We've Always Played Politics With Immigration

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31: The U.S. Capitol illuminates at dusk on Capitol Hill on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. Th
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31: The U.S. Capitol illuminates at dusk on Capitol Hill on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate are both still in session on New Year's Eve to try to deal with the looming 'fiscal cliff' issue. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We stand at the beginning of a grand debate on immigration. America goes through these grand debates every generation or so, and what remains constant is that both sides in the fight can be counted upon to accuse the other side of "playing politics" with the immigration issue. This has, indeed already begun.

Republicans are offering up a splendid display of doublethink on the issue, in order to be able to say: "Hah! We were right all along," no matter what happens. Republicans make two accusations, which are completely contradictory (which doesn't seem to bother them at all), that the whole thing is just a cynical political game: (1) Obama and the Democrats want to legalize 11 million people who will then immediately become reliable Democratic voters, and/or (2) Obama and the Democrats will somehow find a way to scuttle the deal because they really don't want to pass any law, they just want to use the issue to beat up Republicans, in election after election. As I mentioned, no matter what happens, they'll be able to fall back on one of these tropes. Democrats, however, are using the second of these (with slight modification) to explain their own wariness: Republicans just want to be able to say: "We tried something" during the next election, and they will find a way to scuttle the deal in the end while blaming Democrats for the legislative failure.

The media gladly goes along for this ride, because (as we all know) conflict sells. What's amusing to me, however, is that very little historical context will be presented in the entire debate. Which is a shame, because anyone who knows the slightest bit about the issue's history knows that America always plays politics with immigration, in one fashion or another. It's an inherently political issue, in fact, so it would indeed be impossible to completely divorce it from "political games."

Most, when thinking about the history of immigration, reflect on the twentieth century. Ellis Island. Braceros. Internment camps during World War II. That sort of thing. But the question of immigration was even uglier in the previous century, with political parties formed around being anti-Catholic (which was definitely a question of immigration -- who got let in -- at the time). However, to really prove the point that we've always played politics with immigration, the easiest thing to do is go all the way back to the dawn of our federal government, in the 1790s -- the first decade or so after the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The nascent political parties were the Federalists and the Antifederalists. The Federalists had a stronghold in New England, which was downright nativist in its views. Don't believe me? One Federalist wrote to Abigail Adams in 1798: "the grand cause of all our present difficulties may be traced... to so many hordes of Foreigners immigrating to America." That's pretty cut-and-dried nativism. Immigrants were undesirables for one reason or another, stated freshman House member Harrison Gray Otis, who hailed from Boston:

I feel every disposition to respect those honest and industrious people... who have become citizens... but I do not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquillity after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments.

Federalists had other reasons for disapproving of immigrants as well: "The mass of foreigners, who have sought asylum in the United States, have been compelled to that measure by their poverty or their crimes."

The "culture" argument was strong, as well. Federalists railed against the Louisiana Purchase, in part because of the types of people who lived there (mostly of French or Spanish descent): "Why admit to a participation in the government aliens who were not parties to the compact -- who are ignorant of the nature of our institutions, and have no stake in the welfare of the country but what is recent and transitory?" There was a heavy regional attitude as well, as Josiah Quincy proclaimed: "The influences of emigrants prevail over those of the ancient natives... the voices of our Representatives will be drowned amid the discordant jargon of French, Spanish, German, and Irish delegates, chosen by slave owners, in a disproportionate ratio." Federalists believed that such immigrants would never manage what is today called "assimilation." Sound familiar?

Beyond New England "exceptionalism" (it's hard to call it anything else), the Federalists were fighting a political battle which should also sound familiar. The ranks of Thomas Jefferson's Antifederalists were being swelled by the influx of immigrants, because most found the (small-R) republican values of the Antifederalists more in tune with what they expected from America. Since, at the time, more immigrants meant more political power for the other side, Federalists began limiting immigration.

In 1790, an immigrant to the United States could become a full citizen after two years of living here. In 1795, this was upped to five years. But 1798 was when the issue truly exploded on the American political scene, for a number of reasons. By 1798, Federalists were pushing not only to require 14 years of residence to become a citizen, but they also wanted to bar all immigrants from serving in the federal government.

