I recently watched a high school production of “West Side Story.” Though it’s always been one of my favorite musicals and I had been a “Shark” in a high school production nearly 40 years earlier, I saw something that I’d never seen before. My revelation? West Side Story was a story about old and “new” immigrants. In the story, the new immigrants, the Puerto Ricans, were clashing with a group of Polish immigrants over ownership of turf in the neighborhood. (Charactour, 2019)
For the first time, it struck me that the white characters in the story, the Jets, were immigrants. They were not treated well by the police. They were a lower class of citizen than the white policemen. However, the arrival of new immigrants provided them a stepping-stone to a new level.
The Polish immigrants were no longer the lowest class in the neighborhood. They were now old immigrants. I did some research and found out that West Side Story was initially written around 1949 and completed in 1955. I suppose in the early 1950s, the Polish were still considered immigrants. In our present-day thinking, we have been conditioned to think of immigrants predominantly as non-white. (Bernstein, 1961)
Interestingly enough, as I was writing this chapter, I researched the history of Puerto Rican immigrants only to find out what perhaps many of you already knew. That Puerto Ricans are not immigrants. “In 1917 Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act. The Act gave Puerto Ricans automatic U.S. citizenship by birth.” (Moffett, 2019)
In 1952, about the same time, West Side Story was written, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States, and a period of “great migration” to the United States began.
“The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the ‘great migration’ from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the ‘Puerto Rican problem.’’’ (Oxford Research Encyclopedias, n.d.)
I have listened to recordings of West Side Story countless times and watched the black and white film several times, and as I stated, I have seen and performed in stage productions of it. But it was as I was writing this chapter that I came to the revelation that the only immigrants in the story were the Jets!
What a story angle that would have been to point out that the Sharks, the Puerto Ricans, were Americans by birth and not immigrants. That story angle obviously would not have been well received in the early to mid-1950s because Puerto Ricans are brown-skinned people.
It is 2020, and President Trump’s rhetoric against Puerto Rican leaders in the wake of one of its greatest disasters has been so strong it reinforced the notion that Puerto Ricans were immigrants from another country, like Cuba or Mexico. The president lambasted the leaders of the commonwealth as though they were a foreign country:
“He tweeted that Puerto Rico’s government ‘can’t do anything right’ and that the island’s politicians are ‘incompetent or corrupt’ and only ‘complain and ask for more money,’ which they spend ‘foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.’ He specifically called the mayor of San Juan ‘crazed and incompetent.’
Point of fact: Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It is a territory. Its citizens are U.S. citizens. The structure of Trump’s comments leaves open the possibility that he doesn’t know that, or conversely, knows it but doesn’t fully accept it or care about it.” (Blow, 2019)
In the quote below, the president says disaster relief for Puerto Rico is “taking dollars away from our farmers and so many others” again as if Puerto Rico was a foreign country. The governor of Puerto Rico rightly responds to the president with the reminder that Puerto Ricans are Americans.
“Resuming the argument Tuesday morning, Trump again claimed that ‘Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane,’ but it is not clear where he got that figure, and actual spending is not close to that. A FEMA report said it passed the $3 billion mark in public assistance to Puerto Rico in August.
Ricardo Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico, admonished Trump over his false claim of $91 billion.
'Mr. President: STOP spreading misinformation!’ he tweeted. ‘#PuertoRico has not received $91b (only 300M in permanent work). It's not 'us' vs. 'them.' It's about Americans in need.’
Trump invoked Cruz in a series of tweets complaining that Democrats blocked a disaster relief package because it did not contain enough assistance for Puerto Rico.
....the crazed and incompetent Mayor of San Juan have done such a poor job of bringing the Island back to health. 91 Billion Dollars to Puerto Rico, and now the Dems want to give them more, taking dollars away from our Farmers and so many others. Disgraceful!’ (Jackson, 2019) (Elfrink, 2019)
Not only are Puerto Ricans Americans, but they are also Americans by birth. Their only problem, as it pertains to President Trump, and throughout history, is that they were born brown. They are an island of brown people, and historically, our nation has embraced a hierarchy of the races that places the brown and black person on the lowest tier.
The same attitude the president expressed in response to the Puerto Rican disaster relief is demonstrated in his immigration policies. The president has repeatedly disparaged brown and black immigrants.
In his article entitled “Donald Trump and a Century-Old Argument About Who's Allowed in America,” Tom Gjelten shares how as far back as the mid-1920s the US tried to tie immigration quotas to a hierarchy of races and not based on great American virtues such as “give me your tired, your poor,…your homeless.” (Gjelten, 2018)
Gjelten said that “U.S. presidents as far back as Harry Truman denounced entry policies based on nationality, calling them discriminatory and un-American.” I found it difficult to pick items from his article to include because they are so relevant to the immigration policies that are being shaped today. As a result, I have included most of the article below:
“President Trump’s reported suggestion that the United States needs fewer immigrants from ‘shithole countries’ and more from those like Norway revives an argument made vigorously a century ago—though in less profane terms—only to be discredited in the decades that followed.
In 1907, alarmed by the arrival of more than a million immigrants per year, Congress established a commission to determine exactly where people were coming from and what their capacities were. Over the next four years, under the leadership of Republican Senator William Dillingham of Vermont, the commission prepared a 42-volume report purporting to distinguish the more and less desirable ethnicities.
