Base Lessons: Rallying Supporters at Immigrants' Expense Has a Long History in the United States

America is greatest when compassion, not fear, guides us.

By Bob Crawford

When Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump tower to announce his bid for the presidency in June of 2015, he made it crystal clear that immigration would be central to his campaign.  This week he followed through for his base by supporting a Senate bill that would be the largest overhaul of US immigration policy in fifty years.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (RAISE Act) seeks to cut legal immigration numbers in half within a decade by moving from a system that favors family members of American citizens to a merit-based system that rewards those who speak English and posses skills that make them highly employable.

Trump began his foray into politics pledging to build a wall along the Mexican border that Mexico would pay for. Days following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our countries’ representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Since taking office in January, President Trump had been thwarted repeatedly in his bid to fulfill these campaign promises, but the recent Supreme Court decision, which partially enacted parts of his proposed Muslim travel ban, has reinvigorated his efforts at immigration reform.

As harsh as these policy proposals may sound to many, there is precedent for this kind of draconian language in debates over immigration policy in US History. Since the early years of the republic there have been periodic waves of anti-immigrant nativist political movements fueled by working class resentment and picked up on by politicians, which they in turn wrapped up into nationalistic rhetoric.

Arguably the ugliest chapter in the history of immigration policy in United States surrounded the debate over and passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of a two decades long backlash against a massive wave of Chinese immigrants that flooded the west coast in the wake of the 1840’s gold rush. In the ensuing years Chinese immigrants came to the US to work on the railroads and mines, many of them recruited to California by United States companies seeking an inexpensive workforce.  At first the Chinese cheap labor and strong work ethic was welcome, but when the mines dried up and jobs became hard to find, the Chinese became targets for out-of-work whites.

An advertisement from 1880 uses racist depictions of Chinese to sell soap

An advertisement from 1880 uses racist depictions of Chinese to sell soap

American politicians soon picked up the issue of Chinese immigration, and the issue took on national importance in 1880 Presidential election. As the election approached, Democrats released a forged letter, supposedly written by Republican nominee James A. Garfield, stating that he endorsed unlimited Chinese immigration and sought to attack the rights of American workers. The letter was published in the Tammany Hall newspaper, The Truth, right before the election, sparking outrage and controversy in the west where republicans lost a California Senate seat and nearly the election. Talk about fake news.

The reality of the situation was that both political parties were caught up in a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that led to passage of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The details of the Senate debate over this law are recorded in the March 9th, 1882 edition of The New York Times. Reading the account today can be a shock to our twenty-first century sensibilities, but is also a reminder that no matter how far we think we've come in the way of race relations, we are not too far from once again heading down the dark path of racial intolerance.

Arguing in favor of the bills passage, Senator John Perceval Jones from Nevada framed his argument in support of American workers, but more heinously in racial terms, warning his fellow congressman that the Chinese posed an existential threat to the American way of life by comparing white westerners’ relationship with the Chinese to that of the white southerners’ relationship with Africans. He asked those in opposition, "If the African people in the southern states were not surrounded and upheld by the whites could they maintain free government there. I do not believe it." He further elaborated, "The blacks had been an evil in the south, and many of the southern people had been compelled to admit that it would have been a blessing if they had been absolutely excluded."

Opponents of the bill, including Joseph Hawley of Connecticut and Thomas Platt of New York were equally vociferous, making the case that the exclusion act would be remembered like the Alien Acts, the Missouri Compromise, and the Fugitive Slave Law. "To legislate against race,” one asserted, “would be to abandon the principles that had challenged the admiration of the world."

In calling for a 10 year moratorium on all Chinese labor immigration, The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major piece of legislation to restrict immigration to the United States. Signed into Law by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882 the bill was renewed and even made more restrictive over the years, adding the Japanese, and eventually Eastern Europeans to the list. It was only in 1943, when our alliance with China led to the Magnuson Act, that Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, but with a quota of only 150 Chinese immigrants per year, this gesture was primarily a symbolic one.

It was only 22 years later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, that the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was fully undone.

Now, in 2017, we’re looking at an immigration policy that upends that system and threatens to change the face of the United States.

No matter where you find yourself on the ideological or political spectrum, there is a good chance you would agree that our current immigration system needs work. As we work to find a solution to this problem, our nation’s past is a reminder that we should be wary of politicians who seek to bolster their power by scapegoating immigrants. The character of a nation, just like that of an individual, is well revealed by how they treat the weakest amongst them. Many of us who were born here are the descendants of wanderers who sought to worship God in peace, refugees from oppressive regimes and war, or those who took a risk to provide a better life for our families. They too, were once weak, but became strong because the American system gave them a chance.

Hopefully, as we move further down the path of immigration reform, we will come to realize that what gave them the opportunity to thrive is one of the core elements of what makes America truly great: our compassion. We must extend this compassion for the needs of American workers who are struggling to make ends meet, as well as compassion for those who come seeking refuge in what Abraham Lincoln called “the last, best hope on earth.”

For more on the Chinese Exclusion Act, check our Andrew Gyory's Closing the Gate: Race, Politics & The Chinese Exclusion Act (UNC Press, 1998).