Tracking The United States’ Record on Immigration Policy

The Executive Order signed by President Trump banning immigration from seven countries in the Middle East has sent ripples through the United States and the rest of the world. As protests continue across the country, many have claimed that the current ban is similar to what other administrations have done before, namely in Obama 2011 and Jimmy Carter in 1979. Although those particular comparisons are inaccurate, the United States’ record on immigration is far from spotless.  As a country founded on the backs of immigrants, we though it prudent to clear the air on certain policies as well as take a look back at some of the pieces of immigration legislation that have shaped this country’s reputation towards immigrants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act – 1882

Perhaps the first significant piece of immigration policy in American history, the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 banned “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining,” or essentially all Chinese immigrants from entering the country for 10 years. This law also provided restrictions to those already in the country such as forcing them to acquire certificates if they wanted to leave and return or banning them from naturalization altogether. This anti-Chinese legislation was extended by the Geary Act in 1892 which would continue the trend for many more years. It was not until the Magnuson Act in 1943 that Chinese immigrants would be allowed back into the United States and for those already in the country to become naturalized citizens. However, the Magnuson Act still upheld the ban on Chinese owning property or a business until its full repeal in 1965.

The MS St. Louis – 1939

One of the darkest periods of American History came prior to World War II when Jewish refugees were turned away from entering the United States because of the prevailing fear that Nazi Spies might be hiding among them. At the time, US immigration laws set a quota for allowing Germans into the United States at about 25,000 per year, but due to antisemitism, its estimated that only around a quarter of available visas were ever given out. One of the defining moments of this policy came in 1939 when an ocean liner named the MS St. Louis, which was carrying around 900 German Jews, was told to turn around and head back to Europe, leading to many of the passengers’ deaths in the Holocaust. Moreover, just before the St. Louis set sail, a bill which would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children to come to the United States beyond the annual quota of German immigrants was never approved in the face of negative public opinion.

The McCarran Act – 1952

Fearing an overthrow of the US government at the hands of communism at the beginning of the Cold War, the McCarren Act revised American immigration laws to ban and even deport immigrants who were believed to be part of the communist party. Members of communist organizations had to register with the Attorney General and could not become citizens. Although this act was vetoed by President Truman, it was overridden by congress. Most pieces of this legislation were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

President Carter – 1979

Responding to Islamic revolutionaries who had overrun the US embassy in Tehran and were holding 50 American men and woman hostage, the United States government, under President Carter, placed a number of sanctions on Iran to encourage their release. These sanctions included removing all Iranian diplomats from the country, prohibiting exports to Iran, and not issuing any new visas to Iranian citizens except for compelling humanitarian reasons. This ban, however, did not affect those who had already been issued visas or were currently living in the United States as legal citizens. This policy was also terminated when the hostage situation concluded.

President Regan – 1987

During the Reagan administration, AIDS was added to the list of dangerous and contagious diseases, despite the fact that there was no evidence that it could be spread through physical or respiratory contact. In response, a ban on HIV-positive immigrants was placed on those coming to the United States. Since this ban largely targeted gay males, many people believed that it was more a representation of homophobic and xenophobic sentiments existing in the United States, specifically towards Africans and minorities. Through the efforts of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, this ban was lifted in 2009 after 22 years.

President Obama – 2011

In response to discovering Iraqi nationals living in Kentucky who tried to send funds and supplies to al-Qaida and admitted to using IEDs against US soldiers overseas, President Obama slowed refugee and Special Immigrant Visa arrivals from Iraq for 6 months. Over 6,000 Iraqi refugees still arrived in 2011, although this amount represented less than half as compared to the previous year. The Obama administration also ordered the reexamination of almost 60,000 Iraqi refugees who had already been admitted to the United States. Via this policy, Iraqi resettlement was never halted completely and immigration levels returned back to normal in 2012.

President Trump’s Executive Order – 2017

After asking former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani how to enact a Muslim ban legally, President Trump signed an Executive Order banning immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries for 90 days and revoking tens of thousands of visas. Furthermore, all refugees are banned for 120 days and Syrians refugees specifically are banned indefinitely. Most notably, this ban also applies to legal US residents (green card holders) but after facing public backlash, the administration stated that current visa holders would be allowed in on a case by case basis after further screening. While other acts against immigration may have had a catalyst, this current ban was unprompted, with zero immigrants from the seven banned countries having killed anyone on US soil in the last 40 years.

Although the United States is known as a country that champions freedom, it is important to recognize that there have been many moments throughout our history that show the contrary. Whether provoked or not, our past is filled with numerous examples of discriminatory immigration policy. As we still encounter many of the same issues today, we have a duty to learn the lessons of previous generations or be destined to make the same mistakes as those before us.

Update (2/6/17): Seattle Federal Judge, James Robart, has halted the immigration ban.  The government has until 3 p.m. PST to submit additional briefs to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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