How political rhetoric has shifted immigration policy throughout American history and in the Trump era.
Whether or not you support President Trump, it is undeniable that American politics is the most audacious and divisive aspect of our culture. We live in an age where more communication, technology, and information all intersect to form our political discourse. For the last couple of years, the center of almost all political discussion is around President Trump. From his conception as a presidential candidate, throughout the campaign trail, and into the White House, Trump has been met with constant scrutiny over his controversial ideas. In particular, Trump is especially known for his brazen comments and controversial legislation enacted over the topic of immigration. The focus point for this project is Trump’s act “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” which is connotatively known as the “Travel ban”. What is the proper way to solve our current immigration situation? How do morality, security, and legality intersect through the issue of immigration? And finally, what can we learn from our nation’s history in order to guide us towards better solutions?
My interest in this project stems from the fact that both halves of my family have immigrated to America; so immigration policy is very important to me. Being of Chinese descent, I understand the motives and reasons behind my family’s immigration to America in the 1970’s; which was escaping Mao’s China. However, a century earlier, people of my ethnicity were not allowed entry into the United States due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The nature of The Chinese Exclusion Act is eerily similar to the Trump travel ban making this project very important to me. When I look at the current immigration situation, it appears that most immigrants are just seeking a better life from their origin countries that have either become destitute from war or poverty. I can personally relate to this, as the German side of my family immigrated to America in the mid 1800’s seeking a better life due to the potato famine in Bavaria. From this, seeing the modern equivalent from many middle-eastern countries, makes me really want to explore the current legislation. I also wish to study this current issue because I have a passion for political discourse. I have heard opinions from both sides saying it is constitutional or unconstitutional and either racist or pragmatic. Beyond all the conversation i’ve heard, I hope to discover the true motive and reasoning behind this legislation and whether or not it is viable.
The issue of radical immigration policy began towards the very beginning of the formalized United States. The very first instance was during the presidency of John Adams, the second president from 1797-1801. A pair of laws were enacted known as the Alien and Sedition acts (“The Alien and Sedition Acts of The United States”). This immigration policy did not target a specific group but was drastic in context with the time period as America had just been founded under the idea of freedoms for all. The Alien and Sedition acts are often spoken of as a pair, but the “Alien” acts are more important when studying the history of immigration policy. The Alien Acts came as three laws named “The Naturalization Act” of June 18, 1798, “The Alien Act” of June 25, 1798, and “The Alien Enemies Act” of July 6, 1798 (“Alien and Sedition Acts of the United States”).
In the very first of the three, the Naturalization Act stated that the mandatory period required in order to be eligible for naturalization was 14 years. Previously the mandatory period was only 5 years (“Alien and Sedition Acts of the United States”). The second of the acts, the Alien Act, was more harsher than the first as it said “It shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of [the Alien Act] to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States…” (“Alien and Sedition Acts of the United States”). This clause gave the president the power to deport any “aliens” or non-naturalized immigrants from the United States if deemed threatening to the state. The idea of immigration policy based on perceived threat is an idea that has weaved itself permanently into the policies of later years. These acts set a precedent that can be traced throughout almost all American immigration laws. In the final act known as the “The Alien Enemies Act” another precedent was set and its ideas are still in effect today during wartime (Glass). The last act said that upon the declaration of war or invasion of the United States, all immigrants from the respective nation will be subjected to restrictions and punishment (Glass). The “Aliens” from the given nation will either be jailed or deported and further immigration from that origin would be halted (“Alien and Sedition Acts of the United States”). Although, these laws were eventually repealed and deemed unconstitutional in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (“Alien and Sedition Acts of the United States”), the ideology that backed them was advocated in the future in order to create the other chapters of immigration history.
The second notable instance of radical immigration policy was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During this time in America in the mid to late 1800s, the court of popular opinion deemed Chinese immigrants a threat to the American way of life leading to a halt of all immigration of Chinese people until WW2 (“Chinese Exclusion Act”). The first wave of Chinese immigration was during the Gold Rush during the 1840s. During that immigration wave, a strong wave of anti-Chinese sentiment followed (Wang). The majority of anti-Chinese sentiment was due to the Workingmen’s Party of California (Greenberger). The party was founded by Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant in the 1870s, with a motto of “The Chinese Must Go!” (Greenberger). Chinese people were regarded as dangerous foreigners who came only to take jobs and opportunities away from hard working Americans (Wang). They viewed the Chinese as “unsavory and alien” (Wang).
This new party resented the Chinese workers’ willingness to work for low wages. The anti-Chinese views in America were rooted in racism under the guise of economic reasoning (Chin). The racist perceptions against Chinese immigrants as unsavory laborers was an ignorant one because in reality they were great addition to the local economies as they worked a myriad of important jobs. They worked as domestic servants, laundrymen, miners, railroad workers, fishermen, and cooks. In fact, Chinese immigrants contributed vitally to the establishment of those industries in the West although these occupations were shunned by whites (Chin). The perception about Chinese people was one that deemed them “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” making the decision to end all Chinese immigration seem like an rational response and solution. This was the first time that the United States had targeted a specific ethnic group in immigration legislation (“Chinese Exclusion Act”). Signed into law on May 6, 1882 by President Arthur, the Chinese Exclusion act halted all immigration from China. The act was supposed to last only 10 years, but in 1892, it was renewed with the Geary Act and then in 1902 it was finally made permanent until WW2 (“Chinese Exclusion Act”). The Chinese Exclusion Act was the reason behind a 80 year hiatus of Chinese Immigration which was never ruled unconstitutional by our Supreme Court.
