Last week Donald Trump called for blocking immigrants from “shithole” countries, setting off a wave of domestic and international condemnation. Despite reports by eyewitnesses including Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican, Trump denied insulting Haitians, Central Americans, and Africans. He also repeatedly denies that he is a racist. Representative Mia Love, a Republican and the only Haitian American in Congress, accepted the truth of the reports, called Trump’s behavior unacceptable, and demanded an apology.
The government of Botswana, a nation is southern Africa, called Trump’s comments “highly irresponsible, reprehensible, and racist,” and demanded to know from the U.S. ambassador whether they were considered a “shithole” country. In Brussels, a European Union lawmaker, told the Associated Press that Mr. Trump “had forgotten to engage his brain before talking.”
The United States ambassador to Panama, a career diplomat and former Marine Corps officer, resigned because he could no longer honorably serve as a representative of the Trump administration. However, the best response to Trump was probably by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central who declared, “As someone from South Shithole, I’m offended.” Noah’s comments are worth watching.
Unrepentant, on Sunday Trump tweeted: “I, as President, want people coming into our Country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT. No more Lotteries! #AMERICA FIRST.”
Apparently Donald Trump wants to keep out non-white immigrants from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean, and is encouraging immigration from all-white Norway. But Norway is a very sparely populated country with a little more than 5 million people, and according to the CIA World Factbook, its per capita GPA is amongst the highest in the world and its health care and educational systems are excellent, so Norwegians are unlikely to immigrate to the United States, especially with Donald Trump in the White House.
This is not the first time that American leaders wanted to keep out “undesirable” immigrants from “shithole” countries. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin denounced Germans pouring into Pennsylvania because they refused to assimilate to American customs and values. By the way, the Trump family is of German decent.
The cartoon above is from Puck magazine and was initially published in 1893. Five well-dressed, prosperous looking men are blocking the path of a newly arriving immigrant. Looming behind them are shadows representing their impoverished selves or family members when they first arrived in the United States. But now they want to prevent a new wave of immigrants, from I guess, “shithole” countries.
It is worth examining Congressional debate in 1920 and 1921, when the people from “shithole” countries were Jews, Italians, Irish, and Greeks. During World War I Congress imposed a literacy test to try to restrict undesirable immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. When this did not block enough newcomers, they established a quota system in 1921 and an even more restrictive quota in 1924.
Between 1900 and 1909, 2 million immigrants came to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire; 1.9 million from Italy; 1.5 million from Russia; almost 350,000 from Ireland; and 145,00 from Greece. The immigrants from Austro-Hungary and Russia were largely Jews. Immigration was disrupted between 1910 and 1919 by World War I, spiked in 1920 and 1921, and then declined as a result of the quota laws. Between 1930 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, as a result of the quotas but also the Great Depression, there were only 12,500 immigrants from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire; 85,000 from Italy; 2,400 from Russia; 28,000 from Ireland; and 10,500 from Greece. Overall, immigration to the United States plummeted from 8.2 million people between 1900 and 1909 to fewer than 700,000 between 1930 and 1939, which was less than 1/10th. These quotas were responsible for keeping Jews fleeing Hitler and Nazi Germany from entering the United States, including my relatives, in the 1930s.
In 1920, Representative James V. McClintic, a Democrat from Oklahoma, was chair of the House Immigration Committee. During debate he claimed to have visited Ellis Island where he saw immigrants with no money, the “off casts of the countries from which they came,” who were “Practically all of them were weak, small of stature, poorly clad, emaciated . . . It is for this reason that I say the class of immigrants coming to the shores of the United States at this time are not the kind of people we want as citizens in this country.”
Representative Lucian Walton, a Democrat from Texas, seconded McClintic’s nativism and told Congress “We should stop immigration entirely until such a time as we can amend our immigration laws and so write them that hereafter no one shall be admitted except he be in full sympathy with our Constitution and laws, willing to declare himself obedient to our flag, and willing to release himself form any obligations he may owe to the flag of the country from which he came . . . [W]ithin a few short years the damage will have been done. The endless tide of immigration will have filled our country with a foreign and unsympathetic element. Those who are out of sympathy with our Constitution and the spirit of our Government will be here in large numbers, and the true spirit of Americanism left us by our fathers will gradually become poisoned by this uncertain element.”
James Thomas Heflin, a white supremacist from Alabama nicknamed “Cotton Tom,” championed the anti-immigrant position in Senate debate. He declared, “I would like to shut for a time the immigration door. Thousands come here who never take the oath to support our Constitution and to become citizens of the United States . . . They fill places that belong to the loyal wage-earning citizens of America. They preach a doctrine that is dangerous and deadly to our institutions. They are no of service whatever to our people. They constitute a menace and danger to us every day.”
Congressman William Mason, a Republican from Illinois, felt compelled to respond to his anti-immigrant colleagues. “I cannot be silent . . . I want to say for my fellow immigrants in the House - - you are all immigrants; what have you got big heads about, every one of you. If this bill had been passed 50 or 100 years ago hardly any of the House would have been here. It would have kept the Pilgrim Fathers out. They had no passports. The meanest thing about this bill -- and I say that with all respect to my good friends who framed it -- is that the whole theory that this was to be the land of the free and the home of the brave and an asylum for the oppressed is destroyed by it . . . But to me the most unsentimental, the most selfish, un-American, unpatriotic thing is the ungodly desire to crowd every man off the earth because we do not want to compete with him. We get a prejudice; and you know that largely the basis of this is the prejudice against the Jews. Tell the truth about it. We are not afraid to speak the truth, are we? There is a prejudice against the Poles; there is a prejudice against the Germans; there is a prejudice against the Irish.”
Almost 100 years later the names of the “shithole” countries and immigrants have changed, but the same racism and anti-immigrant bias still infects the United States — and it occupies the White House.
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