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My father arrived in the US as a refugee in 1938. But he was the wrong kind, because he was a Jew. Although thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were able to enter the US, the State Department put so many barriers in the way of Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany that the official yearly quota of immigrants from Germany was not filled from 1933 to 1938. That quota itself was part of the long American history of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” immigrants based on race.

Immigrants Refugees Racism

There were no immigration restrictions in the new American republic, but only white people could become citizens. Slaves were excluded from citizenship by the Constitution. In 1790, Congress restricted new citizenship to “any Alien being a free white person”.

Blacks who were already free were barred from entering the Southern slave states. Whites in Illinois, like many northern states, did not want African Americans either, so they not only denied citizenship rights to blacks already in Illinois, but also discouraged slaveowners from freeing slaves in Illinois.

Donald Trump began his campaign by insulting Mexicans and promising to ban Muslims. He is leading the reversal of American openness and a return to our earlier racially-based immigration.

A new kind of bad people began to pour into the US in the 1840s, 2 million Irish fleeing the famine. About the same number of Germans immigrated to America in the middle of 19th century, but the Germans were good Protestants and the Irish were bad Catholics. In 1849, a secret society of Protestant men in New York called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner sought to recreate an America of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism” by fighting off the Irish hordes under the banner of patriotism. They became the American Party, often called the “Know Nothings”.

In 1857, the Supreme Court pronounced what it hoped was a definitive statement about bad immigrants in the Dred Scott case: descendants of slaves could never become citizens, because black people were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That ruling lasted only until Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the states passed the 14th amendment 150 years ago.

Almost immediately another dangerous foreigner threatened white America, Chinese laborers imported to construct the transcontinental railroad in the West. California laws prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, and popular sentiment labeled the Chinese sexual predators taking jobs from white Americans. Congress in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

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Racist immigration restrictions are typically fearful reactions to changes in actual immigration. At the end of the 19th century, floods of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including millions of Jews, brought a backlash of demands to stop such bad immigrants. In 1924, a comprehensive quota system favored good immigrants from western and northern Europe; not-so-good immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were limited, and all Asians were barred. The quotas were designed so that 86% of immigrants came from northwestern Europe and Scandinavia.

The Immigration Act of 1924 remained in force through World War II, although extralegal restrictions had to be employed to prevent too many Jews from Germany from entering the US. This and the entire history of immigration restrictions accurately represented American public opinion, at least among the white majority, where racist stereotypes of dangerous non-white foreigners mixed with fears of job competition. A Gallup poll in November 1938, two weeks after the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes, and sent 30,000 Jews to concentration camps during Kristallnacht, asked Americans: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” 72% said, “No.”

The human disasters of World War II, including but not limited to the Holocaust, changed American opinion about refugees. Jewish refugees were admitted in increasing numbers after 1945, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished nationality quotas. For the first time in our history, American laws reflected the sentiments inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Refugee Act of 1980, declaring the “historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Since then the US has taken in 3 out of every 4 refugees resettled across the world.

Donald Trump began his campaign by insulting Mexicans and promising to ban Muslims. He is leading the reversal of American openness and a return to our earlier racially-based immigration. Although we still accepted more refugees than any other country in 2017, for the first time we accepted less than the rest of the world combined. Canada, Australia, and Norway accepted more than five times as many refugees per capita as the US.

The pulling apart of asylum-seeking families is only the most inhumane aspect of this repudiation of what has made America great. We are retreating to the worst aspects of our history. The richest nation on earth will no longer be the most generous.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives