We are in a particularly dark period. Three years into the Trump presidency, the administration’s attacks on our immigration system have accelerated in horrifying ways. This summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched raids across the country, terrifying immigrant workers and tearing apart families. As of early September, more than 50,000 immigrants are being held in detention centers across the country. The Trump administration is making it far more difficult for people to seek asylum and sending thousands of vulnerable migrants to await their hearings in dangerous cities in Mexico. Just this week, the government announced it plans to reduce the cap on refugees to the unprecedented low of 18,000.
Yet while all of these developments might seem terrifyingly new, they also have precedents in our country’s history.
During the 1920s, Congress passed laws that excluded millions of people from migrating to the United States, based solely on their national origin. Asian immigrants were excluded completely (most Chinese immigrants had in fact been banned since 1882), as were most eastern and southern Europeans, Africans and residents of the Middle East. In the 1930s, the United States launched campaigns of deportation in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were rounded up and sent across the border. The violence extended even to U.S. citizens perceived to be “foreign”: During World War II, the United States rounded up 120,000 Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps across the country. In the same period, the government denied asylum to European war refugees, even sending a shipload of Jewish refugees back to danger and death in Europe.
But if it is true that the United States is returning to its nativist past, there is also reason to hope that things might get better in the future — thanks in large part to the very people once targeted by nativist laws.
In the early 20th century, many immigrant groups responded to discrimination and nativism by forming organizations that could provide mutual support for immigrants, help them resist the rising tide of nativism and advocate and lobby lawmakers on their behalf.
For example, Italian Americans, in 1905, founded the Order Sons of Italy to provide education and legal help to Italian immigrants, as well as to advocate for reforms to the policies that kept Italians from immigrating to the United States. The American Jewish Committee was founded in 1906 and became an advocacy organization that, along with other Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, fought anti-Semitism and lobbied for a more humane immigration policy.
The National Catholic Welfare Conference, founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1919, established its own Immigration Bureau in 1920, and became an important immigrant advocacy organization, providing legal aid to immigrants of all faiths in New York, San Francisco, El Paso and other immigrant entry points. By the 1950s, the NCWC was deeply involved in lobbying to end the national-origins laws and develop a more just immigration system.
In 1929, Japanese Americans formed the Japanese American Citizens League, an organization that worked assiduously for decades to fight discrimination against Japanese and other Asian Americans, as well as to push for immigration reforms.
Eventually, through the efforts of a wide array of immigrant, ethnic and religious associations like these, and in collaboration with other civil rights activists, lawmakers were persuaded to respond to their demands, and immigrants were able to achieve new levels of political power.
In 1965, the United States ended the racist laws that banned people based on their nationality, and set up the system that we have in place to this day — one that allows people to immigrate based on family reunification and professional skills. Three years later, the United States signed on to the international refugee regime, subsequently formalizing our system of asylum with the Refugee Act of 1980. These laws were not perfect, but they fundamentally changed immigration to the country, allowing for huge increases in immigration from national groups that had formerly been barred from entry, and creating a formal path to entry for refugees and those who sought asylum.
These developments from our immigration history can give us hope — and a blueprint — for a better future.
New and old organizations are now collaborating all over the country to counter the nativist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration. Take just three recent events in the D.C. area that suggest we shall overcome the darkness of the present moment.
The first was a panel at my local public library in Arlington, Va., entitled “Yearning to Breathe Free: The Roots of Central American Migration.” I gave a brief background and history on Central American migration, while the other panelists, all activists for Latino and immigrant civil rights organizations, including the League of Latin American Citizens, the CAIR Coalition, the Latin America Working Group and Just Neighbors, described their daily efforts to raise awareness among immigrant communities about their rights, to get them out of detention and to lobby for better laws.
The second was an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington entitled “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” The exhibition displayed an enormous collection of art by and about migrants and refugees, and demonstrated how artists in the United States and worldwide are confronting the experiences of global migration, immigrants’ rights and asylum and refugee policy.
The third, “Undocumented and Unafraid: Student Activism in the Era of Deportation,” was sponsored by Faith in Public Life and hosted at D.C.’s Trinity University. Four undocumented students from D.C.-area Catholic universities spoke openly about the fear and uncertainty that has shaped their lives. Despite the challenges they face, they are advocating for themselves and for others by connecting to a broad and growing community of immigration activists, even at the risk of their own deportation. These students, and thousands like them, are the vanguard of a broader political movement that includes new and old immigrant rights’ organizations.
These three events — public, diverse, forward-looking — are just a tiny sample of what is happening all over the country, as activists are getting more involved in the movement for immigrants’ rights. Some Catholic groups, too, are taking part in new ways, joining a broad coalition of religious activists in public protest and acts of civil disobedience.
The changes that immigration activists seek will take time, perhaps decades to achieve. The work to recognize the humanity and dignity of all people will be ongoing. In the meantime, many more people are likely to be hurt, deported and even killed because of U.S. migration policies.
But our tragic immigration history also gives us reason to hope that immigrants and their allies in the United States and around the world can resist nativism and continue to fight for immigrants’ rights and for the much-needed reform of our immigration system. That would truly be something to celebrate.