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International immigration to the United States – a major issue for the past two centuries – was brought again to the attention of the whole world when President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning immigration from nine different nations of Africa and the Middle East. Surprisingly, this is not the first time when the U.S. government has made efforts to restraint immigration from the eastern nations. This attempt to limit immigration by the Trump administration contributes to a series of federal actions taken, starting from the 1880s, to limit or completely suspend the immigration of certain nations from the other parts of the world. The travel ban is not the first of the anti-immigrant policies; rather, it is the continuation of the trend originating centuries ago.
The roots of the first federal actions, regarding the immigration from the east, trace back to the late 19th century California. Anti-immigrant sentiment was shared commonly amongst the nation from the 19th century, especially when the Irish began arriving in the east and the Chinese in the west. However, it was finally converted to a government policy in 1882. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, seekers from different parts of the world flooded to the state. The majority of the international immigrants arrived from China to live their American Dream. However, they soon started to face discrimination from the whites in majority. The worst depression of the century hit in 1873 and most of the Californians lost their jobs (Chin 9). The local white Nativists blamed the Chinese, and their ability to sustain on fewer expenses, for the economic hard ships. The sentiment became even more clear when the state of California elected the Workingman’s Party, a strongly nativist group, into the state legislative. The party soon made changes to the state constitution to separate the Chinese into marginalized communities, and limit them to only a few fields of jobs (Chin 10). After observing the success of the Workingman’s party, both the democrats and the republicans fought on anti-immigrant platform to gain votes in the west. After it had become a national issue, Senator John Miller proposed a 20 years ban on the Chinese from entering the U.S. (Chin 12). This was the first radical anti-immigrant step taken nationally in the history of the United States. After few considerations, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, banning the Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. for the next 10 years (Chin 13). The government supported the discrimination and this act became the first national action taken by the federal government to limit the immigration of people from a certain nation.
The successful implementation and the support from the nation for the Chinese Exclusion Act proved that the ideology of the nation had shifted towards strong Nativism. This ideology was boosted by the First World War. The Great War created an opposition towards the immigrants from the axis powers. “ ‘One hundred Percentism’, ‘Americanism’ – these, and other definitions of loyalty grew out of the hyperbole deemed necessary to create the sense of national struggle and became a common currency” during and after the Great War (Allerfeldt 150). Further, after the war, radicals in the nation sent bombs through the postal service to the doorsteps of numerous anti-radicals throughout the nation. The anti-radical majority concluded that it was a Bolshevik plot to establish communism (Allerfeldt 152). These bombings contributed significantly to the calls for the limitation or even ban “the non-Europeans and those from the impoverished East and South of the unfortunate continent” (Allerfeldt 156). In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was passed limiting the immigration from the Eastern and Southern Europe, while completely banning immigration from Japan for an undefined amount of time (Allerfeldt 163). However, immigrants from the Northern and Western Europe were not affected. This also included immigrants from Germany which was the biggest aggressor of the war. The actions of the few radical terrorist resulted in the sufferings of the many from Eastern and Southern Europe, which considered as the uncivilized region.
The Executive Order #13769, signed by President Trump on January 27, 2017, contributes to the continuation of federal actions taken to limit the immigration from specific nations. As the roots of the other immigration regulations were deep, this executive order, similar to the Quota System of the 20th century which was influenced by the anarchist bombings of 1919 (Allerfeldt 163), was implemented as a response to the increasing number of terrorist attacks by radicals. The attacks including September 11 and its successors have shown the weakness of the screening process of the authorities. While the U.S. helps the innocents, from the nations impacted by terrorism and civil wars, by providing asylums, terrorists use this as their way to arrive as a threat to the U.S. (Executive Order). While signing this order, President Trump argued that it was an attempt to enhance the screening process to keep the further terrorist threat out of the nation. The most prominent controversy related to the order is that the order banned immigrants from seven Muslim majority nations (Executive Order). Although the president argued that the order did not target a specific religion, the bias in the order is clear. The order specifically contained statements that contradict the president’s claim. The order stated that if a person, living in any of the impacted nations, belonged to a minority in that nation, then he or she could get a visa to enter the United States (Executive Order). All the targeted nations are Muslim majority meaning that a person belonging to any other religion could potentially obtain a travel visa to the United States while a Muslim can’t.
