Os­cil­lat­ing be­tween open doors and slammed gates

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER

In his farewell ad­dress to the na­tion in 1989, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan told the story of a Navy sailor pa­trolling the South China Sea who came upon a “leaky lit­tle boat” crammed with refugees from In­dochina try­ing to find a way to Amer­ica.

“Hello, Amer­i­can sailor,” a man in the boat shouted up to the Navy ves­sel. “Hello, free­dom man.” Rea­gan couldn’t get that mo­ment out of his mind be­cause of what it said about what the United States meant — to those who live here and to the rest of the world.

But his­tory re­veals that even as the United States moved from the re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies of a cen­tury ago to Rea­gan’s ad­vo­cacy of an open door to refugees, pub­lic opin­ion has os­cil­lated. Pres­i­dent Trump’s move Fri­day to bar en­try into the United States for res­i­dents of seven ma­jor­ity Mus­lim coun­tries harks back to a pe­riod when the U.S. govern­ment reg­u­larly banned im­mi­grants and refugees from coun­tries whose peo­ple were con­sid­ered in­fe­rior, dan­ger­ous or in­com­pat­i­ble with Amer­i­can val­ues.

Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion marks the first time a pres­i­dent has sought to bar peo­ple be­cause of their na­tion of ori­gin — or their re­li­gion, as only Mus­lim­dom­i­nated coun­tries are in­cluded in the order — since the 1965 Im­mi­gra­tion and Na­tion­al­ity Act scrapped na­tional-ori­gin quo­tas, putting the fo­cus in­stead on im­mi­grants’ skills and per­sonal con­nec­tions to Amer­i­cans.

“This is a par­a­digm shift,” said David Bier, who stud­ies im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy at the Cato In­sti­tute, the lib­er­tar­ian think tank. “This is an ex­plicit re­jec­tion of the ap­proach that Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama em­braced, in which a big part of the war on ter­ror was to bring in al­lies, to prove we’re not wag­ing a war on Is­lam and to show that we’re an open so­ci­ety to­ward Mus­lims.”

The his­tory of this na­tion of im­mi­grants is one of open doors and gates slammed shut, of wel­com­ing words like those en­graved in­side the pedestal of the Statue of Lib­erty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your hud­dled masses yearn­ing to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teem­ing shore”) and of gen­er­a­tions of politi­cians and ac­tivists pro­claim­ing that Amer­i­can val­ues would be un­der­mined by a new in­flux of for­eign­ers.

“Both open and re­stric­tive refugee poli­cies have got­ten very high ap­proval in polls through the years,” said Roger Daniels, a his­to­rian of U.S. im­mi­gra­tion and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Cincin­nati. “In times of trou­ble, na­tivist poli­cies — what Trump would call ‘Amer­ica First’ — get more at­ten­tion. Since colo­nial times, there’s been a strong strain of na­tivism that ei­ther dom­i­nates or is just ig­nored.”

“Amer­ica must re­main Amer­i­can,” Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge said in 1924 as he signed into law a mea­sure that ended the big­gest wave of im­mi­gra­tion in U.S. his­tory. The new law used the then­pop­u­lar pseu­do­science of eu­gen­ics to set dras­tic lim­its on en­try by groups the govern­ment con­sid­ered “so­cially in­ad­e­quate” — mainly Ital­ians and Eastern European Jews.

That same year, that same pres­i­dent de­clared the Statue of a na­tional mon­u­ment. And four decades later, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son trav­eled to the statue to sign the act that is still the ba­sis of U.S. im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. The 1965 law, John­son said, “cor­rects a cruel and en­dur­ing wrong . . . . for over four decades, the im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy of the United States has been twisted and dis­torted by the harsh in­jus­tice of the na­tional ori­gins quota sys­tem. Un­der that sys­tem, the abil­ity of new im­mi­grants to come to Amer­ica de­pended on the coun­try of their birth. To­day . . . this sys­tem is abol­ished.”

Bier and oth­ers ar­gue that the Trump order is il­le­gal be­cause it seeks to re­store na­tional ori­gin as a fac­tor in de­cid­ing who gets into the coun­try. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tends that the pres­i­dent has the author­ity to sus­pend en­try for any group he finds detri­men­tal to the na­tional in­ter­est.

