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America's Antagonistic History With Immigrants

To make sense of the current conversation on immigration, we must look to our country's difficult past.
The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor at sunset on January 23rd, 2018, in New York City.

The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor at sunset on January 23rd, 2018, in New York City.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump's team framed people from and countries in the Global South, as well as some American citizens, as the "other." Mexico and Mexicans, in particular, received sustained attacks, and they were characterized as "criminals" and "rapists." In addition, a judge of Mexican ancestry, who presided over a fraud case against Trump University, was targeted. Trump described the judge as being biased and eager to retaliate because of campaign promises to build a wall along the southern United States border. The judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born and raised in Indiana.

Of course, building a new and bigger wall between the U.S. and Mexico was one of Trump's biggest campaign promises. One of the primary reasons behind the "wall" was to keep undocumented immigrants from Central America from entering the U.S. (Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) recently described Trump's presidential campaign as attempting to make a "homogenous, white society.") And now, the president's re-election team has released a 30-second spot asserting that Democrats are "complicit" in killings by undocumented immigrants; the ad also reiterates Trump's intention to build a wall.

How to make sense of this? Above all, it's crucial to view this recent maneuvering with a longer view toward history. On doing so, what we'll find is that the administration's policy of trying to control the movement of black and brown people into the country via shifting legality is informed by a legacy of U.S. government policy that's long been antagonistic toward certain groups—but that seems to be getting worse by the day.

Some of this policy thinking can be traced back to the antebellum era, when the voluntary and involuntary movement of people was racialized. Africans, more specifically, were captured, traded, sold, and made into involuntary migrants. Their movements and those of others considered "non-white" were subsequently surveyed and controlled.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when these policies truly began to amplify in scope. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act capped immigration to the U.S. at 155,000 people per year. An upper limit was placed on the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, immigration from Asia was effectively banned, and a cap of 1,200 was put in place for the African continent. This act prioritized immigration from Anglo-Saxon countries. In the years leading up to this decision, there were prominent cases of people of Asian descent appealing for citizenship. At this time, only people deemed "white" or "black" were considered citizens. In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who'd lived in the U.S. for 20 years, couldn't be classified as "white" in his request for citizenship. The next year, in 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind requested and was denied citizenship because, while "Caucasian," Indians had intermarried with other groups in his family, and so he therefore wasn't considered "purely white."

Thind's case didn't only impact him; it also led to other immigrants of Indian descent having their citizenship revoked. By challenging "whiteness," these two cases seemingly lead to some of the ruling in the Johnson-Reed decision.

Over the subsequent decades, immigration policy shifted. Asian immigrants were no longer the primary targets, and attention increasingly centered around the movement of people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Take Cuba and Haiti. In 1995, during the Clinton administration, a revised Cuban Adjustment Act led to the "wet foot, dry foot act," which allowed Cubans who traveled without a visa to the U.S. to receive permanent residency. At the same time, Haitians who immigrated to the U.S., often in the same ways, weren't granted legal status and weren't allowed to remain in the U.S. Many considered the policy discriminatory against national origin and, in many cases, race. In 2017, former President Barack Obama ended the policy.

Which brings us back to Trump. During his first week in office, the president showed us that immigration would be one of the key planks of his tenure. He moved beyond mere promises of a border wall to curtail the international air travel of certain groups into the U.S.; most of the countries on the original and later versions of the travel ban were predominantly Muslim countries. In the months that followed, immigration policy targeted groups from different parts of the world. In particular, immigrants from some African countries, including Somalia and Senegal, and from Central American nations have been deported. Meanwhile, Temporary Protected Status for nationals of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras has been revoked, and the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy is precarious.

The historical trajectory of the U.S.'s immigration policies matters—both at home and abroad. Despite periodic setbacks, the U.S. has been seen as a global leader in recent immigration policy, and, historically, it's been seen as a place where immigrants could come for refuge. As the decades have progressed, immigrants from non-European countries have gained greater access to living, studying, and working in the U.S. Some have worked in low-skilled sectors and have provided services (including in hotels, home health care, and construction), while others have worked as doctors, lawyers, optical engineers, software developers, and professors.

In other words, like their American counterparts, they come from many backgrounds, and they contribute to a rich national tapestry both personally and professionally.

So when Trump described people from many of these very regions as hailing from "shithole countries," and when he called for them to be locked out of the U.S., he sent a crystal-clear message: that, on a fundamental level and regardless of actual "merit," there's an implied inherent inferiority to people from majority non-white countries. Since Trump's remark, many people have reacted with outrage: the U.S. ambassador to Panama resigned; the African Union demanded an apology; and the government of Botswana and a group of 48 former American ambassadors to African countries have condemned the remarks.

The fallout of repressive immigration policies, unpredictable policy adjustments, and offensive remarks about partner countries (and continents) could very likely lead to reduced support from allies who engage in joint military maneuvers, share important counter-terrorism intelligence, and collaborate on international treaties. Reduced cooperation and respect can, in turn, lead to a less secure environment for U.S. government personnel and Americans living, working, and traveling abroad.

On top of so much else, American public-health security is also at stake. Many of the physicians who provide medical care in the U.S. come from countries in the Global South—countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. This is especially true in rural areas, where health care is largely inequitable in scope, availability, and technological access compared to metropolitan areas. For instance, the first iteration of the travel ban prevented more than 15,000 highly vetted doctors, many of whom were recruited from Iran, Syria, and Iraq, from entering the country. Subsequent bans continue to impact physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals from Iran and Syria, and smaller numbers from the other countries still affected by the ban.

America is a country of immigrants. While those immigrating have shifted over centuries, all seek to turn the "American Dream" into a reality by making themselves, their families, and their country better and more prosperous. Targeting groups from majority black and brown countries from legally migrating or staying in America will only hurt America's reputation here and abroad—contracting rather than expanding the American mosaic.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.