The long, bipartisan history of dealing with immigrants harshly
July 09, 2019 · 11:30 AM EDT
A migrant camp in Weslaco, Texas, in February 1939. A Library of Congress caption reads: "... The charge for camping in tents is about fifty cents per week, including water, which in some cases must be carried four city blocks. Privies are tin, very bad condition. Garbage is collected only once a week, with large dumps of decaying fruits and vegetables scattered among the camps. Some of the white migrants in this camp were very suspicious of governmental activity, due to the use by south Texas newspapers of the term 'concentration camps' referring to FSA (Farm Security Administration) camps."
Rather than marking a stark departure, I see President Donald Trump’s approach as ramping up and expanding the US government’s longstanding efforts to punish undocumented immigrants.
His record on immigration does appear to be more inhumane and cruel than that of his predecessors. But his legacy will not, I’m afraid, be un-American.
Racism, recession and war
Following a long history of more open and welcoming immigration policies, in the first half of the 20th-century US attitudes toward immigration became increasingly restrictionist. Racism against immigrants of color drove immigration legislation, especially during economic downturns and political turmoil.
Beginning in 1924, the government set national immigration quotas. Due to a belief in eugenics, a pseudo-science claiming that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon races are superior to all others, the authorities effectively cut off legal immigration from all but a few Western European nations.
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Lawmakers claimed it was for the sake of preserving and improving upon the nation’s ethno-linguistic heritage as recorded in the 1890 census. The count excluded most African Americans
and all Chinese Americans
But once the Great Depression began and unemployment soared, President Herbert Hoover bowed to popular pressure to preserve “American jobs for real Americans” and approved the large-scale deportation of Mexican workers and their families.
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Largely carried out by local law enforcement between 1929 and 1936
, the deportation dragnets rounded up hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican descent —many of them US-born citizens
— and forced them onto trains bound for Mexico.
The advent of World War II reignited longstanding anti-Japanese attitudes
. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration forced nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of them US citizens — into remote internment camps
between 1942 and 1945. His administration also deported thousands of Japanese Americans
who had renounced their citizenship under duress. And the government turned away at least 200,000 Jewish refugees
who were fleeing the Nazis despite the quotas for their countries not being filled.
Mexican migrants like these worked in the US starting in 1942 through the Bracero program.
World War II also revived the US economy, suddenly creating labor shortages in jobs left by those who had joined the war effort. Looking south for a fix, lawmakers established the Bracero program
. It encouraged and regulated the flow of Mexican migrants primarily employed as farm workers from 1942 until 1965 — when a landmark immigration law abolished national quotas
Many employers preferred to hire undocumented workers to avoid the Bracero program’s bureaucracy and wage restrictions. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower initiated “Operation Wetback
” to force hundreds of thousands of low-paid farm workers to leave the country.
Like Hoover’s deportation spree, officials made little effort to differentiate between the US citizens and noncitizens who got rounded up and deported. Historians have found that innumerable US-born people were again among the hundreds of thousands supposedly repatriated to Mexico.
Reagan, asylum and amnesty
Large numbers of Central Americans first began to arrive in the US in the 1980s — in many cases fleeing US-backed brutality
. Rather than acknowledge its allies’ human rights abuses, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush labeled these asylum-seekers “economic migrants
.” Less than 3% were granted asylum, a fraction of the approval rate for refugees fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe and oppression in Iran and Afghanistan.
Even so, Reagan also demonstrated generosity toward undocumented migrants. His administration’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act
provided amnesty for over 3 million undocumented immigrants — the vast majority of them from Mexico and Central America — letting them become permanent legal residents.
The 1986 law also took major steps to toughen border security to deter future undocumented migration. Combining legalization with deterrence, Reagan hoped, would fix the nation’s immigration system
once and for all.
Aside from the complementary measures
adopted during the first Bush presidency
, no president since Reagan has signed legislation for another expansive amnesty for the undocumented. With few exceptions
, immigration policies have become increasingly punitive with the passage of time.
More than any other president, Bill Clinton
paved the way for Trump’s plans to deport millions of undocumented families, terrify others into voluntarily departing and slash legal migration. During his 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act
, one of the most draconian and far-reaching pieces of anti-immigration legislation in US history.
The 1996 law eroded due process
for many migrants seeking asylum. It created a program
that enlists local law enforcement agencies into immigration enforcement. Critics of the program say it drives a wedge between the police and immigrant communities, interfering with law enforcement.
Even as they inherited what immigrant rights advocates call a growing “deportation machine
,” both George W. Bush and Barack Obama attempted to soften immigration policies.
Trump’s wider scope
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