September 16, 2017; PBS NewsHour
The introduction of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act in February 2017 signaled a throwback to past priorities in setting immigration policies for the United States. The Act gives wealthy, highly educated, English-speaking applicants priority over those seeking to reunite with family (called chain migration). In looking at a history of U.S. immigration laws and policies, this direction aligns with the past.
The development of a merit-based system for gaining admission to the United States is nothing new. Immigration policies with a subtle focus on “whiteness” under the guise of protecting the nation from those whose needs could bring it down have been a key aspect of these laws. The Republican cosponsors of the RAISE Act, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, wrote in a statement that the majority of immigrants are “either low-skilled or unskilled” and “threaten to create a near permanent underclass for whom the American Dream is just out of reach.”
Harkening to the early 1900s in an article for PBS NewsHour, Kamala Kelkar discussed some of the criteria used by immigration officials to reject immigrants based on their physicality:
It was one of many racially-tinged institutional practices that empowered immigration officials to deny people of certain ethnicities or appearances—often people from South and Eastern Europe who were not considered “purely” white—by speculating about their ability to work. People with “poor physiques,” which was often said of Jewish immigrants, were “illy adapted” and would procreate “defectives,” a letter from a commissioner had warned the immigration and labor departments that year.
Douglas Baynton, a professor of American cultural history at the University of Iowa who wrote about this in his book, Defectives in the Land, says this emphasis on skills, education and language recycles early efforts to limit immigration based on ethnicity and race. “Just like in the early 20th century, people make assumptions about your worth, about your ability to contribute and your likelihood of being dependent,” Baynton said.
The emphasis on “whiteness” goes back to before the establishment of this nation, according to José Moya, a Professor of American history at Barnard College. Moya suggests that this concept comes from the European conquest of this continent (and South America) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Moya indicates that these “conquerors” were very open in their sense that those who did not look like them, speak their language, or practice their religion, including the black people they kidnapped to be their slaves, were inferior to them.
A chronological look at some of the policies and laws that emphasized the value of white immigrants over others could begin with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared “all male white inhabitants” would become citizens. This would exclude native populations, African slaves, populations of non-whites who had established communities in the Southwest, and women from citizenship, although all resided in this country. As time passed, the 1882 Immigration Act imposed a head tax on “undesirables” and sent them back. Also in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Chinese labor immigrants out. Stereotypes became the base for maintaining a white superiority in admission to this country; if a nationality was thought to be alcoholic or criminals with links to a Mafia, they would be sent back. Public health inspectors could make snap decisions with little information other than how a person looked. If they could not bolster the economy, they were not welcome. Between 1882 and the 1900s, laws were enacted that set quotas and maintained a preference for immigrants who looked like the majority white population. Stories of refugees fleeing oppression being sent back to sure annihilation have become part of our history.
Coupling these race-based laws with the eugenics movement creates a history of complicity by many in the nonprofit sector. Writing for the History News Network and based on his 2012 book The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Edwin Black writes,
Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stamford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and twisted data to serve eugenics’ racist aims.
The upheaval of life in the U.S. following the Civil War, along with increased immigration, created a movement that sought to populate the nation with blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. According to Black, “This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the earth. In the process, the movement intended to subtract emancipated Negroes, immigrant Asian laborers, Indians, Hispanics, East Europeans, Jews, dark-haired hill folk, poor people, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the gentrified genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists. How? By identifying so-called ‘defective’ family trees and subjecting them to lifelong segregation and sterilization programs to kill their bloodlines.”
Black’s writing points to the use of eugenics in the U.S. and its governmental, corporate, philanthropic, and university support as the basis for Nazi actions during the Hitler era. The U.S. immigration laws during this period seemed to support this effort as well by simply keeping “inferiors” out.
1952 saw the first major overhaul of the immigration system and laws, with one comprehensive law that, as recounted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, “(1) reaffirmed the national origins quota system, (2) limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted, (3) established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and (4) tightened security and screening standards and procedures.” From there, immigration policies continued to restrict entry, with the occasional law to raise a quota for a particularly beleaguered group, but usually on a temporary basis (for example, Haitians and Salvadorians).
The history of immigration favoring “whiteness” is long, as is the shameful history of eugenics, forced sterilization, and segregation of certain populations. The laws are detailed, and the focus is usually shrouded in the mantle of “which population groups will bring value to the United States.” But that cloak is being shed as more overt white nationalist movements seem to be gaining deference from the country’s current leadership. While the Civil Rights Movement helped lead to the dismantling of quotas, it was also when the KKK reemerged, with its legacy of violence against those different from them. Only in recent years have some states issued apologies to those who were targeted by the eugenics movement. But complicity in this remains a part of our history.
Were any lessons learned? This nation has pointed to its diversity with great pride. As the poem on the Statue of Liberty says:
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…
Will that become a thing of the past? With the RAISE Act pending before Congress, and a president who says he will sign it, will our history of “whiteness” prevail?—Carole Levine