While these sentiments may echo President Trump’s remarks on immigration, these words do not come from our current commander in chief in 2019 but from Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s. The threatening foreigners Franklin feared so much were Germans coming to Pennsylvania. The numbers of “purely white people” he wanted increased were the English.
Trump may be the most xenophobic American leader in United States history. From the effort to restrict immigrants from mostly Muslim countries and the drastic reduction in refugee admissions, to efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the denial of asylum seekers from Central America, Trump’s policies have transformed immigration to the United States.
But the truth is that xenophobia has always been a central part of American life. It is an American tradition that shapes our worldview, mobilizes voters and generates profits. It influences our international relations and dictates domestic policy. And it is a form of racism and discrimination that has threatened the democratic ideals upon which this country was founded.
For Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, Catholic immigrants posed the danger. In 1841, Morse warned that Catholic foreigners were an “insidious invasion” of the country and an “enemy to [its] democracy.” New technology like Morse’s telegraph expedited the spread of these ideas, and anti-Catholic xenophobia spread across the country. Violence and bloodshed hit a peak in Louisville on Election Day in 1855 when 500 members of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic American Party, also known as the “Know Nothing” party, tore through the city attacking foreigners. An estimated 22 to 100, mostly Irish and German Catholic immigrants, died in what has been remembered as “Bloody Monday.”
Two decades later on the West Coast, 25,000 people gathered in San Francisco to condemn Chinese immigration and to hear politicians like California Gov. William Irwin blame the Chinese for all of the state’s social and economic problems. The Chinese, he claimed in 1876, subverted “everything that goes into American civilization.” Six years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to single out a specific immigrant group for exclusion. Immigration from China plummeted. Nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants had entered the country in 1882, but five years later, only 10 did. Initially passed as a temporary measure, the Exclusion Act remained in effect for 61 years.
By the 1890s, Italians, Jews and others from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe were labeled “inferior races” by the country’s leading scientists and politicians. Both the Ku Klux Klan and eugenicist and best-selling author Madison Grant warned of the “flood of foreigners” who pushed the “native born” aside, and they called for an “America for Americans.” Discriminatory national origins quotas put in place in the 1920s kept the doors open to immigrants from northern and western Europe but closed them to southern and eastern European immigrants, as well as those from Asia. Even refugees fleeing Nazi Europe could not find a way into the United States.
During the Great Depression, calls to “get rid of the Mexicans” became a part of local and federal policies. Nearly 20 percent of the entire Mexican and Mexican American population in the United States was pushed out of the country, 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens by birth.
The next decade, Japanese Americans were the targets. Some 120,000 were forced from their homes and incarcerated in camps for the duration of World War II because the U.S. government said that they were a threat to national security. Two-thirds of them had been born in the United States. This effort even expanded beyond the U.S. border as the government also orchestrated and financed the mass roundup of innocent men, women and children of Japanese descent in Latin America, citing “hemispheric security.” By the time the program ended in 1944, over 2,000 Japanese Latin Americans, including citizens and permanent residents of 12 Latin American countries, had been apprehended, deported and incarcerated in the United States.
A brief reprieve emerged during the 1960s when the civil rights movement helped secure popular support for immigration reform. The 1965 Immigration Act abolished the discriminatory national origins quotas that had been in place since 1924 and explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence in the U.S. government’s decisions to issue immigrant visas. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law just steps from the Statue of Liberty.
Nevertheless, xenophobia persevered. While both liberal and conservative lawmakers professed a commitment to civil rights and racial equality, the law they passed was designed to privilege European immigration and deter immigration from Latin America, particularly from Mexico. Written into the law was the first numerical cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, for example, and other measures ended certain types of Mexican migration, required increased documentation or singled out Mexican immigrants for restriction and scrutiny. Undocumented immigration from Mexico increased as a result.
By the 1990s, xenophobia became a central part of the growing conservative movement. Writers, scholars and politicians like Peter Brimelow, Samuel Huntington and Patrick Buchanan warned that growing numbers of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia were not assimilating and constituted an assault against white America, which they argued, represented the core of American identity. The “war on illegal immigration” begun in the 1990s proved to be an effective means of driving voters to the polls, electing conservative politicians and shifting the balance of power in the United States rightward on a number of political issues — not only immigration, but also gun control, abortion rights, welfare reform and the environment.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Islamophobia, initially promoted by a fringe network of individuals allied with extreme conservative and religious-right organizations, became a key message of the Republican Party and in the mainstream media discourse.
By the time that Republican Donald Trump ran for president in 2015, calling for a “great big wall” along the southern border and a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims coming to the United States, the idea that Mexican “criminals” and Muslim “terrorists” were “invading” the United States had been well established and even normalized in the media. Many Americans expressed outrage at these explicitly racist and xenophobic positions. But in fact, Trump was repeating a message that had been gaining traction for decades, and has long been an American tradition.
And yet, there is another American tradition that has persisted: challenging xenophobia. Throughout U.S. history, immigrants and their allies have defied the most pernicious expressions and acts of xenophobia and appealed for moderation and justice. When Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (Mass.) introduced a literacy bill in 1896 that would have barred illiterate immigrants, for example, he faced resistance from his colleague John Fitzgerald, congressman for the 11th District in Boston. Lodge reportedly confronted him at the Capitol and asked, “Do you think the Jews or the Italians have any right in this country?” “As much as your father or mine,” Fitzgerald replied. “It was only a difference of a few ships.”
During first half of the 20th century, writers and playwrights such as Israel Zangwill, Mary Antin and Carlos Bulosan used their works to humanize immigrants and appeal to Americans’ commitment to equality. More recently, immigrant rights activists, along with unions, civil rights organizations and faith leaders, have maintained a vociferous opposition to mass deportation and punitive immigration laws.
In these ways, Americans have embraced and embodied the core American ideals and values that xenophobia has threatened. May their examples serve as inspiration to us all who seek to challenge xenophobia in our own time.