To the Editor:
For those who managed to read through the letters of both Paul Magid (Feb. 21, “Reject a Nativist Stance”) and Myles Goodwin (Feb. 15, “Founding Fathers on Immigration”), your takeaway may be that history can be boring. Yet in the current dialogue on immigration, having the correct historical facts is critical, because some people in that discussion are “reimagining” history.
If you are one of the brave souls who still watches the news, you are likely to see protesters (along with politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren) characterizing recent immigration policies as “not American.” They claim American immigration policies have a long tradition of welcoming immigrants and providing safety for refugees. That claim fits the image many Americans have of our policies, but it is — for better or worse — “fake history.” The actual history of American immigration policy was written in large part by the great icons of the Democratic Party’s “progressive” movement, such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jerry Brown, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton — and there is no way to characterize these “progressive” immigration policies as “welcoming.”
For example, as Mr. Magid correctly points out, both Presidents Woodrow Wilson (in 1917) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (in 1942) imprisoned people based solely on their national origin, and deported a large number of noncitizens solely because they were labeled “radicals.” In addition to his 1942 action, F.D.R. in 1939 also refused to accept 900 Jewish refugees who had fled from Germany aboard the vessel St. Louis — many of whom died as a result of that decision. And the bipartisan Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 effectively closed the U.S. to any significant immigration until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
In 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown of California, citing the high unemployment rate in his state, defied the requests of President Ford to accept Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing the fall of Saigon. Senator Joe Biden led those in the Senate who opposed accepting these refugees, while the opposition in the House was led by Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (the Elizabeth Warren of her day). She bemoaned the fact that more attention was being shown to refugees than to the poor, elderly, and unemployed of New York. Meanwhile, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Immigration fought to block funding for an airlift of orphans who had been surrounded by the Vietcong. The efforts of these iconic Democratic Party leaders to resist the acceptance of refugees led to the passage of the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, which provided a special category for refugee immigrants, but capped such admissions at 50,000 per year. That cap is reset each year, and has stabilized at 70,000 over the past few years, although that number is, ironically, now being challenged as insufficient by progressive Democrats.
In his 1995 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton railed passionately against the damaging effects of illegal immigration, and stressed the need for a tighter border and zero tolerance for illegal immigration. His arguments and efforts resulted in the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which substantially increased immigration enforcement, substantially increased penalties, and substantially increased the number of crimes for which a noncitizen could be deported (including shoplifting), while substantially expediting the deportation process.
It is ironic, but not necessarily counterintuitive, that these great icons of the Democratic Party’s progressive movement are responsible for forging America’s history of restrictive immigration and refugee policies. It becomes easier to see how this is possible if you understand that the Democratic Party was, until recently, known as the party of the working man. Restrictive immigration policies have long generally been favored by low-skilled workers, by the unemployed, and by union workers, because they see jobs — rightly or wrongly — as being threatened by immigrants. Therefore, Democrats, in order to appeal to their blue-collar base, have traditionally (that is, until recently) fought hard for immigration policies that were far more restrictive even than those of the current administration.
Recently, however, President Trump claims to have taken up the mantle of the working man, and is governing during a time of perceived national insecurity, when (as history shows) presidents have typically restricted immigration. So it is logical that he would adhere more closely to these traditional American policies on immigration. While it certainly can be debated whether America should continue to follow the immigration policies that we inherited from the progressive movement, objectively speaking it is unfair for progressives to try to characterize as “radical” or as “un-American” the very policies which their movement created, simply because their constituency and priorities have now changed.