words by Eamon Whalen
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So reads an excerpt of the Emma Lazarus sonnet “The New Colossus,” engraved onto a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Within a certain American collective memory, this poem and it’s placement on the shores of New York City symbolize a legacy of welcoming, accepting and helping integrate immigrants and refugees traveling from disparate lands and horrendous circumstances. But in a country that so often practices historical amnesia when the truth inconveniences the popular narrative, it’s worth asking whether this national collective memory is actually true, or if it’s a continuation of pernicious national mythology.
On Saturday, January 28th, when President Donald Trump recklessly put his long-promised Muslim ban (a ban that has now been temporarily halted by federal judges in Washington and Minnesota) into action through an executive order that banned entry from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somali, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days, suspended the entire U.S refugee admissions system for 120 days and the Syrian refugee program indefinitely, was he breaking from national tradition? While it's right to call the ban grievously immoral and blatantly racist, the most popular refrain, that it’s “un-American,” is a harder sell.
Since pre-revolutionary times, political leaders have tried to shape the ethnic and religious makeup of what would become the United States, motivated by xenophobic and racist anxieties. The starting point, of course, was the eradication and genocide of American indigenous tribes –– a brutal reality that pokes holes in the "we are a nation of immigrants" narrative.
As early as 1751, founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin worried that Swedes, Italians, Germans, Spaniards and Russians were not racially pure enough to enter the country. Alexander Hamilton, he himself an immigrant, wrote of the extreme unlikeliness that immigrants would arrive with a "temperate love of liberty." Thomas Jefferson warned in his canonical Notes On Virginia, that diversity brought from immigration could turn the country into a "heterogenous, incoherent, distracted mass."
The United States also has a history of trying to banish those already living within it's borders, before mass deportation was a catch phrase. In the early to mid 1800s, abolitionists and slaveholders collaborated to form the American Colonization Society, which over the course of 40 years repatriated up to 15,000 freed Black people to the west African coast in an area that would eventually become the nation of Liberia. Among the motives of the ACS was a fear that freed Black people would be a danger to the security of slaveholders, as well as a belief that their moral and intellectual incapacity did not suit American democracy or civil society. Abraham Lincoln supported colonization programs, until the efforts of freed Black soldiers in the Union army were said to have caused him to reconsider.
A year before Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which specifically banned entry of the Chinese because they were thought to be polluting the labor market. The flow of Chinese immigrants continued to be heavily restricted into the 1920s under the Geary Act. The 1917 National Immigration Act outright denied entry from several Asian and Middle Eastern countries designated as the "asiatic barred zone." The 1924 National Immigration Act (otherwise known as the Johnson Act) was known best for establishing the National Origins Quota system, which effectively assured that the United States would retain a similar ethnic makeup it had forty years earlier. Similar quota systems continued until 1965.
As I heard the refrain from politicians, journalists, pundits and many of the protestors that bravely enveloped airports nationwide –– that Trumps travel ban was "un-American" -- I thought back to a book called “The Huddled Masses Myth,” which details the restrictionist side of United States immigration history that I briefly described above; borders controlled tightly by nativist biases and shaped by a desire for ethnic and religious homogeneity. And while it should be said that in the last half century the United States has been viewed as a global leader in refugee resettlement, we do ourselves a disservice, especially in this moment, by not staring down the darkest parts of our immigration history.
Are those who call the ban “un-American” falling into a trap of historically amnesiac mythology? Or, are they saying “never again,” and acknowledging that despite our deeply flawed history, the actions of the United States must continue to be challenged and measured next to its egalitarian ideals? To get a better context on this question, and how Trump’s Muslim ban fits into the history of American immigration policy, I called Kevin R. Johnson, the author of “The Huddled Masses Myth,” and several other books on immigration, who is the Dean of the University of California, Davis Law School and Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length.
