Historical Precedent for Protesting Trump's "Muslim Ban"

On March 8, 1924, three thousand New Yorkers convened at Carnegie Hall to protest a federal immigration restriction measure they called “discriminatory and unfair,” and “contrary to the ideals of fair play and justice upon which this Republic was founded.” The week before the Carnegie Hall demonstration, a large crowd had assembled to hear New York political and community leaders denounce the measure as un-American. Twenty New York congressmen also issued a statement announcing that they were “unalterably opposed to the rigidly restrictive” immigration proposal; national religious organizations including the American Jewish Conference, the Catholic Welfare Conference, the National Council of Episcopal Churches, and the Baptist Board of Missions declared their opposition to the measure.

All of these groups opposed what became the Immigration Act of 1924. With overwhelming support from southern, western, and midwestern states, however, the bill sailed through Congress and established a national origins quota system designed to curb immigration from eastern and southern Europe (while also barring immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). It would take another four decades before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 repealed this national origins quota system; Donald Trump’s recent executive order to halt the entry of nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries threatens to contravene the 1965 law.

Although protests against the Immigration Act of 1924 were unsuccessful, Americans currently demonstrating against Trump’s executive order should take inspiration from voices against immigration restriction 107 years ago. Campaigns against the 1924 bill illustrate that ordinary Americans, their political leaders, and religious organizations have challenged unjust immigration policies even during the height of twentieth-century American nativism. 

Those opposed to the 1924 bill argued that a discriminatory American immigration policy pitched as protection from “Bolshevik” elements entering the United States could serve to strengthen and mobilize those same radical movements. New York congressman Nathan Perlman pointed out that the Russian Jewish immigrants who would be barred from entering the United States were themselves fleeing Communism. Another New York congressman, Emanuel Celler (who, forty years later, would become the co-sponsor of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), likewise reminded his congressional colleagues that the most prominent socialist agitators in the United States at the time were native-born “Anglo-Saxons” rather than “foreign-born Russians.”

These considerations are all deeply resonant today. As critics of Trump’s executive order, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham—leading senators of his own party—have cautioned, the ban on nationals from the predominantly Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, could actually make the United States less safe by bolstering terror groups’ recruitment of radicals disillusioned by the policy. This recent ban, like the 1924 immigration restriction, also defies logic when one considers that non-Muslim Americans have committed far more acts of terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11 than Muslims. And perhaps most tragically, the United States is closing the door on precisely those seeking refuge from ISIS and other terror groups in their home countries.

There is one heartening development resulting from Trump’s executive order, however—the demonstrators who have poured into city streets and airports across the United States, demanding that the new administration live up to American ideals by welcoming refugees and rejecting religious discrimination. They are continuing a proud tradition of anti-nativist dissent even during times that seem hopelessly xenophobic.

This post was adapted from:

Chin Jou, “Contesting Nativism: The New York Congressional Delegation’s Case against the Immigration Act of 1924,” Federal History 3.1 (January 2011): 66-79.

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