President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions may be an irrational and perhaps unconstitutional response to an imaginary threat, but they’re certainly consistent with our history. Lady Liberty may lift her lamp beside the golden door but too often that door’s been slammed shut.
In times of economic anxiety, in times of fear and distress, Americans have been quick to deny entrance to groups perceived as threats – and to restrict the rights of members of those groups already here.
Colonial Massachusetts exiled dissenters from Puritan orthodoxy to “the home of the otherwise minded” - Rhode Island. In the 1790’s, fearful of radicals seeking to bring the French Revolution to America, Congress authorized imprisonment and deportation of immigrants. Nineteenth century Americans regularly sought to restrict admission of those whose cultures seemed threatening, especially the Irish, Roman Catholics, and Asians. Signed into law by Vermont’s own Calvin Coolidge, the 1924 Immigration Act completely banned entrance of Arabs and Asians, severely restricted that of Africans, and limited immigration from other nations to 2% of the number of people of such nationalities living in the U.S. in 1890. These quotas remained in place until 1965. They legitimized American refusal to accept many Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. In the year of Kristallnacht, 1938, a national poll showed 75% opposed to altering quotas to permit resettlement of German Jews. Other polls revealed that Americans regarded Jews as a greater threat to national security than Nazi Germany. That, of course, was before Pearl Harbor, which led to the forced internment of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent – most of them American citizens.
More recently, we’ve been reluctant to welcome even those who helped us in Afghanistan and Iraq and imposed such a severe vetting process on Syrian refugees that fewer than fifteen thousand were admitted last year.
Most of us now regret such hostility to newcomers – though we rarely ask ourselves why we keep repeating it, to say nothing of questioning centuries of state-mandated repression of black people and Native Americans. The fact is that there’s a dark side to American democracy which we all must own.
It’s heartening that so many are questioning President Trump’s immigration order, but it’s wrong to call it new.