Historians Put Immigration Executive Order in Historical Context

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Today on #DayWithoutImmigrants, we present a round table on immigration history. In response to President Donald Trump’s Executive Order restricting the entrance of Syrian refugees into the United States and cutting off immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations, we asked a panel of four historians to set this moment into the broader arc of immigration history, to consider the changing idea of “refugees,” and to offer suggestions for teaching immigration history.

The participants were Maria Cristina Garcia, Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies at Cornell, Alan Kraut, University Professor of History at American University, Jana Lipman, Associate Professor of History at Tulane University, and Carl Bon Tempo, Associate Professor of History at State University of New York at Albany.

How do you fit this executive order into a longer trajectory of American immigration history?

Kraut: In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a very popular immigrant saying was “America beckons, but Americans repel.” Even as economic opportunity and the promise of religious and political liberty lured newcomers to our shores, Americans often sought to exclude immigrants and refugees from the American experience.

In 1882, the Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which nativists demanded to exclude Chinese laborers who might compete with American workers for jobs and whose racial identity seemed to make them undesirable additions to the American population. The Red Scare of 1919 led to the deportation of thousands, including many foreign-born, who were simply exercising their right of free speech and protest. Several years later, the United States passed the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 and its national origins quotas which especially disadvantaged groups already stigmatized as undesirable, including Italian Catholics from the Southern provinces and Eastern European Jews. During the late 1930s the belief that among refugees clamoring for sanctuary there were fifth columnists anxious to undermine our democracy contributed to exclusionist administrative procedures that slammed shut the doors on millions of refugees, many of them Jews later systematically murdered as part of the German “final solution to the Jewish question.” If Adolf Hitler’s policies made Jews exceptional targets of persecution, no American policy recognized their exceptional plight with equally exceptional measures to facilitate their rescue. Ironically, President Trump issued his refugee Executive Order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognizing the commemoration while shamefully omitting any mention of the principal target of Adolf Hitler’s murderous policies, European Jewry.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of them citizens, found themselves internees of America’s own concentration camps. Then, too, the instrument was an executive order, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Japanese American internees were suspected of being potential subversives and saboteurs based upon no evidence. Not until 1988 did the United States make restitution to those who had lost their property during incarceration. The bill was signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

After World War II, the United States resumed rigorous enforcement of the highly restrictive immigration law of 1924. Only a small fraction of the refugees and displaced persons in need of sanctuary found it in the United States, a lasting stain on our country’s reputation for altruism. Dismayed by Congress’ Displaced Persons Act of 1948, especially ungenerous toward Jews, President Truman characterized it as the product of “abhorrent intolerance.” Signing it reluctantly, Truman deplored a law so “flagrantly discriminatory.” Mexican workers brought to the United States under the Bracero Program during World War II were sent home when the program terminated in 1964, no longer useful to the American economy and always the target of nativist bigotry.

Bon Tempo: President Trump’s executive order, in addressing refugee policy, both departs from and echoes portions of the history of American engagement with refugees. The largest departure is that every President since 1945 has embraced, at least rhetorically and to different degrees substantively, the premise that the United States should admit refugees. Mr. Trump, in his campaign and now as president enacting policy, has questioned that commitment more aggressively than his predecessors. But President Trump also echoes aspects of the past. He has summoned to his side the opponents of refugee admissions, who historically have been a sizeable, if not majority, bloc in the politics of newcomers. Moreover, his call for “extreme vetting” of refugees is very similar to the demands of refugee opponents in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who were motivated by Red Scare-era fears of refugees. Those early Cold War refugee programs, in turn, designed security and background checks that, for a time, greatly slowed admissions. It seems that President Trump favors both that policy approach and outcome and seeks to achieve them by stirring fears in the public that refugees are threats to American security. 

Lipman: The United States has instituted exclusionary and discriminatory immigration policies throughout its history. However, the president’s recent executive order is still radical.  It is a return to explicit targeting of migrants based on religion and nationality.  It seems disturbingly akin to the ethos behind the Chinese Exclusion Act or the ideology behind Japanese internment, when Asians were seen as unassimable and racially incapable of becoming American.