This was personal. It was, in fact, directed against a man named Albert Gallatin, who had been born in Switzerland. Gallatin was, at the time, what we would call the House Majority Leader for the Antifederalists. If the proposed law passed, it would force him out of government altogether. Neat way of getting rid of a political opponent, eh? Gallatin later went on to become America's longest-serving Treasury Secretary of all time. Today, such a law would be seen as unconstitutional, but this was before Marbury v. Madison was decided, where the Supreme Court decided it had the power to strike down such laws -- so no judicial remedy would have been possible.

The real reason the fur was flying over immigration in the late 1790s, though, was that America was perilously close to fighting a war with France. This became known as the "Quasi War" -- what we'd today perhaps call "limited warfare." Feelings against the French ran high, as this was just after the French Revolution had descended into a "reign of terror." Fears our own governmental experiment would follow the same course were not entirely unjustified, due to the newness of our federal system.

Congress held fierce debates over what to do with "aliens." America is always at her worst, constitutionally and morally, when we are fearing war. 1798 was no different, in fact it was the first of many such reactionary periods. Proposals abounded in Congress. All aliens from countries at war with America, upon the proclamation of the president, could be immediately deported. Further provisions gave the president the power to determine who was a threatening alien fit for deportation, on his own. No judicial review was possible. One Federalist explained: "punishment ought not to depend upon the slow operations of a trial" -- the president's say-so was good enough. Even the foreign-born Alexander Hamilton (a founder of the Federalist philosophy) agreed: "the mass ought to be obliged to leave the Country."

A national registration system for aliens was also proposed, with the first of what would become "green cards." Aliens weren't the only ones targeted, though -- citizens who were going to permit an alien to even cross the threshold of their houses had to first give written notice to a federal judge, in an attempt to penalize "harboring an alien."

What came out of this fight were the "Alien and Sedition Acts." The "sedition" part of it was aimed at anyone espousing anti-government opinions. This was also personal, and targeted Antifederalist newspaper editors -- many of them aliens, themselves. In particular, it targeted the loudest voice among the Antifederalist editors, Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Philadelphia Aurora (Ben Franklin's grandson). Any person who said, wrote, published, or otherwise printed any opinions disrespectful of the party in power could be tried in federal court for such "crimes." Antifederalist editors were rounded up and given steep fines or chucked in jail.

While the impetus for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts was the looming threat of war, the Federalists quite obviously overreached in playing the political game. Not only did they cement their anti-immigrant stance with the public, they tried to crush the opposing political party by whatever means they could think up.

What happened was a backlash. Thomas Jefferson and his Antifederalists swept into power two years later (in the election of 1800), and the Federalists began a political decline which ended with the complete death of their party in the 1810s. Granted, what really killed off Federalism was their opposition to the War of 1812, but their anti-immigrant stance certainly didn't help them with the changing demographics of their time.

Raging debates over immigration in the political arena are nothing new. Political parties have eyed the immigration question through a very partisan lens ("Will this help or hurt my party?") since the beginning of American political parties. The issues raised are not exactly new, and even the positions taken are far from original. Harrison Gray Otis even admitted what the Federalists were truly scared of: "If some means are not adopted to prevent the indiscriminate admission of wild Irishmen & others to the right of suffrage, there will soon be an end to liberty and property." Suffrage, of course, is the right to vote. Back then, as now, immigration was seen by some as a thing to be feared and a burden on the country. The targeted groups change over time (not many rail against letting the "wild Irish" in these days...), but the sentiments do not. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this feeling also comes from Otis, who wrote a fellow Federalist to warn that the Antifederalists were bent on short-changing existing citizens by giving "foreigners our loaves and fishes."

Some things never change.


[Notes: I use "Antifederalists" where many historians use "Democratic-Republicans," because this double-barrelled label was only very rarely used back then. Jefferson's party normally called themselves "Republicans," but this gets confusing as there is no link to the modern Republican Party at all. All quotes were taken from two sources: James M. Banner Jr., To The Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) pp.89-99; and William J. Watkins Jr., Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.27-42.]

-- Chris Weigant


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post