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Understanding the History & Context of US Immigration Policy: Part III – We have to Stop saying that tear-gassing asylum seekers is unAmerican

December 3, 2018

In Part I of this series we provided some background information on the asylum seekers who were tear gassed by US Customs and Border agents last Sunday. In Part II, we looked at the history of the US/Mexican border and how it has become so militarized. In today’s post we want to look at how the US immigration policy has been unfriendly to many immigrants and refugees, especially if those immigrants and refugees have come from non-European counties. 

It is important to note that US immigration policy, apart from being driven by white supremacy, has at times allowed non-European immigrants and refugees to come to the US, but this has often been motivated by politics. For instance, since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the US welcomed Cubans into the US, primarily because it was a matter on wanting to marginalize Cuba in the eyes of the world community. However, during the same period of time, the US has not been very receptive to Haitians wanting to come to the US, even though the political repression has been significantly worse there in the past several decades.

One last thing to point out before getting to the main focus of this article, is that the US is essentially based on Settler Colonialism, since the US took Native lands (by force or through treaties). Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz describes Settler Colonialism this way:

“The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.”

The dominant narrative about the US is that “we are a nation of immigrants,” but we rarely include in that narrative that these same immigrants forcibly removed native people from their land and then settled on that land, thus settler colonialism.

US immigration policy that has been anti-immigrant

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act did not include the Chinese upperclass, like diplomats and business people.

While the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, there had been decades of anti-Chinese racism that was normalized in US newspapers, academic journals and popular fiction at the time. In 1866, the Anthropological Review referred to the Chinese as “an inferior and infantile race.” Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune stated in 1854, “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception.”

The social, political and cultural climate was profoundly anti-Chinese and often led to violence against the Chinese community – beatings, murder, burning businesses, etc. After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, the US Army was also involved in enforcing the law, rounding up Chinese people for deportation. The US Army was even recruiting others to come to California to assist them in their efforts. In fact, here is an ad posted in the Grand Rapids Evening Leader, dated December 24, 1885:

  • Anti-German hysteria during WWI – At the beginning of World War I, there were about 900,000 German-born Americans, but many of them changed their names to avoid the anti-German hysteria. Restaurants changed their menus from hamburgers to Liberty Burgers and sauerkraut to Liberty Cabbage. As WWI proceeded, the anti-German hysteria ramped up as more and more Germans were being questioned about the relationship with Germany and lots of Germans were being accused of acting as spies. On June 14, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a warning to Congress stating, that German Americans “filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people in their own behalf.” The Anti-German League was attempting to ban books published by German authors and most schools in the US no longer taught German as a foreign language.
  • US refuses to take in Jews during WWII – There has always been anti-semitism in the US, but one of the worst examples was during WWII. Anti-Semitism was growing in the 1930s, partly because of the field of Eugenics. Numerous businesses and Foundations (like the Rockefeller Foundation) were funding eugenics research, research that was based on racist assumptions to support the racist values of White Supremacy. In 1939, there was a bill Congress called the Children’s Bill, which would allow 20,000 children to escape Nazi Germany and come to the US. The bill was eventually defeated because of growing anti-semitism by groups like the American Legion and the American Immigration Restrictionist League, both of which were using the battle cry of “America First” and referred to the bill as the “Jewish bill.” In the early 1940s, as it became public that Germany was going to institute their “Final Solution” policy and exterminate millions of Jews, the US State Department blocked numerous efforts to allow thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany to come to the US. This dark part of US history is documented in David Wyman’s important book, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941 – 1945.
  • The Japanese Americans put forced into Internment Camps during WWII – The Japanese who had come to the US beginning in the late 19th Century, never felt welcomed. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew, similar to Anti-Chinese fears in the US in popular media and because of groups like the Japanese Exclusion League. With the Immigration Act of 1924, Congressed prohibited Japanese immigration and limited European migration as well. Then, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Order 9066, which paved the way for the forced removal and internment of an estimated 120,000 Japanese, most of whom were American citizens. In addition to being interned in camps, the Japanese Americans also lots their homes and businesses in the process. Most people in the US did not oppose the internment camps, because anti-Japanese propaganda was no normalized as is evidenced by these images, which were widely used in the media and by civic groups.
  • Anti-Mexican immigration has been part of US history since the Mexican/American War – Like we discussed in Part II of this series, as White America took land from Mexico, the Mexicans who had been living there faced discrimination constantly. Between 1929 and 1936, the US government engaged in a massive deportation campaign directed at Mexicans, with some two million being sent back during this seven year period, on the pretext that the Mexicans were “taking our jobs.” This pattern has repeated itself over the decades and then the US welcomed Mexican laborers during WWII, it what was known as the Bracero Program. The most recent wave of anti-Mexican sentiment has come since the 1980s, as a result of the US military and economic policy towards Mexico and Central America. After the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, the US created the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Bush administration deported some 2 million people from 2001 – 2008, but that number increased to 2.5 million during the next eight years with the Obama administration. Most of those deported were Mexican.
  • Central American wars of the 1980s – During the 1980s, the Reagan administration was obsessed with what was happening in Central America. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees fled during the US-back counterinsurgency wars, yet the US would not recognize Guatemalans or Salvadorans as political refugees, so most were denied asylum and many were either deported or forced to live underground in constant fear of possible deportation. This crisis led to the 1980s Central American Sanctuary Movement, which consisted of about 400 different sanctuaries being established across the US for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees who had fled political violence. Grand Rapids was part of that movement.
  • Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab racism since the 1970s – Anti-Arab/Anti-Muslim racism began in the 1970s, primarily due to the OPEC Oil crisis, where American motorists had to wait in line because of gas being rationed. This Anti-Arab/Anti-Muslim racism escalated during the Iran Hostage crisis and has continued throughout the 1980s to the present, with an additional escalations during the Gulf War in 1991, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, the 2001 War on Terror and the most recent Muslim Travel ban initiated by the Trump administration in early 2017. The rise of Islamophobia has been well documented by groups like Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and the work of Jack Sheehan, most notably in his documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

This is just a sample of the way in which US government policy, white supremacy, along with cultural and religious institutions have treated immigrants in the US for more than a century. Therefore, while we should be outraged at the tear-gassing of asylum seekers, we have to STOP saying that such behavior is un-American, because this simply is not true. In fact, it could arguably be said that the gassing of asylum seekers is consistent with the treatment of immigrants in US. Lastly, not only do we need to become more familiar with the historical treatment of immigrants int he US, we should not forget the recent history of the Obama administration’s use of tear gas against immigrants at the US/Mexican border, as was recently reported in Newsweek.

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