Our Country is Full
“Our nation is a nation of immigrants,” he said. “More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” President Ronald Reagan (Mettler, 2018)
In April 2019, President Trump tweeted that our “Country is FULL!” (Phifer, 2019) I imagined the Statue of Liberty holding up a “NO VACANCIES” sign. I envisioned America, from sea to shining sea, being so full that there was no more room for the “tired,” “poor,” or “huddled masses.”
America is a nation of immigrants. More specifically, she is a nation of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Without generations of immigrants coming to America from every corner of the globe, even before its independence, there is no melting pot. The melting pot is a key component of the dream that is America. Namely that anyone from anywhere can come to the “land of opportunity” and with hard work and a little luck make a better future for themselves and their future generations.
This is what a poor immigrant named Friedrich Trump did in 1885 when he moved to America to build a better life for himself and his family. More on him later.
Ironically, this aspect of what has made America great is something that has not always welcomed. The descendants of immigrants now look to block the path to a better life for new immigrants that was afforded to their ancestors. It is the highest hypocrisy for the descendants of immigrants to try to block the entry of new immigrants.
In an earlier chapter, I quoted Ben Franklin as saying that he considered the English abominably “selfish” for thinking living in America “was a right which none could have but themselves.” It was if the earliest immigrants viewed America as an extension of Europe or a “New Europe.” I believe it is this lingering view of a New Europe that has led American leaders throughout history to try to build a fence, legislatively, or most recently, physically, to keep non-European immigrants out.
This New Europe exclusionary mindset is evident throughout American history starting with the clearing out of the indigenous people, the “native Americans” and continuing with efforts to stop the immigration of the Chinese, the Japanese, and later with the development of quotas to limit immigrants from Africa and other non-white, non-European nations.
The following is a historical timeline of immigration in the United States: (History.com Editors, 2018)
White People of 'Good Character' Granted Citizenship
January 1776: Thomas Paine publishes a pamphlet, “Common Sense,” that argues for American independence. Most colonists consider themselves Britons, but Paine makes the case for a new American. “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” he writes.
March 1790: Congress passes the first law about who should be granted U.S. citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allows any free white person of “good character,” who has been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship. Without citizenship, nonwhite residents are denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to vote, own property, or testify in court.
August 1790: The first U.S. census takes place. The English are the largest ethnic group among the 3.9 million people counted, though nearly one in five Americans are of African heritage.
Irish Immigrant Wave
1815: Peace is re-established between the United States and Britain after the War of 1812. Immigration from Western Europe turns from a trickle into a gush, which causes a shift in the demographics of the United States. This first major wave of immigration lasts until the Civil War.
Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish—many of them Catholic—account for an estimated one-third of all immigrants to the United States. Some 5 million German immigrants also come to the U.S., many of them making their way to the Midwest to buy farms or settle in cities including Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
1819: Many of newcomers arrive sick or dying from their long journey across the Atlantic in cramped conditions. The immigrants overwhelm major port cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. In response, the United States passes the Steerage Act of 1819 requiring better conditions on ships arriving to the country. The Act also calls for ship captains to submit demographic information on passengers, creating the first federal records on the ethnic composition of immigrants to the United States.
1849: America’s first anti-immigrant political party, the Know-Nothing Party forms, as a backlash to the increasing number of German and Irish immigrants settling in the United States.
1875: Following the Civil War, some states passed their own immigration laws. In 1875 the Supreme Court declares that it’s the responsibility of the federal government to make and enforce immigration laws.
Chinese Exclusion Act
1880: As America begins a rapid period of industrialization and urbanization, a second immigration boom begins. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants arrive. The majority are from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, including 4 million Italians and 2 million Jews. Many of them settle in major U.S. cities and work in factories.
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act passes, which bars Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. Beginning in the 1850s, a steady flow of Chinese workers had immigrated to America. The 1882 Act is the first in American history to place broad restrictions on certain immigrant groups.
1891: The Immigration Act of 1891 further excludes who can enter the United States, barring the immigration of polygamists, people convicted of certain crimes, and the sick or diseased. The Act also created a federal office of immigration to coordinate immigration enforcement and a corps of immigration inspectors stationed at principle ports of entry.
