Emma Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, exclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words, etched on the Statue of Liberty, the welcome sign for millions entering the new Land of Milk and Honey, promoted the image of America as a welcoming and accepting nation eager to adopt those seeking progress.
On January 27, 2017, however, any remnant of that image was all but shattered when President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13769. The order, heavily aligned with President Trump’s election platform, capped the number of refugees permitted to enter the United States, suspended the admittance of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspended entry of individuals arriving in the United States from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Instantly, protests erupted nationwide as the outrage of liberals flooded our major cities like water. Cries of racism, religious oppression, and injustice mingled with anti-Trump sentiments. The loudest cry of them all centered on the “un-American” nature of the order. But as we examine America’s historical relationship with exclusion, one cannot help but wonder: How “un-American” is this order?
From that historical perspective, Executive Order 13769 does not seem un-American at all. Unjust? Yes. Discriminatory? Absolutely. But un-American? Not really. In fact, many immigration policies that have been passed by several iterations of Congress and ordered by numerous Presidents share significant similarities with President Trump’s current order. The most significant similarity is that all of these policies have deep roots in America’s habitual xenophobia.
Xenophobia is defined as the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. Anxiety and uncertainty would be adequate modifiers here as well. From the nation’s inception, Americans have viewed immigrants with relative disdain. Yes, many will argue that this disdain stemmed solely from economic fears or concerns regarding national security. In actuality, these reforms were only ever designed to harm those deemed unfit for membership into that loosely defined (and always changing) concept of “American society.”
It isn’t difficult to find examples of American legislation and executive action taking aim and various ethnic groups and people of color. To demonstrate the point, here are 8 of some the most notable examples of America’s comfort with xenophobia:
Naturalization Acts of 1790, 1795, 1798, and 1802. The first prominent immigration policies passed in the United States, these laws reserved naturalization and citizenship for free whites of “good moral character.” Although certain provisions in these laws changed during their ratification, the “only free whites” provision remained.
Fourteenth Amendment (1868) and Naturalization Act of 1870. Naturalization was extended to African immigrants and individuals of African descent. However, both still excluded other groups of color from naturalization. Chinese immigrants were permitted to live in the country but not to naturalize.
The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Chinese laborers were banned from entering the United States. The Harvard University Library’s Open Collection Program states, “It was enacted in response to economic fears, especially on the West Coast, where native-born Americans attributed unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior.” Meant to last only for ten years, the act became permanent in 1902 and was not repealed until 1943 with the ratification of the Magnuson Act.
Emergency Quota Act of 1921. The precursor to the Immigration Act of 1924, introduced quotas based on the number of foreign residents from each country already living in the United States as of 1910, favoring white immigrants over immigrants of color.
Immigration Act of 1924. This Act capped the number of immigrants coming into the country to 2% of the populations from each country already residing in the U.S. The act gave preference to those arriving from Western Europe while severely limiting those coming from Eastern Europe and Africa. Furthermore, the act completely refused immigrants from the Middle East and Asia. This act also had deep roots in anti-Semitism which played a vital role in the St. Louis Affair of 1939 when 900 Jewish refugees, after being turned away by the Cuban government, were not offered asylum by the United States.
Executive Order 9066 (1942). President Franklin Roosevelt signed this order targeting people of Japanese descent that eventually removed 120,000 people from their homes in the Western United States during World War II. This Order was made enforceable by Public Law 503, which was debated and passed after merely 90 minutes total in the House and Senate, and signed into law by Roosevelt. 70,000 of those forced into concentration camps were American citizens.
Mexican Repatriation and Operation Wetback. During the Great Depression, blame for the nation’s economic downturn was blamed, in part, on American citizens of Mexican descent. It is estimated that over 2 million Mexican-Americans were deported to Mexico. Then, in 1954, roughly 1.1 million Mexicans were detained by the INS, in often brutal and inhumane conditions, per official US policy.
HIV Travel Ban (1987). The law banned immigration and general travel to the United States by individuals who tested positive for HIV. Still believed to be a largely gay disease, HIV was also believed to be spread through respiratory and physical contact. This law was upheld and broadened in 1993 by the Clinton administration, widely known for passing legislations that attacked LGBTQ rights (Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). The ban was repealed in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
History has an unfortunate habit of repeating itself, doesn’t it?
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