The Politics of Exclusion

Odious though it certainly is, Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States and his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border resonate with past efforts by politicians like him to deny entry to "undesirable" groups. The anti-immigrant stance of candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio also conforms to an historic pattern in which recent arrivals and their children prove their patriotism by voicing nativist views. The politics of exclusion has always resonated with voters fearing loss of White, Anglo-Saxon-Protestant privilege. Its advocates often use national security as a smokescreen for prejudice.

Almost everyone knows about the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II on the dubious grounds that they posed a threat. Few people, however, are aware of the ethnocentric measures that preceded this violation of human rights. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep out members of the ethnic group that had just labored to complete the Pacific end of the trans-continental railroad. Then in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt reached the "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan to reduce Japanese immigration.

These measures did not, however, satisfy the nativists. In 1917, Congress passed over President Wilson's veto an act that barred immigrants from an East-Asian exclusion zone. The 1924 Immigration Act went even further, setting quotas for future immigration based upon the number of people from each ethnic group already in the U.S. Instead of using the 1920 census, though, the act based quotas on the 1890 census. It thus privileged immigrants from northern and Western Europe. The 1924 Act prevented many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution from finding refuge in the U.S.

Sadly, new immigrants and particularly their children have sometimes been the strongest advocates of stricter immigration policies. Embracing traditional prejudice is a good way to prove your bona fides as a true American. Cruz and Rubio fit this pattern. They would of course insist that since their parents entered the U.S. legally, so should everyone else. Cuban immigrants like Cruz's father and both Rubio's parents, however, enjoyed a privileged path to citizenship not offered to people from other Latin American countries.

Exclusionary politics derives from visceral fear by members of the dominant group that they are losing their privileged position. The fact that an African American was elected president angers and frightens such people. They see Muslim immigrants as a threat to what they consider the Christian identity of the country. Anyone who believes that the founders of the republic advocated any religion would do well to consider Thomas Jefferson's famous quip: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Fortunately, U.S. history also reveals the slow but inexorable triumph of inclusion. Women, African Americans, immigrant groups, Gays and Lesbians, and religious minorities have won equal rights, albeit too often in an agonizingly slow process. Nativism may work to energize a narrow base in the primaries, but national elections are won by assembling a coalition of diverse voters. America's strength lies not in the dominance of any one ethnic, racial, or religious group but in the diversity of its people and their struggle to create a genuinely pluralistic society.