What History Can Tell Us About the Fallout From Restricting Immigration

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tags: immigration, Trump



David C. Atkinson is assistant professor of history at Purdue University. He is the author of "The Burden of White Supremacy: Containing Asian Migration in the British Empire and the United States," which explores the diplomatic tensions caused by immigration restriction in the early 20th century.

In the days since the White House announced restrictive new travel and refugee resettlement regulations, stories of the Executive Order’s harm to individualshave poured in. However, the nation’s historical experience with restrictive immigration laws suggests that the adverse effects of this ban may well go deeper than that, as U.S. immigration policies are inextricably linked to American foreign relations.

American immigration policies have always resonated abroad in both predictable and unpredictable ways. When Congress instituted restrictive national origins quotas in 1921 and 1924 respectively, the diplomatic fallout reverberated around Europe and Asia. Enacted during a period of economic nationalism, nativism and diplomatic retreat, these laws inscribed a painful exclusionary addendum onto the Statue of Liberty. They also undermined American claims to moral leadership in the world and embittered a host of diplomatic relationships.

As a New York Times editorial observed following the introduction of quota restrictions in 1921, “the dikes raised in this country against the alien flow are bound to have a world-wide effect,” and they most certainly did.

As in the case of those migrants, refugees and permanent residents who were detained—and in some cases expelled—following Trump’s Executive Order, quota restrictions first affected individuals. When President Warren G. Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act on May 19, 1921, he immediately cast the fate of thousands into question. Designed to temporarily limit immigration from places like Poland, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia, that law formed the basis of permanent restrictions that endured with only minor modification until 1965.

Influenced by concerns about the racial “fitness” of Southern and Eastern Europeans, this legislation was also inspired by fears that so-called aliens would import poverty and disease, as well as hostile foreign ideas like anarchism, Bolshevism and Catholicism. Migrants, consulates and border agents were immediately plunged into uncertainty as soon as Harding signed quota restrictions into law. Having complied with existing regulations, thousands found themselves thrust outside the legal and administrative boundaries of the American immigration system. Hundreds abruptly fell out of legal status as they crossed the Atlantic on steamers bound for New York and Boston. Others reached Ellis Island before being told they were no longer legally entitled to admission. ...




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