January 1892: Ellis Island, the United States’ first immigration station, opens in New York Harbor. The first immigrant processed is Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork in Ireland. More than 12 million immigrants would enter the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.
1907: U.S. immigration peaks, with 1.3 million people entering the country through Ellis Island alone.
February 1907: Amid prejudices in California that an influx of Japanese workers would cost white workers farming jobs and depress wages, the United States and Japan sign the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Japan agrees to limit Japanese emigration to the United States to certain categories of business and professional men. In return, President Theodore Roosevelt urges San Francisco to end the segregation of Japanese students from white students in San Francisco schools.
1910: An estimated three-quarters of New York City’s population consists of new immigrants and first-generation Americans.
New Restrictions at Start of WWI
1917: Xenophobia reaches new highs on the eve of American involvement in World War I. The Immigration Act of 1917 establishes a literacy requirement for immigrants entering the country and halts immigration from most Asian countries.
May 1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 limits the number of immigrants allowed into the United States yearly through nationality quotas. Under the new quota system, the United States issues immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States at the 1890 census. The law favors immigration from Northern and Western European countries. Just three countries, Great Britain, Ireland and Germany account for 70 percent of all available visas. Immigration from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe was limited. The Act completely excludes immigrants from Asia, aside from the Philippines, then an American colony.
1924: In the wake of the numerical limits established by the 1924 law, illegal immigration to the United States increases. The U.S. Border Patrol is established to crack down on illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders into the United States. Many of these early border crossers were Chinese and other Asian immigrants, who had been barred from entering legally.
Mexicans Fill Labor Shortages During WWII
1942: Labor shortages during World War II prompt the United States and Mexico to form the Bracero Program, which allows Mexican agricultural workers to enter the United States temporarily. The program lasts until 1964.
1948: The United States passes the nation’s first refugee and resettlement law to deal with the influx of Europeans seeking permanent residence in the United States after World War II.
1952: The McCarran-Walter Act formally ends the exclusion of Asian immigrants to the United States.
1956-1957: The United States admits roughly 38,000 immigrants from Hungary after a failed uprising against the Soviets. They were among the first Cold War refugees. The United States would admit over 3 million refugees during the Cold War.
1960-1962: Roughly 14,000 unaccompanied children flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba and come to the United States as part of a secret, anti-Communism program called Operation Peter Pan.
Quota System Ends
1965: The Immigration and Nationality Act overhauls the American immigration system. The Act ends the national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s which favored some racial and ethnic groups over others.
The quota system is replaced with a seven-category preference system emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants. Upon signing the new bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson, called the old immigration system “un-American,” and said the new bill would correct a “cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation.”
Over the next five years, immigration from war-torn regions of Asia, including Vietnam and Cambodia, would more than quadruple. Family reunification became a driving force in U.S. immigration.
April-October 1980: During the Mariel boatlift, roughly 125,000 Cuban refugees make a dangerous sea crossing in overcrowded boats to arrive on the Florida shore seeking political asylum.
Amnesty to Illegal Immigrants
1986: President Ronald Reagan signs into law the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which grants amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
2001: U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) propose the first Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a pathway to legal status for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents as children. The bill—and subsequent iterations of it—don’t pass.
2012: President Barack Obama signs Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which temporarily shields some Dreamers from deportation, but doesn’t provide a path to citizenship.
2017: President Donald Trump issues two executive orders—both titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”—aimed at curtailing travel and immigration from six majority Muslim countries (Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia) as well as North Korea and Venezuela. Both of these travel bans are challenged in state and federal courts.
2018: In April 2018, the travel restrictions on Chad are lifted. In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court uphold a third version of the ban on the remaining seven countries. (History.com Editors, 2018)
The first thing to jump out at me when I read this timeline was the date that the first U.S. immigration station opened, 1892. There were no federal immigration laws until 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.
