Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) plans to introduce legislation that would block Syrian Muslim refugees being allowed into the country. Cruz is the son of Cuban immigrants. His father Rafael arrived in the United States shortly before Castro came to power, on a student visa.
In 1980, when Cruz was 9, it was Cuban refugees who were the ones that the American public wanted to curtail. A flood of refugees in the last months of the Carter administration prompted a good deal of hand-wringing. That May, ABC News asked Americans whether President Jimmy Carter was right or wrong in letting as many as 40,000 refugees from Cuba into the United States. Two-thirds said he was wrong. A month later, presented with the figure of 100,000, opinions of Carter were even worse.
Asked by CBS News and the New York Times whether Cuban refugees would be welcomed if they settled near where the respondents lived, more than half of those with an opinion said they wouldn't be. When Gallup asked people in December 1981 who they wouldn't want as neighbors, Cuban refugees were opposed by 25 percent of the respondents -- second only to "minority religious sects." (Fourteen percent of people wouldn't want to live near single people living together, which seems like a euphemism.) Fear of Cuban criminals sit at the center of the 1983 movie "Scarface," which tells the story of "political refugee"-turned-drug-lord Tony Montana, an arrival in the 1980 wave.
At about the time that Rafael Cruz left Cuba, though, there was a different group of refugees that was concerning Americans. He arrived in 1957, shortly after the Soviet Union occupied Hungary. That November, Gallup asked whether the law should be changed to make it easier for Hungarian and Polish refugees to enter the United States. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said no. The next month, a survey from Foreign Affairs magazine found that more than a third of Americans thought that too many Hungarian refugees were being admitted. By the following September, half of people who offered an opinion on the subject said that the country shouldn't change the law to prevent Hungarian refugees from being deported.
Cruz's opposition to Syrian refugees is echoed by a number of other elected officials, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie's heritage is mixed, but his mother, Sondra Grasso, was of Italian descent. (She died in 2004.) Her father, Christie's grandfather, was born on a ship traveling from Sicily to New York City in 1909. In that decade, between 1900 and 1910, more than 2 million immigrants from Italy arrived in the United States.
There wasn't robust polling at the time, but Italian immigrants faced significant public opposition. In 1905, the New York Times ran an article from "several statisticians" arguing that the perception of Italian immigrants was incorrect. "[T]he Italian settler is economically a good thing for the country," it argued, and, what's more, "in the particulars of disease and crime he does not supply more than his quota."
In 1911, a review of federal immigration policies conducted by the Dillingham Commission determined that immigration should be curtailed, in part because the influx of immigrants was driving down wages. Immigration from southeastern Europe, including Italy, was seen as especially problematic because of the percentage of the population that was male — and therefore would be looking for work.
Southeastern Europe also includes countries like Croatia, which is the ethnic heritage of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (who also opposes Syrian refugees). His grandparents were immigrants and probably arrived in the same general time period.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's parents emigrated from India in the early 1970s, well after laws restricting immigration from India were overturned. Had they tried to immigrate to the United States 50 years earlier, they would not have been able to do so, since India was included in the "Asiatic Barred Zone" passed by Congress in 1917 (over President Woodrow Wilson's veto). No Indian immigrants were allowed at all.
None of these efforts to limit or oppose immigrants and refugees is exactly like any of the others. There are things about the current influx of Syrian refugees that are unique. But it is not unique that the public should be concerned about new arrivals and that the officials they elect should try to enforce laws that would introduce new limits.
If the politicians involved in this current iteration don't believe that, they need only ask their grandparents.
Update: House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday backed a pause on refugees from Syria. His family background includes immigrants from Ireland, who were one of the most-discriminated-against groups of immigrants in American history.