The vehemence of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coupled with some extreme policy positions from the Trump Administration have caused many to declare, reflexively, that “This is not America.”
But American history is replete with nativist thinking, policies and backlashes. An historical reflection of such nativist movements and Americaâs response shows us a way forward.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a comprehensive immigration reform bill called the Immigration Reform and Control Act or IRCA.
That law normalized the immigration status of about 2.3 million undocumented individuals living in America and attempted to shift the onus of responsibility to employers to cut off the major driver of undocumented immigration — the need for cheap labor.
The bill was bipartisan, controversial, and partly efficacious. It was built on the understanding that immigration is advantageous for our economy, central to our national narrative, and a generator of incredible intellectual and cultural talent for our nation.
Our nation has not passed a sweeping, bipartisan comprehensive bill since IRCA. The politics of immigration have hardened.
President Trump did not invent a new political tactic by attacking immigrants. The practice of lashing out at immigrants has operated since the mid-19th century when the “Know-Nothing” party ascended by assailing European Catholics and others.
In the late 19th Century, political and economic elites went after the Chinese — referring to hard-working immigrants who built large segments of the transcontinental railway as “the yellow peril.” In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the Chinese from immigrating to the United States.
By the early 1900’s, the immigrant population in the U.S.Â rose significantly. A backlash ensued resulting in the passage of the temporary Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which then became permanent with the nationâs first comprehensive immigration act, in 1924, designed to exclude “undesirables” — people from southern Europe (Italians, especially), people from the former Hapsburg Empire, and Russians who were in post-revolutionary turmoil, after 1917.
After World War II, the U.S., under energetic and creative leadership, adopted an internationalist perspective and helped rebuild the world. America led the world international community by setting up the United Nations, NATO, agreements on tariffs and trade (GATT), and other organizations to keep the peace and share, collectively, in the worldâs resources while acknowledging that peaceful collaboration is more profitable than world war.
In that spirit and that of the civil rights movement, the U.S. abolished the previous discriminatory quotas with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which remade the face of America. The number of immigrants in the United States quadrupled between 1965 and 2015 from 9 million to nearly 40 million.
As a result, it is unsurprising that this administration has resorted to 19th Century nativist tactics, policies and language. Trump made this move because it’s politically effective, but not in the long term.
That so many in Congress support this administration with its inchoate series of policies, its anti-internationalist logic, and downright cruel treatment of poor immigrants — most of whom aspire to live and thrive in America — is dispiriting.
But if history repeats itself, Americansâ basic sense of goodness and fairness will pull us through the current socio-political crisis and the daily Trump drama will dissipate, sooner or later.
Weâve been through this before and we the people have always corrected such excesses. The election this November offers the next best opportunity to return to a more welcoming and decent America.
Bryce W. Ashby is an attorney with Donati Law in Memphis and a member of the Board of Latino Memphis. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of Latin American history at Rhodes College.
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