The Current Situation:
The focus point on the current immigration situation is Trump’s “Travel ban”. The history of the travel ban is one short but complex. In the age of technology, non-stop media, and information, passing legislation is a much harder task as there is more resistance, information, and opinion involved. Prior to Donald Trump’s winning of the 2016 election, the tactics of the Workingman’s Party seemed to be mimicked on the campaign trail except targeted against Muslim immigrants as opposed to Chinese immigrants. With technology at the hands out nearly everyone, many direct quotes of Trump’s behavior have been recorded. At a campaign event back in 2015, CNN was told “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” by a campaign press release (Diamond). In these quotes, Trump closely followed the tactics used in the 1870s portraying Muslims as dangerous malicious individuals out to hurt America. In December of 2015, Trump was asked about his travel ban proposal and the topic of Muslim immigration, in particular about a Muslim businessman from Canada, where he said “There’s a sickness. They’re sick people. There’s a sickness going on. There’s a group of people that is very sick” (Johnson & Hauslohner).
A CNN interview with Donald Trump and his thoughts on Islam. (CNN)
A video clip from a Donald Trump rally where Trump speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis. (The Guardian)
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, he was quick to create the legislation he promised. The original travel ban was signed on January 27, but a federal judge issued an emergency injunction against the ban the very next day on January 28 (Schallhorn). The second iteration was signed into law on September 24 with a revised list of countries, but another federal judge temporarily blocked the ban on October 17 (Schallhorn). The arguments against the first two travel bans were caused because every country on Trump’s first two iterations were predominantly Muslim (Vogue). But after heavy revision and multiple attempts, Trump’s travel ban was implemented fully on December 4, 2017 (Schallhorn). As of March 6, 2018, Trump’s third iteration of the travel ban is in full effect. This legislation prohibits immigration from 8 different countries, 6 being predominantly Muslim. These countries are: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Somalia and Yemen (Vogue). But on January 19, 2018, the Supreme Court announced that they would do a final review on the travel ban in April and have final statements by June (Schallhorn). Altogether, the history of Trump’s travel ban has yet to fully unfold but everyday more intriguing information comes out but even now parallels can be drawn to events that occured over a hundred years ago.
Is there a more viable solution to our current situation? For fear of national security, many ideas have been proposed around the topic of immigration. Enacted by the Trump administration and until further notice, 8 different countries’ residents are not allowed into the United States. Once again, these countries are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Somalia and Yemen (Vogue). In order to attempt at making a solution, it is essential to understand the motives behind immigrants. Without a doubt, the majority of immigrants are chasing a better life and will add greatly to both the economy and diversity of culture in the United States. But it is also undeniable that a portion, however small it may be, does harbour ill-will against the United States; for the United States is not a utopia and it has its enemies. But how do we fix this issue? How do we allow good people in and keep the bad people out?
Our nation currently does this well, but with the rise of terrorist attacks, the accuracy and efficiency of our immigration system is being questioned. In order to adapt to the current world situation, my prototype proposal would be to establish another federal agency specifically tasked with processing immigrants from conflicted areas. My proposal would be creating the “IBCA” (Immigration Bureau for Conflicted Areas). Once again, this would mean a special branch would be created out of our immigration system that would be tasked with handling all forms of immigration from countries with a compromised relationship with the United States. This proposal doesn’t intend to isolated the Middle East in and its residents in particular as “conflicting with the United States”. But with issues like the mass immigration of Syrian refugees, the current stage of conflict is the Middle East. Collaborating with counter-terrorism experts, naturalization applicants from regions specified as conflicted would be redirected to this new bureau where they could be rigorously evaluated rather than be denied altogether. I think this is a more reasonable than the Trump travel ban, solution an outright end to all immigration is unnecessary as there are many good people who would gladly be accepted into the United States that aren’t. Also, the issue of Syrian refugees has caused America to question its very own morality. What do we do about the massive amounts of Syrian refugees whose homeland is being decimated in a terrible civil war? With my solution, An estimate could be reached about how many refugees the United States could realistically be taken in and then the “IBCA” could act accordingly. With a special immigration agency specifically equipped to handle immigrants from conflicted areas, there will be less strain on the current system. This would cause less strain as many Syrian refugees do not have any legal documents over there identity and are slowing down the process for those who do. With the proper leadership, this specialized program would hopefully be able to process naturalization applicants with more success than the current system. Funding for this proposal, would be sorted out in a national spending bill, but more specifically would come from a portion of the current funding for all immigration agencies and possibly from an increase of taxes if needed.
I think this solution would help because instead of putting straining our current immigration system during this crisis, there would be another mechanism adept at handling the immigration problems we face coming out of the Middle East. If we look back on American history, we have clear examples of people being deemed dangerous through political discourse and then altogether denied from the countries. In the case of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the immigration of Chinese people was deemed a threat to the peace and longevity of the United States. Today we see the same with Muslim immigrants being deemed as terrorists and not being allowed into the United States through Trump’s “Travel ban”.
A Call To Action:
If you want to take further action on the issue of immigration policy, there are many steps to take. Below is the link to the United States government webpage that will help you find your local representative. Call your local representative and propose a solution to the immigration issue. My proposal to create a federal agency specifically aimed at immigration from conflicted countries is just one of many possible solutions to this complex situation.
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