Why trying to distinguish between useful and dangerous immigrants always backfiresRoundup
tags: Emma Goldman, immigration, Trump, Mitchell Palmer, Chinese immigration
Faith Hillis is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. She is finishing a book that is forthcoming with Oxford University Press about Russian radical exiles in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In his rollout of the Trump administration’s new rulemaking it easier to deny green cards to immigrants for accessing public benefits, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli cited as a historical precedent the 1882 Immigration Act, which barred the admission of any “convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Critics of the new rule immediately protested that it, like these 19th century restrictions Cuccinelli cited, is immoral, cruel and discriminatory. But the historical record also points to an additional problem with the expansion of “public charge” restrictions: past efforts to distinguish between “useful” and “dangerous” immigrants have been utterly ineffective.
A century ago, the S.S. Buford set sail from New York, carrying almost 250 recently deported Russian radicals back to their homeland. The most famous passenger on the ship was Emma Goldman, the country’s leading anarchist. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer saw the departure of the “Soviet Ark” as the final chapter in his efforts to rid America of Communist sympathizers, promising that another 3,000 deportations would soon follow. Like Cuccinelli, Palmer believed that the safety and prosperity of America depended on the ability of the federal government to identify and bar “troublesome” immigrants.
But Palmer was wrong. The departure of the Buford, which at first glance appeared to be a victory for the federal government, in fact demonstrated the abject failure of 40 years of American immigration policy and the folly of such restrictions.
In the 1880s, when the passengers of the Buford had begun to arrive in the U.S., the federal government started to take an interest in distinguishing between “desirable” and “undesirable” migrants — a task that had previously been managed by state and local governments. Eighteen-eighty-two, which witnessed the passage of the Immigration Act, also brought the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a moratorium on the entry of Chinese laborers.
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