A bullish stand on immigration, particularly against Muslims, had been the cornerstone of his poll campaign. And seven days into his tenure, on January 27, President Donald Trump passed an executive order indefinitely barring Syrian refugees from entering the US, suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days and blocking citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the country for 90 days.
It sparked the inevitable backlash, causing chaos at airports, after protesters, lawyers and activists landed up in droves to show solidarity with those likely to be detained or deported.
The order has been denigrated as being harmful, discriminatory, mean-spirited, anti-democratic, unconstitutional but above all, “un-American”. Votaries of the “simply un-American” argument include New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio, a few Republicans, rock legend Bruce Springsteen, and Germany’s chancellor candidate Martin Schulz.
But is the Trump order really an anomaly in the ‘land of immigrants’?
“Trump may differ from other contemporary politicians in so openly stating his antipathy to immigrants of a certain sort… But the policies he is advocating are really nothing new. They are the very policies initiated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and — from border militarisation to mass deportations—enthusiastically promoted by Barack Obama,” writes Aviva Chomsky in a piece reproduced in The Nation.
Trump himself has alluded to his predecessor’s policies to defend his stance on immigration. “President Obama has moved millions of people out. Nobody knows about it. Nobody talks about it,” he had said during campaigning. This assertion, fact-checkers at Politico point out, is only half-true — with Trump in fact only being wrong about “nobody talking about it”.
According to The Miami Herald, in the first seven years of the Obama presidency, more than 2.7 million foreign nationals were deported, numbers that have prompted critics to label the former president as ‘deporter-in-chief’. Under Obama, writes Dara Lind in The Vox, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “had relatively free rein” to catch and deport immigrants — and easy access to local jails to pick up immigrants who had come in contact with local police. “Many of those deported were labelled ‘criminals’ because they’d been pulled over for broken tail-lights or arrested for minor offences like selling illegal phone cards. Trump could bolster the impact of Obama’s efficient deportation machine by bringing back tactics from the Bush era — workplace and neighbourhood raids and roving ‘task forces’ of local police officers,” Lind writes.
As Chardy points out in The Miami Herald, no president since deportation figures started being kept in the 1890s has been linked to such a high number of removals. Back then, the US had its first law preventing a specific ethnic group from entering: The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed on May 6, 1882, mandated a 10-year moratorium on all Chinese immigration into the United States; it wasn’t fully repealed until 1943. It also came close on the heels of the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the country, so that, writes Josh Brown in a piece reproduced by CNBC, Chinese men couldn’t produce children.
The Chinese, along with the Mexicans, were brought to the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as labour for the railroads, mines, construction, and farming. But while all these restrictions were being implemented, writes Aviva Chomsky, Congress did absolutely nothing to try to stop Mexican migration. “The Mexicans had an advantage over the Chinese: They were easier to deport across the long southern border. Many, in fact, preferred to maintain their homes in Mexico and engage in short-term migration to seasonal, temporary jobs. So Mexicans were welcomed—just not as immigrants or potential citizens. Rather, they were seen as eminently deportable, temporary workers,” Chomsky writes.
This would be followed by the 1917 Immigration Act, which apart from barring almost all immigrants from Asia, imposed a literacy test on immigrants to keep out anyone who couldn’t read, as well as “feeble-minded persons”, “idiots”, “epileptics”, “persons likely to become a public charge” and “anarchists”. “When this Act failed to stanch the flow, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration to a mere 3 per cent of the total number of immigrants from any given country already living in the US in 1910. Congress also passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the most stringent of them all, which tightened the quotas to 2 per cent of the total immigrants from a given country living here in 1890—a move that effectively slowed immigration to a thin trickle of Nordic and Western Europeans,” writes Lizzy Ratner in The Nation.
She adds that the then immigration regime would prove “catastrophic” for Jews. “As the razor wire of Fascism tightened around Europe, scores of Jewish men, women, and, yes, children were locked out of this country… And it continued even after the Holocaust began, when the United States not only refused to bend the quotas for fleeing Jews but, under the fierce anti-Semitism of State Department officials, actively found ways to keep them out. Among the more preposterous yet effective arguments: Jewish immigrants were a potential fifth column, possible plants or spies working for the Nazis,” Ratner writes.
Two of the highest-ranking men in the current Trump dispensation have ties to those tumultuous times. Rae Kushner was born in the town of Novogrudok, in today’s Belarus, in 1923. In the mid-1930s, she narrates in an interview to the Kean College of New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center in 1982 how her Jewish family attempted to enter the US, but failed. So they remained in Novogrudok, first as the Soviets invaded and then, in 1941, as the Nazis took over. Rae, her father, and her younger sister would escape the ghetto they were placed in through a hand-dug tunnel and were later rescued by the legendary Jewish partisan Tuvia Bielski. “For everybody [there] was a place…but for the Jews, the doors were closed. We never can understand this. Even our good President Roosevelt, how come he kept the doors so closed for us, for such a long time? This question I’ll never know, and nobody will give me the answer,” she recalls in the interview. The Kushners would eventually make it to the US in 1949, and some 67 years on, her grandson, Jared Kushner, is now a senior White House adviser and is Trump’s son-in-law, having married Ivanka Trump.
The other, accused of having forgotten his identity, is Speaker Paul Ryan, whose great-great grandfather, James Ryan, fled famine-hit Ireland for America in 1851. “The Irish were (deemed) so untrustworthy that an entire political party was formed in the United States. The No Nothings ran for Congress and even President basically on an anti-Catholic platform, specifically anti-Irish sentiment,” says historian Reza Aslan in a video aimed at Speaker Ryan, who was among the first to laud the Trump ban, a volte-face from last year, when he said a ‘Muslim ban’ had no place in America. “You know what their slogan was? It was ‘America First’. And yet your great great grandparents were allowed into the country because they had the Constitution on their side… And a few generations later, out came you, the third most powerful man in America. The adult in the government. Not much has changed. The refugees are different but they are still fleeing starvation, death and prosecution. They are people exactly like your great great grandparents… It seems like you forgot something. Not just your words from last year. You forgot your identity. You forgot where you came from,” Aslan adds.
Curated by Arun Prashanth Subramanian