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Trump’s Refugee Ban Isn’t as Un-American as You Think

Denying the poor, huddled masses entry into the country has formed the basis of federal immigration acts since their inception.

JOSH EDELSON / Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s executive order denying certain refugees and immigrants entry into the United States has been met with spontaneous nationwide protests and widespread condemnation by journalists and politicians—even some members of his own party. “We ought to all take a deep breath and come up with something that makes sense for our national security and again for this notion that America has always been a welcoming home for refugees and immigrants,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman. Ezra Klein quoted poet Emma Lazarus: “What happened to ‘give us your poor, your huddled masses’?” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dubbed Trump’s order “simply un-American.” And Hillary Clinton tweeted:

While well-intentioned, these criticisms elide an important thread of U.S. history. Trump’s immigration order is, in fact, who we are—at least partly. Denying the poor, huddled masses entry into the country has formed the basis of federal immigration acts since their inception. Trump’s ban does not mark a grand departure from American values, but rather presents American values in their ugliest, most blatant and unapologetic form. A quick glance at the historical record shows that the ban is very much in line with how the U.S. has treated desperate people seeking entry into the country.

A century ago this February, the 64th Congress of the United States overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s third veto to pass the 1917 Immigration Restriction Act. This act—for which anti-immigration and eugenics proponents such as the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) had lobbied for decades—barred “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity” from entering the country. The act likewise decreed that immigrants take a literacy test to determine if they represented a “desirable” or “undesirable” population. The U.S. allowed in more of the former—typically Western or Northern European, apparently less likely to have a “low standard of living.

The law did not come out of nowhere. For much of the nineteenth century, states effectively stood at the helm of drafting and implementing immigration legislation. But as the century wore on and immigrants began to penetrate the nation’s (predominantly coastal) borders and flooded markets with cheap labor supply, U.S. citizens began to panic. In 1882, a little more than a decade before the IRL formed in Boston, the U.S. federal government asserted its constitutional authority over naturalization and immigration by passing both the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act. This marked the first time the U.S. used federal law to discriminate against immigrants—in this case the Chinese, who constituted .002 percent of the country’s population—by race or ethnicity, and the introduction of “undesirable” subjects into federal law. For the Chinese, this meant they could not enter the U.S. for ten years, which only grew when Congress renewed the act in 1892. It likewise meant that those in the U.S. could never become U.S. citizens.

Where the U.S. federal government did not use law alone to prohibit “undesirables’” from entering America, it also made use of the sciences. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century U.S. Public Health Service officials—many of whose top officials aligned themselves with the burgeoning eugenics movement—made it their work to identify certain biological characteristics and deficiencies of the “undesirable” subject, and therefore to give discrimination against him or her a “natural” and therefore apolitical basis. For instance, when immigrants entered Ellis Island, physicians would examine their bodies for physical abnormalities, and observe their expressions and speech for errant, perhaps “psychopathic” tendencies. As the PHS “Mental Examination of Aliens” manual in 1912 noted, “A great many feeble-minded persons on ordinary inspection present no physical signs whatever which would indicate real lack of intelligence. Nevertheless, the examiner should have made close observation of facial expressions, both in normal and abnormal persons, especially as to whether they may be said to be gloomy, sad, anxious, apprehensive, elated, hostile, confused, sleepy, cyanotic, exalted, arrogant, conceited, restless, impatient, etc.”

By 1921, accepting mounting bodies of pseudoscience as fact, President Calvin Coolidge would say that “biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” Three years later, Coolidge signed the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act into law, which received the support of the Ku Klux Klan, barred all of Asia from entering the U.S., and introduced a national origins quota system (which some would say made the death toll of the Holocaust that much greater). Putting pen to paper, Coolidge added, “America must remain American.”

As eugenics fell out of favor, the U.S. developed other ways and reasons to define “undesirable” subjects and govern their movement. As the twentieth century wore on, national security concerns played a more prominent role in informing the treatment of these groups. Following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant General John DeWitt wrote that the “Japanese race is an enemy race … and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” Heeding the advice of his cabinet, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered over 100,000 Japanese-Americans into forced labor camps, with the government seizing their possessions.

While assuming less immediately visible forms, this quarantine-surveillance model continued to develop over the ensuing decades, especially as the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the quota provision and thus granted more erstwhile “undesirables” entry (though, tellingly, homosexual men and women would not receive the same privilege until 1990). This increasingly sophisticated model—with recent examples including the ever-growing No Fly List and the detention of health workers and West Africans during the Ebola scare—has allowed the U.S., mainly through airports, to monitor and control the movements of a growing pool of “undesirables”:

U.S. airports became battlegrounds over the weekend, as refugees and other immigrants were detained upon arrival and thousands of protesters descended on international terminals. This outrage is the proper immediate response to Trump’s creeping fascism. But to prevent it in all its forms—most of which will be less obvious, and more pernicious, than airport detentions—we must abandon the pretense that the America of stump speeches is the America that exists. The acts we presently condemn as “un-American” form the marrow of American history, and it is the very notion of “American”—as defined in opposition to an alien other—that we must reject if we truly wish to make this country great.