It also escalates unfounded fears and undermines the legitimacy of U.S. refugee procedures, which already strictly review all refugee applications.  Since 1980, the United States has denied many individuals’ refugee claims, arguing that they were “economic migrants,” rather than refugees.  This has resulted in discriminatory practices in many cases, but the U.S. had at least upheld the principles of refuge and asylum. As such, the order is intentionally inflammatory, with the aim to marginalize Muslims and Muslim Americans in the United States.

Garcia: Trump’s executive order—and the stereotypes and discourses that circulated during the 2016 presidential election, more generally—are rooted in century-long conversations about who is “worthy” of admission to the United States.  Americans celebrate our immigrant heritage with pageants, parades, museums, and folklife festivals, which suggests a positive perception of immigrants over time; but fear of newcomers has also led to the passage of some fairly draconian laws since the early nineteenth century, restricting immigration on the basis of race, class, religion, gender, political ideology, health, and sexuality.  While some aspects of Trump’s immigration policies are unparalleled, the prejudice and misinformation that drives them are not new.  The executive order echoes the sentiments that generated the executive order on Japanese internment and the Supreme Court decisions like Ozawa and Thind that barred access to citizenship.  It took political will and leadership for the draconian policies of the past to be overturned, and it will require such political will again.

“Refugee” is a contested term. For the people or era that you study, what legal and cultural meanings were attached to the term “refugee”? Did this change over time?

Kraut: For much of American history the term refugee lacked formal definition. Generally, it referred to those who migrated in flight from danger rather than those motivated by the search for economic opportunity. Russian Jews in flight from the pogroms of 1903 were refugees, but those who had come earlier in search of jobs were economic migrants. In the winter of 1945 the International Refugee Organization adopted an official definition of refugees as those who left or were outside of their country of nationality or former habitual residence such as victims of Nazi or fascist regimes, Spanish Republicans or other victims of the Falangist regime in Spain, or persons in flight for reasons of race, religion or nationality prior to the war. It included Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution who could not or would not return to their countries of origin. Displaced persons (DPs), however, were refugees who had been deported from or had to leave their countries of nationality or pre-war residence and could be repatriated because the reasons for their departure no longer existed. Many DPs wished never to return to their homelands, however. Congress passed legislation with the term “Displaced Person” in the name of the act in 1948 and 1950.

Garcia: The term “refugee” has always been used freely by journalists, clergy, and activists, but the term has a more precise definition in American law that has limited those eligible for resettlement in the United States.   The legal definition of “refugee” has changed somewhat over the past seventy years.  The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act), for example, defined refugees as those persecuted on account of race, religion, or political opinion; those uprooted by natural calamity; those fleeing communist or communist-dominated countries; and those fleeing the Middle East.  The 1980 Refugee Act, on which current policy is based, defines refugees as a person who has “a well-founded fear of persecution” on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.  But to receive refugee status, applicants must jump through additional hoops: they must have crossed an international border; show that they failed to receive protection from their state; demonstrate that they have a reasonable fear of future persecution; and prove that they have not inflicted harm on others.   The number of people accepted as refugees and asylum seekers are just a tiny fraction of the world’s displaced populations.  The real burden is always borne by the countries that border areas of crisis.

Lipman: In my own research on Vietnamese boat people, their status changed dramatically from “refugees” to “asylum seekers.” From 1979 through 1988, Vietnamese boat people gained automatic refugee status and protection in first asylum camps in Southeast Asia.  Then in 1989, the UNHCR endorsed a screening process, after which, all Vietnamese were “asylum seekers” who had to prove their refugee status.  The U.S. War had been over for more than a decade, the Cold War was ending and first asylum countries feared they would be hosting refugee camps indefinitely.  As a result, after 1989, Vietnamese who could provide a convincing story of political persecution gained resettlement in the West, while those who could not, were tagged as economic migrants and repatriated back to Vietnam. This new policy created an acute crisis in places like Hong Kong and the Philippines. The diasporic Vietnamese community mobilized, lobbying Congress, sponsoring lawyers in the detention camps, and asserting Vietnamese claims to refugee status.  The showdowns included hunger strikes, violent conflicts, forced repatriations, and extensive political and legal campaigns in Southeast Asia and the United States.  In other words, refugee status was anything but straightforward.

