“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump hit immigration issues hard, much to the delight of his Rust Belt supporters. Since his inauguration, he and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, have endeavored—not too successfully—to fulfill his campaign promises. In their efforts to appeal to the nativism and economic angst of denizens of America’s Rust Belt, they have repeatedly stressed the three main points of his campaign:
- A ban on granting entry to the U.S. of people from certain predominantly Muslim countries.
- Building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to stop the flow of people from south of the border.
- Punishing U.S. cities who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement; the so-called Sanctuary Cities.
So far, the administration’s efforts have met with a resounding lack of success. Federal judges shut down two attempts to impose a Muslim ban, and a federal judge in San Francisco has temporarily halted DOJs attempt to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. Noise continues to be made about building the wall, but Mexico has been adamant in its refusal to pay, and it’s unlikely that the congress will come up with the massive amount that would be needed to build the bloody monstrosity.
If Trump and Sessions were more aware of history, in particularly, America’s fixation on anti-immigration, they might have taken a saner approach to this whole issue.
The history of opposition to immigrants in America is older than the nation itself. Before independence, for example, Benjamin Franklin railed against the increase in the number of Germans arriving in the colonies, fearing that they would not assimilate, and would overwhelm the ‘English’ community.
Starting in the late 1790s there was vociferous opposition to political refugees from France and people from Ireland fleeing the potato famine, mainly on the basis of their Catholic faith, which led to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which sought to stem that flow, and Catholics in America were banned from holding public office.
In the 20th century, anti-immigrant sentiment took on a racial tone in response to the number of Asians arriving in America and competing with native born for jobs, particularly in the western states. The federal government, wanting to avoid alienating Asian countries with whom we had diplomatic relations, held out against this sentiment for a long time, but finally caved to domestic pressure, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902, which stopped all immigration from China, and the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan in 1907, which limited immigration from that country. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, as a gesture of goodwill to our Chinese ally in World War II, but the full limitations of the act weren’t abolished until 1965.
Despite being thought of as a nation of immigrants, American nativists began pushing for exclusion of people not from northern Europe in the late 1800s, and labor unions opposed many immigrants on economic, moral, cultural, and racial reasons. Publicly, the unions stated that this influx of ‘undesirables’ would flood the labor market and lower wages.
The sentiment against Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, which saw an upsurge in the 1990s, and a giant uptick with the rise of the Tea Party movement after 2014, is not a recent phenomenon. Anti-Mexican movements began in the early 1920s, often involving the mass deportation of Mexicans.
These past anti-immigration activities and sentiments have created foreign relations problems for the U.S., often at critical times when we’ve needed the cooperation of other countries.
More recent anti-immigration sentiment, though, has had more direct consequences. In Georgia, for example, when the state legislature passed a draconian anti-immigration law in 2011, thousands of agricultural workers fled the state for more hospitable locations, resulting in an over $300 million loss in the state’s melon crop, and a potential total economic loss of $1 billion. There have been similar losses in other states that have dipped their oars in the immigration enforcement waters.
Another important aspect of the new administration’s push for local and state governments to participate in enforcement of immigration laws (civil rather than criminal, which they have a responsibility to do) is that these police forces are ill-equipped for such work. In addition to a lack of training in the complex civil laws relating to immigration, they lack the manpower to take on immigration enforcement and still protect their communities. Further, when local police begin to involve themselves in identifying, detaining and deporting foreigners, it complicates their ability to gain the trust of the very communities they need in order to perform their principal mission.
One can’t help but wonder if the president and attorney-general have given any thought to the complexity of what they’re insisting that states and cities do. Or, do they even care?
The nation’s reputation, at home and abroad, has suffered because of past actions that were counter to our professed credo. Are they setting us up for another round of the same?