President Trump’s immigration agenda rejects both our American history and values. For most of our history, we had open borders that welcomed his and many of our ancestors, greatly benefitting our nation. Despite his own history, President Trump follows a long line of populist leaders who have sought to restrict immigration due to “alternative facts” that spread fear, bigotry, and a politics of us versus them. Tyler Anbinder’s engrossing City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York is an illuminating book on the true facts and history about immigration in the American experience.
Each generation of native-born Americans have viewed immigrants with suspicion and bigotry, criticized their religious beliefs, and condemned them for not assimilating fast enough into the dominant American culture. In 1699, thirty-five years after English immigrants captured New Amsterdam from Dutch immigrants and rechristened it New York, they complained that the Dutch were not assimilating and speaking English. By then, eighteen different languages were spoken in New York, and there were fears that it was becoming too diverse, too great a mixture of nations.
America’s population grew through open immigration during the 17th and 18th Centuries, and our open borders continued after the American Revolution. Throughout the nineteenth century, immigration was dominated by the Irish and Germans. Neither was welcome. President John Adams passed the first anti-immigrant law, the Alien and Sedition Act, to keep “hordes of wild Irishmen” from participating in the political process by lengthening the time from five to fourteen years it took for them to become citizens and vote.
In the 1840s, the Irish Potato Famine and unsuccessful German revolutions accelerated the flow of Irish and Germans. The Irish were often portrayed in the press as dirty, stupid, and violent people, blamed for the squalor of their tenements in New York’s Five Points neighborhood. The press did not treat “filthy Germans” much better: “It is startling that occupants did not all die of the pestilence generated by their unspeakable filth and dissolute habits of living.” According to a Wall Street Journal report, immigrants back then relied on public benefits to the same degree immigrants do today. And it took public policy, labor movements, and social reforms to eventually lift many out of squalor.
The Know Nothing Movement, which elected 8 Governors and over 100 members of Congress in the 1850s was the first explicitly anti-immigrant political party. Their agenda was also anti-Catholic, as fears spread that new immigrants beholden to a far-away Pope would infiltrate American institutions. The Know Nothings sought to ban Catholics from political positions, forbid public funds for Catholic education, and lengthen the amount of time for immigrants to be able to vote.
The Irish were infamous for gang fights and riots throughout the 1800s. After the National Guard violently squashed a bloody riot in 1871, the Irish called for their own precursor of “Black Lives Matter.” The Irish American newspaper claimed that “Much of the blame lay with nativists…whose stereotyping of the Irish made it possible for troops to fire indiscriminately as if Irish lives did not matter, as if Irish were animals rather than human beings.” They added: “Though oppressed, our people are not low; though wronged, we are not guilty – though pictured with gorilla faces, and misshapen forms, we are men, Irishmen, having free souls and spirit sufficient to work for freedom for our own beloved land.”
As Irish and Germans began to earn their rights as Americans, they turned their backs on African Americans (many opposed abolition) and on the new populations that began to dominate immigration in the late nineteenth century. Jews from Eastern Europe began arriving on our shores to escape increasing discrimination and racist violence in Russian territories. One-third of all Jews in Eastern Europe, about 2.1 million, left for the United States on often perilous journeys (it was illegal for them to emigrate from Russia) during a thirty year period before World War 1. As with past populations, they settled in crowded and often dilapidated tenements working primarily in sweat shops to survive.
Italians were the other major group immigrating to America during these years, with almost 4 million escaping desolate poverty, misery, and lack of opportunity in their homeland. The Italians were treated as the Irish before them, described as “the most vicious, ignorant, and degraded of all immigrants” whose “uncivilized behavior stemmed from genetic inferiority.” The Catholic Church even discriminated against the Italians, forbidding them to worship in their churches, and requiring them instead to have their own mass celebrations in church basements. “These poor Italians are not extraordinarily clean, so the other parishioners don’t want them in the upper church.”
Jewish and Italian immigrations engendered a new wave of white supremacist opposition to immigration (Eastern and Southern Europeans were not considered part of the “white” race). President Teddy Roosevelt initially called for limiting such immigrants to prevent a “race suicide” in America. A few years later he changed his tune, hiring the first Jewish cabinet secretary and stating: “We must trust with justice and good will all immigrants who come here under the law. Whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile, whether they come from England or Germany, Russia, Japan, or Italy matters nothing.”
It mattered to many others, though, beginning with President Taft who was much tougher on immigrants. One of his immigration officers stated that greater immigration restrictions were justified by “the deteriorating character of the Southern and Eastern European newcomers.” Immigration was unrestricted through most of our history. For many of our ancestors including Donald Trump’s grandfather Friedrich Drumpf in 1885 and his grandmother Mary Christ in 1901, they only had to arrive on our shores to immigrate. There was no such thing as an illegal immigrant. One of the first major restrictions on immigration came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned Chinese as well as convicts and “idiots” (people with developmental disabilities). Addition restrictions were added as Ellis Island opened in 1891 and during the next twenty years to additionally restrict prostitutes, disabled people, those with certain illnesses, and those who might not be able to support themselves.
