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Is Banning Non-Americans Un-American?

There are several ways to critique Donald Trump’s recent call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…” but “Un-American” has certainly summarized much of the emotional ire directed against his latest political bombshell. On December 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-4 against the ban, stating that it was “contrary to the fundamental principles” of the US, ie. “Un-American.” Where did this principle originate, from history or sentiment?   

America has always prided itself on having the most open public borders of any significant nation in history, especially the Atlantic seaboard where the vast majority of new immigrants first touched shore. Aside from the core values of the political culture, liberty, democracy etc., the idea of a nation of immigrants may very well be the greatest and most lasting legacy that America has given to the world. Any challenge to this value would, indeed, be considered Un-American, while the testimony of presidents and political leaders throughout history has given substance to the claim.

George Washington recognized it from the start: “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind.” Franklin D. Roosevelt reiterated it much later: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” John F. Kennedy wrote the classic history of immigration in 1958, A Nation of Immigrants, while his successor Lyndon Johnson noted that “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” More recently, George W. Bush, in proposing immigration reform, reminded Americans that “We’re … a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways.”   

Given such a perspective, it is small wonder that any challenge to America’s perceived tradition, especially a wholesale ban, must be considered beyond the pale. But the pale is incomplete and popularly misunderstood. The true story of America’s immigration history will reveal a number of retreats and restrictions that demonstrate that emigration to the New World was never a blank check and that the road to citizenship was full of political pitfalls and human tragedies. The illusion that immigration was either a right or an obligation is contradicted by the historical record.     

Entry to the United States was frequently restricted, especially as the population grew. As a general rule, many Americans, especially “nativist” Protestants and labor unions, resented and fought against immigration, despite being immigrants themselves. The Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century was the first major challenge to the right of minority religions to arrive here and compete with Anglo Protestantism as America’s dominant religion.

The target of the “Know Nothings,” formally the American Party, was Roman Catholicism, and the movement was spiked by the large numbers of Irish and German immigrants in the mid nineteenth century. The party came to control the Massachusetts legislature (where most Irish settled) and dominated politics in states with large Catholic populations, Ohio especially. Milliard Fillmore represented the American Party in the 1856 presidential election, where he received 900,000 votes, of four million cast. At the bottom of one party flier ran the motto: “Eternal hostility to Foreign and Roman Catholic influence.” But disputes over slavery crippled the party’s influence and the Civil War ended it permanently. But the scars of resentment lingered for decades, and powerful anti-immigrant influences, security, religious, cultural, political and economic, influenced American politics thereafter.

The first major restrictive legislation against immigration was the Page Act of 1875 (named after Rep. Horace Page, R-CA), which basically restricted immigration from China, the world’s most populous country, and classified as “undesirable” any Chinese who was a “forced laborer,” a prostitute or considered to be a convict. This act was reinforced in 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Amendments to the Act in 1884 and 1888 tightened it and prohibited reentry of Chinese ethnics after leaving the U.S. (there were no “sanctuary cities” in 1888).         

In 1924 the Immigration Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, with virtually no opposition. This was the most sweeping restrictive law in US history, banning all Japanese, Africans, and Arabs and limiting the number of European immigrants to 2% of their total inside the U.S. This drastically reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe, including Jews. Italian immigration dropped 90% in what the State Department Historian wrote was meant to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

Over time, these laws were revised or repealed, but Donald Trump’s ban against Muslims, ignorant or brilliant, self-destructive or necessary, is closer to the record than the ideal.