Bon Tempo: I study the United States and refugees during the Cold War, and here we do see a change. Before this period, the idea of a refugee surely existed. During the Cold War, though, policymakers, politicians, and the public further defined refugee. In the 1950s and 1960s, most Americans considered refugees to be “white” victims of communism—that is, an individual of European-descent who could not live in his or her homeland because of communist persecution. Legally, and to a degree programmatically, this definition broadened in the 1970s and early 1980s. Refugees came to be understood as victims of persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or political beliefs. The ideological and racial components of the earlier definition faded, at least in the statute books. Of course, even with a more capacious definition of refugee in American law, American presidents and policymakers could still pick and choose which groups of refugees to admit. Thus, in the 1980s, President Reagan made the admission of refugees from communism a priority, in essence reinstating part of the earlier definition.

What advice would you give to non-subject area experts on teaching the history of immigration in light of the executive order and the response to it? 

Garcia: To assist non-subject area experts make the connections between past and present-day policies, my colleagues and I crafted the public-access #ImmigrationSyllabus. There are many ways to teach immigration history, and the field is broad and exciting, but we chose readings and multimedia sources that we thought would provide historical context for a discussion of current-day policy.  These sources address such issues as detention and deportation; race-based restrictions; “illegality” and how it is imagined and constructed; the privileging of skills and family reunification; the policing of national borders.  The primary sources also illustrate how politicians, public commentators, critics, and media organizations have always influenced Americans’ understanding of immigration.

Kraut: I would very strongly encourage non-subject area experts teaching the history of immigration in light of current events to recognize that the nativist prejudices and national security anxieties, the rationale for the Executive Order issued by President Trump, have ample precedent in American history. As John Higham demonstrated in his classic study, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1955), anti-Catholic nativism, racial nativism, and anti-radical nativism have all been staples of the American cultural experience. Later, he added anti-Semitism as a separate category. Over the decades other scholars have filled in the gaps that Higham left paying increasing attention to patterns of prejudice toward Asians and Latinos whom Higham inadequately treated. Those new to the field might well consult a bibliography very recently compiled by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society in response to Trump’s election.

Shamelessly putting aside the appropriate modesty, I recommend several blog posts that I authored for the Center for Migration Studies comparing Trump’s rhetoric to its historical precedents. These include, “‘Making America Great Again’ . . . Again?” and “Nativism, An American Perennial.”

Lipman: I think it’s important to teach both the longer history of exclusion, but to also remember the voices of immigrants who have consistently organized in the United States and contributed to U.S. cultural, economic, and political life.  Immigrants have been central to everything from labor organizing, to political mobilization, to developing U.S. civil rights law. The recent grassroots protests are remarkable for their broad-based coalitions, and the combined use of public protest and lawsuits. The lawsuits remind me of key legal victories such as Yick Wo v. Hopkins, Wong Kim Ark v. United States, and even the Guantánamo detainee lawsuits in their challenge of executive power.

In my own classes on immigration, I have ended with Haitian American author, Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother I’m Dying. Danticat is a MacArthur Genius Grant awardee, and by many measures, an immigrant “success story.”  However, her memoir concludes with her uncle’s brutal death in the Krome detention center just outside Miami. He tried to claim asylum, but the immigration officers ignored his claims, his valid visa, and his medical condition. The book is heartbreaking and enraging, and I assign it partially because I hope my students, the vast majority who are at least two generations away from an immigrant experience, will be shocked by its tragedy and the 21sts continuation of exclusion.

Bon Tempo: This is an important teaching moment. Our national memories of the United States’ history with refugees either stress welcoming refugees (for example, the Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty) or shutting refugees out (for example, the story of the S.S. St. Louis and European refugees in the late 1930s.) But the history is more complicated and contingent than either of these powerful stories suggest. American engagement with refugees, especially the decisions to provide aid or admission, has always been borne of political contests and discussions revolving around national security, foreign policy, partisan politics, and definitions of American identity. I think it is vital that we see this moment as another step in that longer history, another moment in the political contest over which and how many refugees the United States should extend aid and admission.

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