The 1882 act “suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared the Chinese as ineligible for naturalization.” (History.com Staff, 2018) The naturalization component was particularly significant because it meant those Chinese already working in the U.S. were not eligible to become U.S. citizens. According to History.com, the act was renewed for ten years in 1892, and in 1902, Chinese immigration was made “permanently” illegal, and the Chinese remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.” (History.com Staff, 2018)
What caused the Chinese to be singled out? One of the oldest lies related to immigration—immigrants are “stealing our jobs.” Recently as part of his efforts to slash legal immigration, the President said he wanted to help U.S. workers “competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals,” by changing immigration policies that have “not been fair to our people, our citizens and our workers.” (Greenberger, 2017)
The president went on to say that minority workers had been “hit hardest.” It’s these type comments, “the idea that immigrant workers depress American wages,” that led to the country’s first immigration restriction law: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (Greenberger, 2017)
A closer look at the historical immigrations timeline shows that immigration from Europe was soaring at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, with over 20 million immigrants entering the U.S. from Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe. (History.com Editors, 2018) The exclusion of Chinese immigrants highlights the racial bias inherent in the concern for “large numbers” of immigrants.
Historically in America, there’s only a concern when there are a lot of non-white, non-Northern/Western European immigrants. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese made up less than “.002 percent of the U.S. population”:
At the time, Chinese people worked in gold mines, factories, railroads, and agriculture, especially on the West Coast. Although these immigrants made up only .002 percent of the U.S. population, white Americans blamed them for low wages and other economic problems. To placate economic and racial anxieties, the radical exclusion act banned almost all immigration from China, making only a few exceptions for special groups like students and diplomats….
Because only a very narrow group of Chinese people could legally immigrate, “the acting presumption was that if you’re Chinese you must have come in illegally,” Hsu says. “Chinese become the only group required to carry around certificates of residence, which are intended to show—to document—that they have in fact entered legally.” (History.com Staff, 2018)
In an article titled “The Birth of ‘Illegal’ Immigration” Becky Little notes, “Until the late 19th century, there wasn’t any such thing as ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ immigration to the United States. That’s because before you can immigrate somewhere illegally, there has to be a law for you to break.” (Little, 2019)
Little further noted that even after immigration became “the law of the land” in the U.S. Constitution, that “immigrants flocked to the country with few restrictions.” (Little, 2019) A dramatic change occurred in 1924 when a new immigration act was passed that sought to favor and facilitate immigration from Northern and Western Europe and discourage it from everywhere else.
I will dive into the 1924 Immigration Act and its immigrant hierarchy in a later chapter, but the quotas seem to point back to an unspoken, unwritten vision of constructing a New Europe, a new Northern/Western Europe. The 1924 Act allocated 70 percent of all available visas to Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. (History.com Editors, 2018)
In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that overturned the discriminatory quotas. In September 2017 discussion of the 1924 Act came to the forefront when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that “the 1924 Immigration Act was “good for America”:
In seven years we'll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we've always had these numbers, and it's not so, it's very unusual, it's a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we're on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924. (SERWER, 2017)
If you compare Mr. Session’s comments to the immigrant timeline, one thing is obvious. He doesn’t see his ancestors as “non-native born.” Perhaps since the colonists were seen as “founders” of this country, it is lost on their descendants that the colonists were immigrants. He refers to the immigrants who arrived after 1924 as “assimilated immigrants.” What did they assimilate into? In Mr. Sessions line of reasoning, they assimilated into the native-born population. In reality, the newly arrived immigrants assimilated into a group of people who were descendants of previously assimilated European and non-European immigrants.
There is a popular twist on “Make America Great Again,” it’s “Make America White Again.” That is essentially what the 1924 Act attempted to do. The law altered the demographic of our nation. It artificially inflated the number of Northern and Western European immigrants through discriminatory visa apportionment while all but cutting off Asian immigrants and extremely limiting all the immigration of all other groups.
A push to bring back similar quotas would be in effect a push to try to Make America White Again. These quotas were not based on an examination, a resume, or some measure of aptitude. The quotas were based on the view that “best immigrants” come from Northern and Western Europe. A push to bring them back would assert that America can only be great if it has a certain racial demographic.
