctly.
But as our histories reflect, there’s also more at play than that. Immigration laws, like debates over immigration themselves, exemplify the battle between exclusionary and inclusive visions of America. The 1965 law, whatever its flaws or limits, offered and modeled a more inclusive vision of immigration and nation. The 1924 law offered a far more exclusionary and white supremacist vision, by design and in execution.
Every conversation about immigration laws, or about categories and communities of immigrants such as “legal” and “illegal” ones, that doesn’t recognize this fundamental thread in our history risks replicating it in the present. And we’ve seen that time and again in discussions of DACA and much else: exclusionary and white supremacist rhetoric, descriptions of immigrant communities that depend upon bigoted visions of both them and their relationship to American identity, masked as simple or logical concerns about “the law.”
So Jeff Sessions, himself a purveyor of such rhetoric and ideas throughout his public career, has unexpectedly (and perhaps unwittingly) given us an opening here. He’s given us a chance to acknowledge these histories and link them to these present debates, and thus to have a more open conversation about exclusionary vs. inclusive visions of immigration and nation. To talk, for example, about whether DACA recipients are a community we want to be part of the United States (literally and symbolically), or one we don’t.
I know where I stand on that question: the Dreamers are as American a community as I can imagine. But in any case and at the very least, it’s long past time we had these broader and more defining conversations. If we can and do, we might just have to thank two of our unlikeliest productive conversation starters, Jeff Session and Steve Bannon, for helping get it going.