A Brief History of America’s ‘Love-Hate Relationship’ With Immigration

Donald Trump’s restrictive plan is reminiscent of legislation from 100 years ago.

Immigrants at Ellis Island pictured sometime between 1907 and 1921 (Bain News Service / Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration—banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and casting a wide net on undocumented immigrants—have prompted nationwide protests and, in the case of the ban, legal challenges. But while Trump’s immigration plan is more restrictive than those of recent presidents, historians see parallels between the current moment and the early 20th century, when Congress passed multiple laws designed to shrink the number of immigrants in the United States.

In 1917, lawmakers enacted legislation that required a literacy test for immigrants over 16 years old to enter the United States and banned those from what was called the Asiatic Barred Zone. That act paved the way for a 1924 immigration law, known as the Johnson-Reed Act, that imposed a quota system based on national origin. “The fundamental principle was the principle of exclusion,” said Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “And the target of exclusion was intended to be the poor workers who were trying to escape their own society for economic opportunity.” Years later, following calls to reform U.S. immigration policy, a 1965 law ended the quota system, prioritized close relatives of immigrants already in the United States, and ultimately altered the country’s demographic makeup, by further opening it up to immigrants of other nations.

Over the last 100 years, new restrictions on immigration have been sold as beneficial to national security and the U.S. economy. Trump himself has used those arguments in promoting his agenda. So, too, have lawmakers on Capitol Hill who recently introduced legislation to limit legal immigration.

I spoke with Kraut about the evolution of U.S. immigration policy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Priscilla Alvarez: Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue proposed legislation earlier this month that, among other measures, is designed to decrease the number of legal immigrants allowed in the United States. Is this reminiscent of another time in U.S. history?

Alan Kraut: The United States has always had a kind of love-hate relationship with immigration. In fact, the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a saying: “America beckons, but Americans repel.” What they meant by that is that, on the one hand, the United States had tremendous employment opportunities for them, possibilities of education for their children, freedom of religion, political freedoms that they couldn’t enjoy in their home countries. And yet at the same time, the foreign-born represented a threat to some parts of the population.

What they were concerned about in the period before the Civil War, for example, was the fear of Roman Catholics. The Irish and the Germans [who made up a majority of Roman Catholics in the United States] represented that kind of a threat. [Their allegiance to the Pope] was a cultural threat—some even thought a political threat—because they felt it was inconsistent to obey the word of a foreign prince and, at the same time, to obey American law.

The fear of people who somehow pollute American culture—this fear goes back to [Thomas] Jefferson. Jefferson worried that migrants to the United States would not appreciate democratic institutions and we would degenerate into a society that would seek a monarch. This love-hate relationship—or this beckoning and repelling—is a theme that runs as a constant throughout American history.

Alvarez: The underlying argument in Cotton and Perdue’s proposed bill is that immigrants are a hindrance to the economy, though there’s substantial evidence that foreign-born workers boost economic activity. How does this compare with the reasoning behind immigration legislation in the past?

Kraut: If you take a look at the 1924 national-origins quota system that was installed, [under] the Johnson-Reed Act, it was aimed at southern and eastern Europeans, and its main targets were southern Italians and eastern European Jews. Neither group was particularly loved by Americans because of their religious differences. The perceived threat was that they would work for wages below those that American workers could command. So much so that in the debate over that legislation in Congress, you had some strange bedfellows: You had the American Federation of Labor arguing on the same side as the Ku Klux Klan and the Immigration Restriction League, because they were concerned about keeping up the wages of American workers.

There’s always been a concern about what the economic impact will be on Americans of foreign-born labor coming to the United States.

Alvarez: The Immigration Act of 1917 included a provision that banned immigrants from the Asiatic Barred Zone—which included most of Asia—from entering the United States. How restrictive were the policies implemented through this piece of legislation?

Kraut: They were quite restrictive. But that law lasted only from 1917 to 1921 and then they went to the first of several temporary laws that culminated in the 1924 legislation, the Johnson-Reed bill. And that was quite restrictive—it was a dramatic drop in migration from southern and eastern Europe.

It took between 1924 and 1929 to get all the percentages squared away of how many people from each country could come [under the quota system]. What the legislation said was that each country in the world would be allotted a quota of 2 percent of those of their nationality already in the United States according to the 1890 census. And the 1890 census was used because it reflected a time before the mass migration of eastern and southern Europeans to the United States that happened between 1890 and the 1920s.

Alvarez: What happened in the time span between the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which dropped the quota system?

Kraut: Between 1924 and 1965, a lot happens. [There is] of course World War II, when it’s very difficult for people to move around the globe and migrate. And then in the aftermath of the Second World War, there’s the issue of refugees and displaced persons [as a result of the war and Nazi persecution]. And there are a number of displaced-persons acts and these are very, very ungenerous. The numbers were way lower than needed. Where were they going to go? They were literally people without any place to go, they were displaced persons, and they couldn’t go back. In fact, when President Harry Truman signed one in 1948, he told Congress that he did so with great, great regret because it was so ungenerous.

By the 1950s, migration is also a Cold War issue, and the United States encourages migration but only from those areas of the world where people are escaping Communism. Other than that, we continue to observe the restrictions of the 1920s. There are Cold War exceptions: One is in 1956 because of the Hungarian uprising, then again in 1959 because of Fidel Castro’s ascent in Cuba.

It’s very clear to some policymakers, including John F. Kennedy, who was pushing for reform at the time of his assassination, that the American policies were too restrictive, unjust, and so on. By 1965, Lyndon Johnson, in addition to all the civil-rights acts, pushes through the 1965 law and … we begin to see the configuration of the modern immigration system, as we know it.

Alvarez: Has the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act served as the foundation of immigration policy in the United States over the last 50 years?

Kraut: Absolutely.

Alvarez: Are Trump’s executive orders a significant divergence from the last 50 years?

Kraut: Certainly, the United States has been concerned in the past about migration from some places, including folks who could harm the United States, and certainly, the potentially ungenerous policy toward refugees is a problem.

Alvarez: Do you draw parallels between Trump’s orders and legislation from 100 years ago, for example, the Immigration Act of 1917?

Kraut: The designation of different parts of the world with the intent of excluding certain kinds of people is absolutely a parallel. Trump says he’s not targeting Muslims in the seven-country ban, but then he excludes Christians, so who’s left? Clearly, that’s where he sees the threat coming in. That’s been one of the causes of great protest.

There’s a basic issue here: What kind of future does the United States have with immigration? And the piece … about Tom Cotton’s proposal suggest[s] that there are forces, within the Republican Party primarily, that really want not just to have a moratorium on refugees, not just to have policy that reflects national-security concerns, but a much broader pattern of restrictionism.