Let’s talk immigration and American history, shall we?

Today’s guest blog comes from our friend David Honig, Adjunct Faculty at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

My people came here legally, why can’t they?!

Let’s talk immigration and American history, shall we?

That whole, “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free,” thing? It used to be real. Our doors were wide open and inviting, and I’d bet the large majority of people reading this had ancestors who happily skipped through those open doors. Many even settled somewhere in America where the were surrounded by people from the old country, where they didn’t need to learn English, knowing the first American-born generation would take to it like a duck to water.

So what happened?

Until 1882, all it took to immigrate into the US was a ride (usually on a boat) and the ability to not look significantly sicker than you could explain with “steerage” and “sea sickness.” If you could make that stick you were in. There might be some quarantine time, and somebody at the border might change your name to something he could spell, but you were in. Most of the people coming at the time were from western and northern Europe. Immigration until 1890 was dominated by Germans, Irish and Brits, with a big influx from Norway and Sweden in 1870-1890.

Then came the railroads. We brought a ton of people who really didn’t look like us, and whose kids didn’t look like us, either, to build them. And you know what? They liked it here and they kept on coming.

That shit had to stop.

Allow me to introduce you to The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was the first immigration law aimed at a specific group of people, and it was originally intended to last only 10 years. It was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, and not repealed until 1943. The Act also made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens and put very tight limitations on people leaving and coming back. And just for fun, the US Supreme Court decided Indians were Asians, too, so they were also excluded.

That was pretty much it for us for quite a while. If we were European-looking, we were still in the “tired, poor, huddled masses” group with a valid eVite and waiting communities.

So we came. We came in waves. There was a huge shift in the decades around the turn of the century. The eastern Europeans from Austria-Hungary (find an old map – it was a huge empire that made up much of what is now eastern Europe) went from 60,000 from 1870-1879 to 2,000,000 in 1900-1910. Italians went from 49,000 to 1,930,000 in the same time period. And Russia went from 35,000 to 1,500,000. A lot of the people coming from Austria-Hungary and Russia were Jews.

Wait a minute. Did somebody say “Jews”?

That shit had to stop.

Allow me to introduce you to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. This introduced the concept of quotas based upon national origin. The Act limited immigration based upon the number of people from a country already in the U.S. It was set at 3%, so a country with a whole lot of people already here from the UK got a much larger immigration quota than one without so many people in it, like the more recent Italian and Jewish immigrants. Actually, exactly like the more recent Italian and Jewish immigrants.

Which leads us to the Johnson-Reed Act, or the Immigration Act of 1924.

Just in case you don’t remember 1924, that was the second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. They ran entire states (Indiana, for one, where I sit and type right now). Their cry was for a white Protestant America, and they had power.

The Johnson-Reed Act began with a four year quota system, setting a maximum number of permitted immigrants at 2% of the people of national original already in the US. So if you were from Great Britain, cool, because there were loads and loads of people originally from there already in the US. Immigration from GB dropped 19%. Same with the Irish. But immigration from Italy dropped 90% and Jewish immigration went even lower. Curiously, neither the Emergency Act of 1921 nor the Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration from Latin America.

What drove these Acts? Much of it was driven by eugenics, a false science that rated people’s quality based upon their race, religion, national origin, etc. The prevailing theory pushed in great part by a man named Harry Laughlin, who testified and supported the 1924 Act and was a major intellectual behind it, was that the people coming from southern and eastern Europe, primarily Jews and Italians, were inferior. He considered Italians and Jews to be “dysgenic,” inferiors both intellectually and morally.

When President Calvin Coolidge signed the 1924 Act he declared, “America must remain American.” And thus began the official government idea that some of us were just a little more American than others.

There is no doubt that many died because of the Johnson-Reed Act. America turned away many Jews trying to flee the Holocaust, rejecting ships full of desperate refugees and even rejecting angel and orphan efforts to save children from doomed families. It is one of America’s great sins, behind slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, but far ahead of many that are better known. To put it plainly, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, died because of the false science of eugenics and a decision that to be “American” wasn’t entirely bound up in sharing the American dream, but also in looking like, sounding like, believing like, and worshiping like, the people who walked in through the open door before them.

So what does this mean for you, and what does it tell us about what is happening today?

For me, there are two important lessons.

The first lesson is that most of us didn’t stand in line, or jump through the hoops, or follow the rules, to be American. We just showed up. And then we pulled the door closed behind us. There is no moral superiority in walking through open doors, then saying people facing closed doors should “do it legally, just like we did.” Because, frankly, that’s self-indulgent bullshit.

The second lesson is that we’re losing the vision of what it meant to be American, and in so doing, we’re giving rein to our basest instincts, the tribal ones that divide people into “them” and “us.” We let racism and hatred change the dream that made America that shining city on a hill, that refuge for all nations, a land that would take the poor, the abused, the hated, and give them the opportunity each and every one of us dreams of for our children and the world.

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.