[On February 5, 1917 Congress passed the influential and exclusionary Immigration Act of 1917. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other stages across the history of immigration laws, leading up to a weekend post on where our laws and narratives stand in 2020.]
On two distinct but ultimately interconnected public scholarly lessons for the present.
One of the more consistent phrases deployed in response to the anti-immigrant bigotry and xenophobia at the heart of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and then his presidency (and, frustratingly but clearly, not at all limited to him and his administration in our current moment) has been that America is “a land of immigrants.” The sometimes unstated, sometimes overt argument being that these attitudes and policies run counter to fundamental American histories and values. But of course, as both my latest book We the People and Erika Lee’s wonderful new book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States remind us, anti-immigrant, exclusionary sentiments are as foundational to the US as immigration has been. Moreover, and perhaps even more saliently, what I hope this week’s blog series has highlighted is that much of the time American immigration laws themselves—from their 19th century creation and early 20th century development to their late 20th century shifts and evolution—have at the very least reflected and extended those anti-immigrant narratives, if they have not indeed been a primary societal location for them.
Seen through that lens, many of the Trump administration’s extreme and xenophobic policies and proposals sit squarely in the history and legacy of American immigration laws. The Muslim Ban, his first post-inauguration policy proposal, represents another ethnic and national exclusion, much like the Asian exclusions that comprised the first national immigration laws (although the fact that it targets a religion makes it, I would argue, even more unconstitutional than those exclusions were [although although the Supreme Court generally sided with those exclusions]). Detaining Hispanic immigrant families and children at the border echoes both the Angel Island detentions during that Asian exclusion era and the long 20th century history of targeting and deportations of Mexican Americans. Even when his proposals seem to violate fundamental aspects of our current immigration laws, such as his goal of eliminating so-called “chain migration” (family reunification as a legal priority), these histories remind us that even those now fundamental aspects have always been conflicted and contingent (as I noted in Friday’s post, family reunification was only added to our national immigration laws in 1965, and then in relationship to other priorities such as economic status that Trump is now seeking to amplify).
So one public scholarly lesson of better remembering our immigration histories has to be that Trump and our era are, sadly but clear, not nearly as much of an anomaly as we inclusive folks would like to believe. But there’s another lesson, and it’s the one I argued for in this We’re History piece on birthright citizenship (itself a target of Trump administration challenges): the histories of the battles for inclusion, for immigrant and civil rights in opposition to these discriminations and exclusions, both remind us of the need to and model the ways to carry that battle forward in the 21st century. To me, that’s the definition of critical patriotism: recognizing all the ways that the US has consistently fallen short of our national ideals, but also remembering the figures and communities that have fought to push us closer to those ideals, and committing to honoring their legacy by carrying the fight forward. The history of immigration and immigration laws offers one particularly clear and salient illustration of all those layers, and better remembering its most exclusionary elements only drives home the continued, desperate need for efforts to push us further toward the inclusive ideal embodied in the “land of immigrants” narrative.
Valentine’s series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?
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