Fears of German disloyalty during World War 1, the Red Scare following the Communist Revolution in Russia, anarchist attacks, and changing demographics solidified opposition to new immigrants and ended three hundred years of open immigration. The Emergency Quota Act in 1921 signed by President Harding limited new immigrants from any country to 3% of the number in the United States as of 1910. The National Origins Act signed by President Coolidge in 1924 took this further, leading to a 95% reduction in immigrants. Supported by the Ku Klutz Klan among others, it sought to make the current racial composition of the United States permanent. It effectively turned American away from its historic role as the asylum for the world’s poor huddled masses celebrated in Emma Lazarus’ poem, including many Jewish refugees during Hitler’s holocaust.
By 1960, Italy, Russia, Poland, Germany, and Ireland were still the top nations of origin for immigrants. As the Cold War hardened, America’s restrictive and racist immigration policies became useful propaganda to the U.S.S.R. and China. More recent immigrants also began building political clout. These forces led to the repear of the National Origins Act, and passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which set an annual limit of 170,000 each from the Eastern and Western hemispheres with a limit that no one country in Eastern hemisphere could exceed 17,000 immigrants a year. In 1976, hemisphere caps were converted into a global cap of 290,000 with no more than 20,000 from any one nation. By 1980, the top five nations had changed to Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, Korea, and China.
After the National Origins Act, illegal or undocumented immigration took off. This was primarily the result – as it is today – of individuals over-staying student or tourist visas. In the 1930s a Texas Congressman proposed a bill to deport 3.5 million undocumented immigrants that failed to gain traction. Because our legal immigration system prioritizes highly sought after skills and those with family members residing in America, there are very few opportunities for others to immigrate. The 1976 bill also for the first time placed restrictions on Mexico, where for generations people crossed the borders back and forth for work (much of Southwest U.S. used to be part of Mexico). Concerned about the exploitation of illegal immigrants, President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986. More recently, Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and a bi-partisan group of Senators have pursued a deal to increase border security while providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
No President has attacked immigrants with the fervor of Donald Trump ironic since his paternal grandparents, mother, and wife all immigrated. During the campaign, he generalized Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug dealers, and “bad hombres.” After the San Bernadino shooting by a U.S. born Muslim American citizen, he called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants. As Anbinder notes, “No prominent member of any American political party – not even the Know Nothings – ever proposed banning an entire ethnic or religious group from immigration to the U.S. because of the sins of the group’s members.”
Trump’s first executive order targeted new immigrants and even legal immigrants residing in America from seven Muslim nations. It is important to note that not a single immigrant from those countries has committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and that our new crackdowns will be fodder for Islamist propaganda as it was for Communists during the Cold War. Donald Trump also has ordered Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers to commit raids and arrests of undocumented immigrants, many of whom pose no danger to society. A recently leaked Trump administration memo recommended calling up 100,000 National Guard Officers to increase raids and deportations. Often during the campaign, his supporters told us not to take his anti-immigrant rhetoric literally. Clearly we should.
Latino and Muslim immigrants follow a long line of immigrants who have sought a better life in America against bigotry and other challenges. As Anbinder concludes in his closing chapter, “From the colonial period to the present, every generation of Americans has viewed the newest group to arrive as completely unlike previous immigrants. The Dutch felt that way about the Lutherans and Quakers. The English belittled Germans and mistrusted the Irish. The children of German and Irish immigrants disdained the Italians and eastern European Jews.” He adds, “No immigrant group in history has assimilated in a way that native-born Americans have been pleased with.”
He notes that there is much misunderstanding of the 11 million undocumented Americans here currently, specifically that they are cutting in front of others in some kind of formal immigration line. First, throughout most of U.S. history, there was no immigration line. Every immigrant, including many of our ancestors, was welcome. Second, there is no line for immigrants who do not have highly sought after job skills or family members currently residing in America legally. Most undocumented immigrants have no chance of immigrating legally. And most Americans seem unable to distinguish legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and refugees who are extensively vetted before entering the United States.
Immigration has always been a great benefit to our nation. It has been a source of entrepreneurship and innovation more than a drain on the public purse. And it benefits us to be the nation that inspires and welcomes those striving to create a better life for themselves and their families. Of course we should have control of our borders and prevent potential criminals and terrorists from entering. That is why we need much overdue comprehensive immigration reform that includes more border security, more pathways for legal immigration, and a path to citizenship for those who are living here already in the shadows. President Trump should honor our history and values rather than reject both in ways that will make us both less secure and less American.