The commission’s ‘Dictionary of Races or Peoples’ laid out its key findings. Slavs demonstrated ‘fanaticism in religion, carelessness as to the business virtues of punctuality and often honesty.’ Southern Italians were found to be ‘excitable, impulsive, highly imaginative, impracticable.’ Scandinavians, the commission concluded, represented ‘the purest type’—the notion of favoring immigration from Norway did not originate with President Trump.
Largely in response to the report, Congress enacted a new immigration law in 1924 establishing country-by-country quotas. The main author was Representative Albert Johnson of Washington state, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Immigration. His key adviser on immigration policy was Madison Grant, an amateur eugenicist whose writings had given racism a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. In his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, Grant separated the human population into Caucasoids, Mongoloids, and Negroids. Not surprisingly, he ranked Caucasoids as the superior group, though he subdivided them into three more groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans, ranking Nordics as the most elite.
The national-origins quota system enacted in 1924 reflected the ethnic and racial prejudice of its designers. More than 50,000 immigrant-visa slots were reserved each year for Germany. The United Kingdom got the next biggest allocation, with 34,000. Ireland, with about 28,000 slots, and Norway, with 6,400, had the highest quotas as a share of their populations. Each country in Asia had a quota of just 100, while Africans desiring to immigrate to America had to compete for one of about 1,000 visas set aside for the entire continent.
These quotas remained in effect for the next four decades, even as criticism of their racialist character increased. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act made it slightly easier for Asians to immigrate to the United States, but, over the objections of then-President Harry Truman, it preserved the quota system. In a message explaining his veto of the legislation, Truman noted that the quota policy “discriminates, deliberately and intentionally, against many peoples of the world.” Congress dismissed his critique, however, and overrode his veto.
Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy also challenged the national-origin quotas, but it was Lyndon Johnson who made their elimination a top priority. “A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission, ‘What can you do for our country?’” he said in his 1964 State of the Union speech. “But we should not be asking, ‘In what country were you born?’” His administration proposed a reform that would put all nationalities on a roughly equal basis, with immigrant visas awarded largely on the basis of whether the candidates had skills and education considered ‘especially advantageous’ to U.S. interests.
Opposition to the elimination of the quota system came largely from the same Southern Democrats who were opposing civil-rights legislation at the time. During a Senate floor debate over Johnson’s proposal, Democrat Spessard Holland of Florida asked, ‘Why, for the first time, are the emerging nations of Africa to be placed on the same basis as are our mother countries—Britain, Germany, the Scandinavian nations, France, and the other nations from which most Americans have come?’ (In fact, the 1960 Census showed that Americans of African descent outnumbered Scandinavian Americans by a margin of two-and-a-half to one. And there were more African Americans in the United States than there were Americans whose origins lay in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland combined.)
Democrat John McClellan of Arkansas echoed Holland’s criticism, observing that the proposed reform would shift the immigrant flow ‘from those European countries that contributed most to the formation of this nation to the countries of Asia and Africa.’ In language strikingly familiar to complaints about immigrants raised by the current president, McClellan asked whether opening the United States to immigrants from Africa and other developing regions would lead to ‘still more ghettos and thus more and more acts of violence and riots?’
Support for Johnson’s immigration reform came largely from moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats, and it gained momentum after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had pushed for the abolition of national-origin quotas throughout the 1950s as a U.S. senator, tied the promotion of immigration reform to the civil-rights movement.
‘We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act,’ he said. ‘We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people.’
The reform passed Congress by a large margin in September 1965, though only after a key change. Conservatives, led by Democratic Representative Michael Feighan of Ohio, insisted that immigrant candidates with relatives already in the United States be given priority over those with ‘advantageous’ skills and education, as the Johnson administration had originally proposed. That change, which eventually led to the phenomenon of ‘chain migration’ denounced by Trump, was seen at the time as a way to preserve the existing ethnic profile of the U.S. population and discourage the immigration of Asians and Africans, who had fewer family ties in the country. But the new law did away entirely with quotas based on national origin alone.
‘This system violated the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man,’ Johnson declared as he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. ‘It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country. Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.’
The debate over superior and inferior nationalities, it seemed, had been resolved. Johnson, who as a senator had voted to uphold national-origin quotas over Truman’s veto, predicted the system would ‘never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.’
Fifty-two years later, with a president who apparently prefers some national origins over others, Johnson’s promise may be in jeopardy.” (Gjelten, 2018) (Dawsey, 2018)
There was so much covered in that article that I have to circle back and highlight a few points. In an age where “Make America Great Again” has become a distorted and perverted catchphrase, I will start with the quotes of two presidents and one vice president whose words most greatly reflect the values that have truly made America great. President Truman said that immigration quotas “discriminate, deliberately and intentionally, against many peoples of the world.” (Gjelten, 2018)
President Johnson said: “This system violated the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man,”; “A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission, ‘What can you do for our country?’”…“But we should not be asking, ‘In what country were you born?’”; “never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.” (Gjelten, 2018)
Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, “We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people.” (Gjelten, 2018)
In 1980 in a presidential primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, “Bush said immigration policy needed to be “sensitive” and “understanding” toward the “really honorable, decent, family-loving people” that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation. (Mettler, 2018)
Future President Reagan echoed that sentiment by saying, “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit,” he said. “And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.” He added that “The border, he said, should be open “both ways” — and border security policy should take into account the economic challenges facing Mexico.” (Mettler, 2018)
Four US Presidents and one Vice President have supported immigration policies that reflect the values that have made America great. By contrast, our current president would seek to turn back the clock to a time in our nation’s history to an immigration policy based on racism and fear, again making a mockery of the phrase “Make America Great Again.”
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (Coates, Between The World and Me, n.d.)
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