Greenroom: In your book The Huddled Masses Myth, you write that while a lot of the United States’ immigration history should fill Americans with pride, we’re not always the safe haven for immigrants we like to think of ourselves as, that a lot of our policies are based on exclusion and nationalist sentiment. Can you explain how the demonization of groups in the U.S works hand-in-hand with immigration policy and how this current Muslim travel ban fits into the larger historical picture?
Kevin R. Johnson: "We historically have tried to keep out of the country the groups that are most marginalized and unpopular within the country. So we have a long history of keeping out political dissidents, including communists, anarchists and folks like that, and keeping out certain racial minorities. We had a history of excluding the Chinese at the same time Chinese immigrants who were in the country were very unpopular. In recent years the demonized immigrant groups tended to be those from Mexico, and also Muslims. There are different concerns, but somewhat similar concerns. Mexican Americans and Muslims have been discriminated against in this country for a long time. [They’ve] been stereotyped and blamed for a lot of our problems. Mexicans more so for our problems like common crime and taking jobs from American workers. You can see that kind of rhetoric in Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. In fact, he began the presidency by talking about Mexican criminals coming to the United States.
When it comes to Muslims, we have some national security concerns, and concerns with terrorism well before September 11th. Those got worse after September 11th. We took a variety of steps, sometimes punishing or subjecting special requirements [for] Muslim non-citizens who are in this country. We also made it harder [for immigrants] to come from nations predominantly populated by Muslims. Last Friday’s executive order focuses a lot on terrorist concerns and even temporary visits by non-citizens from the seven nations identified in the order, and really build on past discrimination against Muslims coming to the United States. In some ways it’s even broader since it basically denies issuances of any visas, temporary or not, if you’re from one of the seven countries, at least for the next three months.
Sadly, the current travel ban is something that fits in nicely in our immigration history in terms of showing how we can be restrictionists, in certain respects. It shows how unpopular, in certain ways, Muslims who are in the United States are, as well. Because we’re trying to keep out a certain group of people who we think are undesirable, and we have some Muslims here that we also sometimes treat as undesirable. So I think the current history in the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency is a very good example of how harsh federal immigration policy can be, and often punishes certain groups that are unpopular."
GR: A lot of the claims being made by those that oppose the travel ban is that it’s “un-American.” When we say that, do you think we’re striving for improvement in our immigration legacy, or are we buying into that myth of “the huddled masses” you write about?
KJ: "I think that the people who are tending to say that are trying to rely on our constitutional values, constitutional protections and our constitutional ideals to say that we shouldn’t be excluding these non-citizens from the country. We are a country of laws, a country of freedoms, a country of protections for people and it’s really 'un-American' to turn our backs on them. Some parts of the order are incredibly harsh, barring all refugees from the country for four months. It’s not limited to the Muslim world, it’s barring all refugee admissions for awhile. And those are the people, who under immigration laws, are the most needy: people fleeing from persecution, who fear getting deprived of their rights or even tortured or killed. We put a limit on that and some would say, it’s 'un-American' to turn our backs. I think that claim, that we’re being un-American, in some ways turns what Donald Trump is saying on its head. He’s often saying 'make America great again,' and these folks are appealing to American identity saying we should be generous in our treatment to the vulnerable in our society and who want to be in our society and it’s 'un-American' to not do so."
GR: Historically, has there been a history of resistance against exclusionary policies? Has there ever been this much public resistance this quickly to an immigration ruling?
KJ: "I do think there have been sporadic protests. In 2006 there were mass marches across the country by immigrants and their supporters, complaining about a very draconian immigration reform bill passed in the House of Representatives, which had made being undocumented a crime. We saw thousands of people across the country stand up and march. The events over the weekend, in some ways are quite extraordinary. I don’t want to say they’re unprecedented, but this executive order was released on Friday afternoon and there wasn’t much time for the sort of, the non-profit groups, the immigrants rights groups to organize these protests. These were, it seems, more or less a grassroots national resistance effort to what people thought –– to put it in a phrase we were talking about just a minute ago –– of as the administration acting in an un-American fashion. It’s discriminating on the basis of nationality and religion in a way that really is hard to justify with our view that we’re a nation of freedoms and tolerance and justice for all."