I found an article that is full of the New Europe or Make America White Again sentiments. I have underlined segments of it to highlight sentiments that were not subtle to me as a minority, but could be to some non-minorities:
The civil rights movement’s focus on equal treatment regardless of race or nationality led many to view the quota system as backward and discriminatory. In particular, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians–of whom increasing numbers were seeking to enter the U.S.–claimed that the quota system discriminated against them in favor of Northern Europeans…
During Congressional debates, a number of experts testified that little would effectively change under the reformed legislation, and it was seen more as a matter of principle to have a more open policy. Indeed, on signing the act into law in October 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that the act “is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions….It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”…
In reality (and with the benefit of hindsight), the bill signed in 1965 marked a dramatic break with past immigration policy, and would have an immediate and lasting impact…
In the first five years after the bill’s passage, immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries–especially those fleeing war-torn Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia)–would more than quadruple. (Under past immigration policies, Asian immigrants had been effectively barred from entry.) Other Cold War-era conflicts during the 1960s and 1970s saw millions of people fleeing poverty or the hardships of communist regimes in Cuba, Eastern Europe and elsewhere to seek their fortune on American shores. All told, in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.
By the end of the 20th century, the policies put into effect by the Immigration Act of 1965 had greatly changed the face of the American population. Whereas in the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians, by the 1990s only 16 percent were Europeans and 31 percent were of Asian descent, while the percentages of Latino and African immigrants had also jumped significantly…
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, illegal immigration was a constant source of political debate, as immigrants continue to pour into the United States, mostly by land routes through Canada and Mexico…
The law also provided for the admission of immigrants from “underrepresented” countries to increase the diversity of the immigrant flow….
The economic recession that hit the country in the early 1990s was accompanied by a resurgence of anti-immigrant feeling, including among lower-income Americans competing for jobs with immigrants willing to work for lower wages.
There could be perhaps no greater reflection of the impact of immigration than the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother (from Kansas), as the nation’s first African-American president. Eighty-five percent white in 1965, the nation’s population was one-third minority in 2009 and is on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042. (History.com Editors, 2010)
The article states that the civil right movement “led many” to believe the quotas were “discriminatory.” (History.com Editors, 2010) That quote set the tone for the rest of the article. The immigration timeline above showed that the quotas were skewed to favor Northern/Western Europeans to the tune of 70% of all immigration visas. Asians were excluded 100%. This was not a “claim” it was a system based on a hierarchy of the races that I will discuss later. (History.com Editors, 2010)
The article then uses words like “quadruple,” “three times the number” and “significantly” to describe the rise in the immigrant population. (History.com Editors, 2010) It is key to point out that it highlights an increase in Eastern European immigration as they were viewed as less desirable than Northern/Western European immigrants by the creators of the 1924 Immigration Act and other eugenicists.
The article uses negative imagery with phrases such as illegal immigrants “pouring into” the U.S. and how changes in immigration policies had “greatly changed the face of the American population.” (History.com Editors, 2010) The article erroneously omits the fact the 1924 Immigration Act helped to create a whiter face of the American population in the 1950s and 60s than would have existed if the quotas had been based on some fair standard vs. country of origin.
The article uses an argument typically associated with reverse discrimination. It says that the civil rights movement sought to “increase diversity in the immigrant flow” by increasing immigration in the “underrepresented countries.” (History.com Editors, 2010) The truth was that the changes to the immigration law in 1965 did things like eliminating the almost total ban on Asians, and as a result, the number of Asian immigrants started naturally increasing.
The most telling and most offensive part of the article for me is when it says, “there could perhaps be no greater reflection of the impact of immigration than the 2008 election of Barack Obama.” (History.com Editors, 2010) And just in case you missed what they were getting at, they point out that President Obama was African-American. In other words, if we didn’t start letting all these immigrants in, we wouldn’t have had the great impact of having a black president. Not only is America browning, it’s presidents are too.
For me, there could be no greater physical representation of these sentiments than President Donald Trump. Many times, he’s trumpeted that President Obama was the “worst president ever.” “Worst” fits with the sentiments of this article. With those who still possess a vision of a New Europe, President Obama is the personification of darkening hopes. Truly, if we are trying to Make America Great Again by making her White Again, the worst thing that could happen would be the election of a black president.
