Opinion

Facing Up to the Racist Legacy of America’s Immigration Laws

The searing images of Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at unarmed Haitian men and women shocked many Americans last month, including President Joe Biden. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said, “He believes the footage and photos are horrific. They don’t represent who we are as a country.” Many Democrats made the same argument during the Trump administration, condemning a series of harsh anti-immigrant policies, from the Muslim ban to the separation of children from their families, as “not who we are” and “not what America represents.”

And yet despite promises made on the campaign trail, the Biden administration has been surprisingly slow to unwind the Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration. Mr. Biden has kept the public health law Title 42 in place, which allows for the swift expulsion of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. He has also presided over the lowest number of refugees admitted to the United States since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980 — a total of only 11,445 refugees in the 2021 budget year.

The truth is that the mass deportation of nonwhite people and immigration bans based on nationality, religion or race are quintessentially American. From the beginning, the United States was built on the dual foundation of open immigration for whites from Northern Europe and racial subordination and exclusion of enslaved people from Africa, Native Americans and, eventually, immigrants from other parts of the world.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling states continued to exploit enslaved people and recruit more free white settlers from Europe. Racial exclusion was first codified in the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person.”

In the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush and California statehood opened new migration routes from China, which set off waves of anti-immigrant fears. In words that are echoed by today’s Republican Party, Chinese migrants were described as an “unarmed invasion” force that would replace white Americans, taking away jobs while bringing diseases and drugs. In response, the United States passed the first significant national restrictions on free immigration: The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the entry of Asian women and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred all Chinese immigrants.

A cascade of new laws limiting the entry of nonwhite people to the United States soon followed. President Theodore Roosevelt said that, owing to the low birthrates of whites, the restrictions were necessary to prevent what he termed “race suicide.” In 1907, he signed the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan that limited the entry of Japanese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917 created an Asiatic Barred Zone that extended from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. The Immigration Act of 1924 further cut the total number of immigrants allowed in each year, and made permanent strict quotas in order to favor immigrants from northern and Western Europe.

In addition to immigration bans, there were efforts throughout this period to remove nonwhite people already living in the country. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to transport freeborn Blacks and emancipated slaves to Africa. The Greater Liberia Act of 1939, which failed to pass Congress, proposed the deportation of 12 million African Americans to Liberia.

Chinese immigrants across the American West were subjected to violent attacks and run out of towns, forcing many to flee to Mexico and Canada or return to China. Beginning in the late 1800s, immigration line riders known as “mounted guards” or Chinese inspectors rode through border towns checking the documents of Chinese immigrants. The Border Patrol was established in 1924 to enforce the national origin quotas.

It was not until the civil rights movement that the United States’ racist immigration policies came under sustained scrutiny. Although the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization rights to “persons of African descent,” the racial citizenship restrictions were not eliminated entirely until 1952. The national origin quotas were abolished in 1965.

Even then, supporters of the change assured critics that the white character of the country would not be affected. “Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said that year. “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”

Mr. Kennedy’s pledge turned out to be wrong: The provisions of the 1965 act have led to more diverse immigration to the United States. Yet even as that law has remained in place, politicians on both sides of the aisle have expanded enforcement at the border and increased crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump made anti-immigrant policies a cornerstone of his presidency and, according to a Stanford study, implemented more than 1,000 changes that made it more difficult to immigrate to the United States.

Many of the proposals of the Biden campaign suggested a different way forward, even as the administration has not yet followed through. Mr. Biden’s immigration plan is floundering in Congress, but he can carry out much of his agenda on his own. He could immediately increase the refugee quota well beyond the current cap of 125,000 and work to ensure all of these spaces are filled. The president can unilaterally expand the use of temporary protected status and parole in place to remove barriers that prevent people already in the United States from applying for green cards. It is troubling that so far Mr. Biden has shown little interest in expending political capital to rally support for the changes he promised during his campaign.

In the longer term, the 75 percent of Americans who believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants need to grapple with the fact that for most of the country’s history its laws meant that only white immigrants could come. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Muslim ban, immigration restrictions have been a mechanism for protecting a fleeting vision of a white country. Do Americans still believe we are a nation of immigrants? If we do, and truly want to live up to that ideal, then more barriers to immigration should come down, and explicit and implicit racial favoritism of those we do let in must end.

Although the anti-immigrant language of the Republican Party and the violence at the border today may make some Americans uncomfortable, this is exactly how America has treated nonwhite immigrants throughout its history. It is who we are. The question is whether it is who we want to be in the future.

Reece Jones (@ReeceJonesUH) is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow and chair of the department of geography and environment at the University of Hawai’i. This essay is adapted from his book “White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States From Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall.”

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