GR: The motive behind this travel ban coming from the Trump administration is it’s national security basis. Is there any merit to that considering the drastic measures of the ban?
KJ: "It doesn’t seem like it. It’s hard to justify it in terms of security. There’s vetting that takes place with respect to all people who come to this country legally and lawfully. If you’re a refugee you get vetted for several years. If you’re a lawful resident it can take a year or more. If you’re here on a temporary visa you still have to go through all the channels, like a background check and all that. I’m not aware of anybody in some recent case, or even in the last few years, who was either an asylum applicant, a refugee or a lawful permanent resident who was coming from Syria or one of the other designated countries to cause violence here. It’s certainly not going to ingratiate our nation with Muslims and others, so it may undermine national security because it may make it harder to get the cooperation of people in the Muslim community who we need to help us find out who the terrorists are. I can’t say it’s going to make us safer. I’m not aware of any evidence that says our immigration laws have made us unsafe. It seems to be a stretch to try to justify it on a national security basis. It is the case, though, that we have, in our history, justified some very harsh treatment of minorities and immigrants in the name of national security. During World War II, the nation interned Japanese and Japanese Americans alleging a national security threat. I do think that we have to take seriously the possibility that a national security threat is being over exaggerated, and the victims are hapless, lawful permanent residents who want to do us no harm."
GR: You write in "The Huddled Masses Myth" that our society’s treatment of non-citizens gives us a view of its potential treatment of US citizens who share similar characteristics if all legal constraints are lifted. What does that tell you about what is potentially in store for U.S. citizens that are Muslim or from majority Muslim countries?
KJ: "I hope it never comes to pass like this, but I do think there is a palpable fear in the Muslim-American community that they could end up getting interned like the Japanese did. Certainly we’ve seen increased surveillance in law enforcement activity directed at Muslim-Americans. There’s a particular sensitivity in the Muslim-American community now that, what’s being done to family members –– some people trying to get here to reunite with family –– gives an idea of what the U.S. government thinks about them, thinks of their loyalties and how it might treat them if push came to shove. I do think that if we see another terrorist event of any magnitude, like if it’s something like the shootings in Orlando or something like September 11th, we could see some very harsh measures taken toward U.S. citizens of the Muslim faith as well as from nations in the Middle East. That’s a good reason for us to have courts to intervene and to halt the excesses of the political processes in times of national tragedy and anxiety. I hope it never comes to pass but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Muslim-Americans to worry what kind of security measures might be directed at them, especially if there’s a terrorist act that occurs."
GR: Historically, how have people who are concerned about restrictionist immigration policy best resisted?
KJ: "I do think political action and political activism can come in a variety of forms. It could be through protest, it could be through contacting political leaders, it can be through activism and community groups, it could be active in church groups that provide assistance to immigrants. I do know there’s a real grassroots effort to try to provide help to some of these people caught up in the blatantly-announced travel ban, but I think there’s going to be room for litigation in some areas. I think we’ll see some cases. I understand that –– I haven’t seen the lawsuit yet –– the City of San Francisco is suing to enjoin some of the executive order’s provisions. I assume it wants to challenge, in particular, the sanctuary cities defunding proposal and things like that. There’s plenty of lawyers out there that are going to want to fight this. But I think that really political action is where the longest-term and the most significant change will take place.
One of the things that happened in California in 1994, the voters passed proposition 187. It’s what eliminated public access to the k-12 public schools to citizens and legal immigrants but would have excluded undocumented immigrants. I think that provoked a generation-long backlash where the politics of the state of California has changed a lot since then. Now people think, gosh, was California ever tough on immigrants? It really wasn’t that long ago that it was, but the politics has changed. I think in the long run the most enduring change is going to take political action."