The ugly history of American immigration

Give us your tired, your poor, your white men from Northern Europe yearning to be free

President Trump is looking to remake American immigration. And like many of the white men who have occupied the Oval Office before him, he wants to do it in his own image.

The White House recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy — accepting no new applicants and, in six months, no renewals. Since then, the president has reached out to Democratic leaders about crafting an unspecified deal, but, for now, almost 800,000 U.S. residents face the looming uncertainty of whether they will be required to leave the only home country they have ever known. This harsh stance is echoed in Trump's plan to cut legal immigration by limiting immigrants' ability to bring their family members into the country, and in the administration's insistence that family members such as grandparents not be exempt from his Muslim travel ban, which prohibits refugees from certain countries from entering the United States.

We might like to comfort ourselves that this inhumane treatment of immigrants is un-American and a break from our past. Unfortunately, it is not.

For the past 150 years, debate over immigration has illustrated the difficulties in transforming American ideals into practice; America is mythologized as a land of opportunity and a refuge for families. Yet, immigrants and forced migrants have struggled for centuries to overcome prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment, and laws governing immigrant families have largely disregarded their humanity.

For 100 years after the United States' founding, the federal government neither promoted nor restricted immigration. It wasn't until the late 19th century when the government began imposing restrictions on immigration by deciding who would be allowed into the country. This transformation in policy meant that, in the eyes of the law, immigrants were not seen as mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children, but as a nationality — and a statistic.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lawmakers targeted and banned certain nationalities. The first of these discriminatory laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers due to concern over their growing numbers in California. The act also excluded those already in the United States from gaining U.S. citizenship, forcing many immigrants to decide whether to leave the country where they had made their new home, or to return to China to be reunited with their families.

Despite the ideology of the "American Dream," where any individual could thrive and provide for their families, immigrants were often viewed as pawns in the nation's economy. This dehumanizing view of immigrants continues to this day, as lawmakers discuss the benefits and drawbacks of increased immigration on the economy. And, indeed there are connections between immigration and the economy; historically, anti-immigrant sentiment grew during times of economic uncertainty. However, the economic argument overshadowed the true reason behind immigration restrictions: racism.

In 1921, as the country dealt with the aftershocks of the First World War, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which sought to deal with increasing numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. This law established quotas for emigrants from each country in Europe — 3 percent of the total of each nationality present in the U.S. in 1910, the year of the most recent census. As a result, a total of 350,000 immigrants could enter the country, down from the 800,000 who entered the previous year.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was even more restrictive, allowing just 2 percent of the total number of each nationality in the U.S. recorded during a census nearly 25 years earlier, in 1890. This new formula overwhelmingly favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and discriminated against those from Southern and Eastern Europe. Looking back to the older census allowed tighter restrictions on immigrants from Poland, for example, which had only 147,440 foreign-born immigrants recorded in the 1890 census compared to 937,884 tallied in the 1910 census. Between the smaller 1890 Polish-born population and the reduced percentage, the number of Poles allowed entry by the Immigration Act of 1924 was reduced to only 10 percent of the figure allowed in the Emergency Quota Act three years earlier.

Popular sentiment about which nationalities made more desirable neighbors transformed over time, and they were reflected in federal legislation. Yet, the discriminatory immigration policies of the United States haven't ended; they have just shifted. The federal government is no longer restricting immigrants from Eastern Europe as they did in the early 20th century, but instead targeting those from countries included in the Muslim travel ban and from Mexico.

At the same time that immigration laws grew more restrictive, a movement emerged that sought to defend the wellbeing of immigrant families. This movement was headed by activists rather than legislators. When Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House in 1889, one of the first settlement houses in the country, Addams and Starr were less concerned with the birth country of the immigrants they sought to serve, and more concerned with serving the needs of immigrant families in the community. Located on the West Side of Chicago, Hull House relied largely on college women as volunteers who provided services such as child care and kindergarten for immigrant children, as well as English classes for adults. Addams and Starr's project sparked the creation of other settlement houses across the United States, from Manhattan to Cleveland to San Francisco, each seeking to serve the specific needs of their local immigrant communities.

Addams and Starr emphasized the entire family, from children to adults, by providing a range of cultural and recreational programs, from book clubs to sports. As white women from relatively prosperous backgrounds, they may not have understood all of the challenges of moving to a foreign country, but Addams and Starr tried to be empathetic. They recognized that the government did not provide adequate services for the most recent newcomers to the country.

Today, undocumented parents and children live in dread of deportation and refugees must seek other asylum. Recent immigrants face the uncertainty of whether they will be reunited with their families.

While recent immigration policy reminds us of the long history of harsh and uncaring immigration policy in our country, we don't have to let the past dictate our future. Though American history is not a narrative of constant progress, and much of our past has been an effort to undo the wrongs of those who came before us, the examples of those such as Addams and Starr remind us of the importance of doing what we know to be right. America's unrealized ideals are still worth fighting for.


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