Trump’s migrant phobia is rooted in American history
The idea of USA as always “open and welcoming to foreigners” is a myth, the recent hostilities directed towards the immigrants is challenging the liberal credentials of the state
Donald Trump has many pet hates—journalists, liberals, independent women, Europe, multilateralism—but nobody and nothing riles him more than immigrants; he loathes the very idea of letting in migrants, especially if they are poor and non-white. In his book, they count as “invaders,” comprising rapists, terrorists and thieves.
From his infamous “Muslim ban” and the crackdown on undocumented settlers to his attacks on “caravan migrants” (some 4,000 Central American asylum-seekers headed towards US) his presidency has come to be defined by his obsession to “protect” America from such people. He says he will not rest until he has erected a “beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico to keep out undesirable aliens. Much of the widespread international outrage over his crass xenophobia emanates from the idea of US that was “always open and welcoming to outsiders” but has suddenly become bigoted under Trump.
That idea is a myth as only a cursory reading of the history of United states immigration will show that US has always been wary of “aliens at the gate” demanding to be let in, particularly of non-whites. Even separating children from their parents is not new.
Previous administrations did it too, though on a much smaller scale, and many European countries, including Britain, routinely do it on the sly. What’s new is Trump’s abusive rant calling immigrants rapists and murderers (no other US president in recent memory has used such racist rhetoric) and the fact that for the first time it’s all playing out in public. But hostility towards migrants has been a common thread running through successive US administrations, including Barack Obama’s. Except that they did it more subtly. Notably, the US Supreme Court has invariably tended to stand by the government of the day on immigration issues.
So, its endorsement of Trump’s ban on travellers from some Muslim-majority countries on “national security” grounds is part of a familiar trend. In 1944, it allowed the then government to imprison thousands of Japanese Americans on exactly the same grounds solely on the basis of their national origin and ethnicity. As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Contrary to the popular narrative about how the US has “always embraced” migrants, the fact is that for most of its history, except for the first century of colonial settlement when immigration to USA was unrestricted and anybody could walk in, it has been far from “open and welcoming” to migrants.
Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s banned or severely restricted immigration from Asia (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned virtually all immigration from China until it was repealed in 1943) and an ethnic quota system introduced in the 1920s hugely curtailed Eastern European immigration. From time to time, axe has fallen on different racial and ethnic groups—a la Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”. In the early 1930s, thousands of Mexicans were forcibly deported under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Even US citizens of Mexican descent were not spared and reportedly accounted for nearly half of an estimated 400,000 who were repatriated. Again, in the 1950s, thousands more Mexicans were deported under a Justice Department Operation Wetback. Even European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were barred from entering US.
All US Presidents have been hostile towards migrants at some point
And this happened under a liberal and Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt. Historians claim he was “well-informed” about Hitler’s anti-Jewish pogrom and yet failed to relax immigration rules for Jews seeking refuge in America. Nor was there any significant public pressure on him indicating a general apathy towards refugees. “During Roosevelt’s first term, tens of thousands of German Jews applied at American consulates to immigrate to the United States.
Yet the Great Depression and restrictive American immigration laws severely reduced immigration opportunities for refugees,” according to the Holocaust Encyclopaedia published by the United States Holocaust Memorial. His approach is often defended on grounds that US was in the depths of economic Depression and his priority was to revive the economy, not saving Jews. But critics say it was symptomatic of USA’s historically hard-line towards migrants. Even when US pursued an “open door” policy it had very strict naturalisation laws allowing only white Europeans to become citizens.
The policy was later extended to blacks and Asians, but until 1965 when a new Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the “nation-origin” quota, immigration remained largely limited to white West Europeans with South Asians, including Indians, barred from gaining citizenship. There is the famous case of an Indian Sikh migrant Bhagat Singh Thind (“the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind”, 1923) in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Thind was “racially ineligible” for naturalised citizenship under the 1906 Naturalisation Act which allowed only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” to be considered for citizenship. The controversial ruling was later cited as a precedent when barring Indians from the naturalisation process.
This then is a snapshot of USA’s long and often controversial history of migration which, for most part, has been tightly controlled along racial and ethnic lines. For all the criticism, however, USA still has the largest population of migrants in the world and it has done a better job of integrating them than many European countries have. Meanwhile, a point often missed in the clamour to appear compassionate is that every country has a right to protect its borders and decide who to let in so long as it’s done lawfully and humanely. Where Trump has crossed a line is in his flagrant disregard for civility, and humane behaviour in dealing with wannabe migrants, especially children.
(The writer, a London-based commentator, is working on a book on global migration.)