The drastic impacts of this sudden step were immediately felt across the world and the United States. Numerous travelers traveling to the United States or to the nations mentioned in the Executive Order #13769 were held at the airports in the U.S. and in the other eastern nations. Iraqi travelers in Cairo, set to fly to New York, were sent back to Iraq. Sharing their experiences, travelers reported that they were treated “like criminals and like drug dealers” (Arraf). Some families had even sold everything they had in their native nations after being approved to resettle in the U.S. Just like the Quota System had emerged from the actions of a few radicals belonging to Eastern Europe, the few actions of the radical terrorists, from the nations impacted by the ban, resulted in the sufferings of the thousands travelling to and from the United States (Allerfeldt 163; Arraf). Syrian refugees, approved for resettlement, had to stay at the airports in Jordan while they slept on the floor. These refugees have no place in Syria to go back to (Arraf). This order sent shocks and a sense of betrayal amongst those who had hoped to travel to the U.S. to obtain safety and a better life. All these immigrants were Muslims.
Although the United States government took actions to limit immigration in the past, many claim that this order is first legal action taken by the administration targeting the immigration of people belonging to a certain ethnicity or religion. However, the Quota system acted similarly during the Second World War. The executive order signed by the current President is not the first targeting a specific religion or ethnicity. During World War II, while the Nazis were organizing and murdering Jews in internment camps, the U.S. was unable to provide asylum to the religious minority from East Europe (Ratner 22). It was the Quota System, passed after the end of the First World War (Allerfeldt 163), which prohibited the Jews to seek refuge in the United States. Americans had opposed the immigrants from the Eastern Europe because of their difference in the language and their culture. Even though the government realized, it did not take any steps to enable the Jews to escape the holocaust (Ratner 22). If it was not for the Quota System, millions of Jews could have been saved. After their sufferings, the Jews saw light as the allies won the war. However, the communities of Germany and Poland did not accept them (Ratner 23). The Jews looked for more means to escape the discrimination. In 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was passed by the U.S. This act enabled the U.S. to surpass the Quota System in exceptional cases and approve the resettlement of the people from war torn areas to the United States. However, this act was still discriminatory particularly against the Jews, similar to the how the Executive Order #13769 is towards the Muslims in the war torn nations of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
While it seems that the anti-immigration actions by the current administration are relatively new and unique, a closer look at the past policies of the United States reveals the opposite. The Executive Order #13769, instead of the first, is rather just a contribution to the series of steps taken by the government in the past. It is a sign of the continuing issue on the immigration policies of the U.S., whether they are discriminatory towards one’s religion, nationality, or ethnicity. Whether it is the number, or the origin of immigrants, the issue of international immigration to the United States will always be debated in the government, as evident by the trend in the past.
Allerfeldt, Kristofer. "Rejecting the United States of the World: The Consequences of Woodrow Wilson's New Diplomacy on the 1921 Immigration Act." European Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 3, Oct. 2007, p. 145. EBSCOhost. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.
Arraf, Jane and Garcia-Navarro Lourdes. "Approved for Resettlement, Then Turned Away." Weekend Edition Sunday (NPR). 29 Jan. 2017. EBSCOhost. Web 6 Mar. 2017.
Chin, Philip. "The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882." Chinese American Forum, vol. 28, no. 3, Jan. 2013, p. 8. EBSCOhost. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.
Executive Order #13769. January 27 2017. The White House. Web Mar. 2017.
Ratner, Lizzy. "The Last Time We Closed the Gates." Nation, vol. 304, no. 5, 20 Feb. 2017, p. 20. EBSCOhost. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.