How­ever that is­sue plays out in the courts, the de­bate over how to de­cide who comes to the United States stretches back cen­turies and has been a hot is­sue in pres­i­den­tial and lo­cal elec­tions for sev­eral decades. Although ev­ery pres­i­dent since Franklin D. Roo­sevelt has sup­ported ad­mit­ting refugees flee­ing po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion, those pres­i­dents also strug­gled to de­fend such poli­cies against strong voices advocating tighter lim­its on new­com­ers.

Near the end of World War II, Roo­sevelt, af­ter a long pe­riod of re­sist­ing pleas by Amer­i­can Jews to ad­mit European Jews flee­ing the Nazis’ pro­gram of ex­ter­mi­na­tion, de­cided to al­low 1,000 re­fuLib­erty gees into the coun­try and put them at an Army base in Up­state New York.

“That’s the be­gin­ning of the pres­i­den­tial author­ity to in­ter­fere with im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy,” Daniels said. “And it has con­tin­ued ever since.”

Trump’s fo­cus on block­ing peo­ple from pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries and carv­ing out open­ings for Chris­tians flee­ing those coun­tries “is at vari­ance with ev­ery­thing we’ve done since Roo­sevelt, Tru­man and Eisen­hower built our ap­proach to refugees,” Daniels said.

Per­haps para­dox­i­cally, the gates to the United States have tended not to tighten dur­ing wartime. In the late 2000s, Ge­orge W. Bush in­creased the flow of refugees into the coun­try as a way to thank peo­ple who had helped U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to demon­strate that he was se­ri­ous about at­tack­ing ter­ror­ism rather than Is­lam.

Eco­nomic hard­ship has some­times led to louder calls for more re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion and refugee poli­cies, his­to­ri­ans say, but surges of na­tivist sen­ti­ment have emerged more from cul­tural back­lash than from hard times or wartime. The re­stric­tive 1924 law, for ex­am­ple, “came about in the Roar­ing Twen­ties, a time of great eco­nomic growth,” Bier noted.

From the late 19th cen­tury through the 1930s, pop­u­lar be­lief in eu­gen­ics, along with ri­val­ries among re­li­gious groups, fed move­ments aimed against Catholics, Jews, Eastern Euro­peans, Asians and Africans.

“It’s re­ally the civil rights move­ment of the 1960s that changed the ap­proach,” Bier said. Af­ter the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, end­ing le­gal seg­re­ga­tion and ban­ning em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, re­li­gion or na­tional ori­gin, the idea of ad­mit­ting im­mi­grants based on where they came from seemed anachro­nis­tic.

In the 1980s, the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate cen­tered on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion; poli­cies of that pe­riod were driven by the idea that ex­pand­ing le­gal path­ways into the coun­try might curb the flow of il­le­gal en­trants. It didn’t work; the bat­tle over il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion con­tin­ued.

Some anti-im­mi­gra­tion ac­tivists ar­gued that the prob­lem was not lim­ited to il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion but ex­tended to all new­com­ers. Those ac­tivists fo­cused on crimes com­mit­ted by nonci­t­i­zens, and Trump cam­paigned on that theme, high­light­ing sto­ries of Amer­i­cans whose loved ones had been killed by im­mi­grants.

That ap­proach won sup­port from ac­tivists who have long sought not only a wall along the U.S.-Mex­i­can border but also sharp cuts in le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. Mark Kriko­rian, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which seeks “low­im­mi­gra­tion” poli­cies, wel­comed Trump’s lat­est moves, but noted that ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion is not enough. A “re­duc­tion in le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — which is the most im­por­tant ob­jec­tive from a jobs or wel­fare or even se­cu­rity per­spec­tive — has to come from Congress,” Kriko­rian said in a blog post.

Bier said, “We’re see­ing pop­ulism take con­trol of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy for the first time” since World War II. “You don’t have lead­ers in pol­i­tics right now who are willing to say that we wel­come peo­ple flee­ing the en­e­mies of the United States.”

Rea­gan be­gan and ended his farewell speech with pow­er­ful pleas for the coun­try to open its arms. The “shining city upon a hill” that he wanted Amer­ica to be was, he said, a place “teem­ing with peo­ple of all kinds liv­ing in har­mony and peace . . . . And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to any­one with the will and the heart to get here.”


A woman em­braces her mother af­ter she ar­rived from Dubai, which is not one of the seven coun­tries of con­cern, at JFK Air­port.


On Oct. 3, 1965, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son sat on Lib­erty Is­land in New York Har­bor to sign a new im­mi­gra­tion bill that gave peo­ple from ev­ery coun­try in the world an equal chance to come to the United States.

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