In what is likely the greatest of ironies, or more likely the greatest of hypocrisies, President Trump’s is the descendant of poor immigrants who followed the exact same path to success in America that he derides. His grandfather came to the U.S. in 1885 when Germans were “pouring” into the United States before any immigration laws were developed to stem their flow. (Frost, 2018)
The immigration timeline shows that the same type of anti-immigrant angst that the president stirs up is the same type of hatred that was once aimed at the wave of German immigrants before the time of his grandfather’s arrival. In 1849 the nation’s “first anti-immigrant political party, the Know-Nothing Party forms, as a backlash to the increasing number of German and Irish immigrants.” (History.com Editors, 2018)
This new third political party grew out of a Protestant secret society known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and was “opposed to immigrants and Catholics.” (History.com Editors, 2018) Its “members formed urban gangs that harassed immigrants and spread political propaganda against them.” (History.com Editors, 2018)
Ironically this new third political party, “used the beliefs of white Christian supremacy to seize political power over minority populations.” (History.com Editors, 2018) Friedrich Trump could have experienced the same type of Make America White Again sentiments aimed at him and his family that his grandson uses today to politically target immigrants today.
By the President’s own standards, his grandfather was the undesirable “criminal” immigrant that we want to keep out:
On October 7, 1885, Friedrich Trump, a 16-year-old German barber, bought a one-way ticket for America, escaping three years of compulsory German military service. He had been a sickly child, unsuited to hard labor, and feared the effects of the draft. It might have been illegal, but America didn’t care about this law-breaking—at that time, Germans were seen as highly desirable migrants—and Trump was welcomed with open arms…
Trump is the son, and grandson, of immigrants: German on his father’s side, and Scottish on his mother’s. None of his grandparents, and only one of his parents, was born in the United States or spoke English as their mother tongue. (His mother’s parents, from the remote Scottish Outer Hebrides, lived in a majority Gaelic-speaking community.)
He married a woman from his German hometown, Kallstadt, where his parents had owned vineyards, and attempted to return home with his fortune. But when his draft-dodging came to the fore, the couple lost their Bavarian citizenship and were obliged to return to America for good. There, they had three children: Trump’s father, Fred, was the middle child. Born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1905, Fred Trump was an all-American child who spoke no German. Later, he would become one of the city’s most successful young businessmen, amassing a fortune even as many around him slumped into financial ruin. (Frost, 2018)
The president and his team have talked about how immigrants from certain countries didn’t have the skills to successfully “assimilate” into the U.S., yet his mother was a low-skilled immigrant. (Little, How the Immigrants Who Came to Ellis Island in 1907 Compare to Arrivals Today, 2019)
In the mid-1930s, a young Fred Trump went to a party “dressed in a fine suit and sporting his trademark moustache.” Two Scottish sisters were at that same party in Queens: The younger one, Mary Anne MacLeod, was a domestic worker considering a return to her island homeland…
MacLeod might have been living in poverty in the United States, but her origins were even less palatable. She was the child of a fisherman and subsistence farmer, and the last in a family of 10 children born in the village of Tong on the Scottish Isle of Lewis. “It was not an easy existence,” reports Politico. This vast Gaelic-speaking family lived together in a modest gray pebble-dash house, “surrounded by a landscape of properties local historians and genealogists characterized with terms like ‘human wretchedness’ and ‘indescribably filthy.’”
Married to Fred Trump, MacLeod lived a radically different life of fur -coats and 50-foot yachts. In 1942, she became an American citizen and returned only occasionally to her native Scotland.. (Frost, 2018)
The grandson of a fugitive immigrant and the son of a low-skilled immigrant worker, President Trump is the physical embodiment of the American dream. He is the descendant of immigrants who came to America and not only sought but obtained the dream of wealth and success in the land of opportunity.
Donald Trump, a descendant of immigrants, only two generations removed, rises to become president. In another great irony, he succeeds another president who had an immigrant parent:
Trump’s international origins make him relatively unusual among American presidents. Of the last 10 presidents, only two—Trump and Barack Obama—have had a parent born outside of the United States. Trump’s own immediate family has been similarly international: Two of his three wives were naturalized American citizens, originally from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Only one of his five children, Tiffany, is the child of two American-born citizens, while his daughter, Ivanka, is the first Jewish member of the First Family in American history.
President Trump said, “our country is full.” The recent descendant of immigrants, in an intermediate family full of “immigrants,” would like to close the door to the dream of success and a better life in America, to other immigrants—especially immigrants from darker-skinned nations.
The hypocrisy and “selfishness” that Benjamin Franklin spoke of is not what has made America great. It might be what is needed to make her White Again if that’s even possible at this stage, but it won’t be what makes her “Great” in the future. No, America has become great despite Hypocrisy, Racism, and Intolerance, not because of it.
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