In her response to President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley declared that “fix[ing] our broken immigration system . . . means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.” The next day during a conversation with reporters, Haley maintained that the U.S. government has never passed any immigration laws or taken any immigration actions “based on race or religion.”
Haley was correct that the United States has never enacted or enforced any immigration or naturalization restrictions explicitly based on a person’s religion.
But as to welcoming immigrants “regardless of their race . . . for centuries” under U.S. law, Haley was unquestionably and demonstrably wrong.
Haley had the laudable goal of refuting Donald Trump’s “irresponsible talk” by calling on Americans to “resist the temptation” of following “the siren call of the angriest voices.” But in discrediting Trump’s “siren call,” it is important to use historical facts instead of a romanticized, fictional history. Haley should have argued that we must not repeat our nation’s history of xenophobic and racist immigration and naturalization practices.
Between 1790 and 1965, federal immigration and naturalization law was a regime of restrictions based on race. Under the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795, only white immigrants could become naturalized citizens. It was only after the Naturalization Act of 1870, passed during the post-Civil War era, that Congress extended eligibility for naturalization to people of “African descent,” although other immigration laws curtailed most immigration from Africa. Furthermore, the modern United States immigration system is rooted in the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion acts of the 19th century and later restrictive immigration laws that excluded other people of color. In fact, there was once a time in the not-so-distant past when Haley’s parents, who are of Indian Sikh origin and moved to the United States in the late 1960s, would have been “ineligible” for naturalization because they did not satisfy the racial prerequisites in federal naturalization law—limited to only whites and people of “African descent.” Additionally, for much of the 20th century until 1965, Haley’s parents would have faced difficulty even immigrating to the United States because of federal immigration laws and quotas that restricted non-white immigration to the United States.
These laws were essentially enacted to maintain a homogeneous “white” America, a fact highlighted in the 1922 U.S. Supreme Court Case Takao Ozawa v. United States. Takao Ozawa was born in Japan, but lived in the United States for 20 years, attended high school in Berkeley, California and later the University of California, raised his family in the United States, sent his children to American schools, attended American churches, and spoke English at home. Both the Court and the U.S. Government conceded that Ozawa was “well qualified by character and education for citizenship.” Nevertheless, the Court held that because Ozawa was not white, he could not become a naturalized citizen.
In his brief for this case, U.S. Solicitor General James Beck clearly described why the naturalization law was restrictive by race:
The men who settled this country . . . fought the Revolutionary War, framed the Constitution and established the Government, were white men from Europe and their descendants. They were eager for more of their kind to come, and it was to men of their own kind that they held out the opportunity for citizenship in the new nation.
Indeed, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the restrictive naturalization law was bolstered by a series of other state and federal “racial prerequisite” court decisionsinterpreting whether different people were “white” for purposes of these laws.
The sentiments Beck expressed also took form in restrictive immigration laws during decades of fear against non-white immigrants, with much of this fear directed against Asian immigrants during the “Yellow Peril”—the notion that Asians were a danger to the white Western world. In the United States, especially in the west coast where Chinese laborers were concentrated, fear spread that Chinese laborers would cause unemployment among whites, depress wages for white workers, and corrupt “cultural and moral standards” in society. Furthermore, because Chinese were viewed as racially inferior to whites, political and labor leaders also expressed fears that the influx of Chinese would corrupt the racial composition of the United States.
This xenophobic, anti-Chinese racism manifested in federal Chinese exclusion laws for decades. The Page Act of 1875, the first restrictive immigration law in U.S. history, banned certain classes of people (forced laborers, prostitutes, and “criminals”) from Asia, mainly China, from immigrating to the United States. Seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 10 years and explicitly banned any “Chinese” person from being naturalized. In the preamble to the law, Congress reflected the fears directed against Chinese and declared that “the coming of Chinese laborers” to the United States “endangers the good order of certain localities” in the country. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 for another 10 years and ban any “person of Chinese descent”—not just laborers. In 1902, Congress passed the Scott Act to indefinitely ban immigration by any “person of Chinese descent.” Altogether, these Chinese exclusion laws created the first group of “undocumented immigrants” ever in the United States
The racism first aimed at the Chinese later extended to Japanese people through a mix of restrictive laws and political and media campaigns to demonize Japanese. Although there was interest in increasing immigration from Japan as labor from China diminished, the same forces that earlier supported Chinese exclusion later supported banning immigration from Japan. Some politicians, such as California Senator James Phelan, promoted blatant racism in their public personas—Phelan campaigned on the platforms “Keep California White” and “Save Our State From Oriental Aggression.” In the early 1900s, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst organized a smear campaign to villainize Japanese residents and convince Californians that Japan would invade the United States.
The years of anti-Japanese racism reached a head in 1906, when the San Francisco Board of Education ordered Japanese students to attend segregated schools “to save white children from being affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.” President Theodore Roosevelt became concerned with offending Japan, which had recently defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907—San Francisco integrated Japanese students while Japan limited emigration to the United States to only “parents, wives, and children” of Japanese already in the United States. Nevertheless, California and other states took matters into their own hands. For example, during the early 20th century, multiple states passed alien land laws to prevent “aliens ineligible for naturalization”—mainly Japanese immigrants—from owning or leasing land. Because many Japanese immigrants were farmers, these laws were directly aimed at stripping them of their livelihoods.
Through World War I and the early 1920s, U.S. immigration law became even more restrictive. In 1924, Congress consolidated the mixture of restrictive immigration laws and agreements into the Immigration Act of 1924 to restrict immigration to only people from western and northern Europe. This law banned virtually any “alien ineligible for citizenship”—any person who was not white or of “African descent”—from entering to the United States. For immigration of people who were white or of “African descent,” the law imposed national-origin quotas equal to 2% of the number of foreign-born people from those countries who were counted in the 1890 census. Because immigration from southern and eastern Europe did not begin in earnest until after 1890, these quotas effectively curtailed immigration from these regions. There was little immigration from the entire continent of Africa at all in the late 1800s, which led to a quota of just over 1,000 people from all of Africa except Egypt. At the same time, many Germans, Britons, Irish, Swedes, and Norwegians were counted in the 1890 census, which equaled immigration quotas in the thousands or even tens of thousands for people from these countries after 1924.
For almost two decades, immigration from everywhere else in the world except western and northern Europe was curtailed or banned explicitly. However, by the 1940s, public sentiment towards immigrants began to change due to world events. In 1943, because the United States and China were allies during World War II, Congress passed the Magnuson Act to repeal all previous laws restricting immigration by people of Chinese descent and to allow people of Chinese descent to become naturalized citizens. However, political leaders decided to maintain a quota of just over 100 entry visas each year for people of Chinese descent worldwide.
Nevertheless, the Magnuson Act signaled the beginning of the end on racial restrictions in U.S. immigration and naturalization law. Congress did away with racial restrictions on naturalization altogether in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, but maintained national-origin quotas on immigration. Finally, 13 years later, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to repeal all national-origin quotas on immigration and move the United States to an immigration system based on skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens and residents—a system that continues today.
In all, the history of U.S. naturalization and immigration law demonstrates that contrary to Haley’s assertions, the United States has not welcomed immigrants “regardless of their race . . . for centuries” under the law. Rather, for the majority of our nation’s history, the opposite was the case . Furthermore, restrictive immigration laws acted in concert with other social, political, and legal efforts to exclude and ostracize non-white immigrants from the fabric of American society.
Why bring up this 175-year history of restrictions on naturalization and immigration that were meant to maintain a homogeneous, white America? If, as Haley put it, we are to “resist the temptation” of Donald Trump’s “siren call” and “irresponsible talk,” we must understand why his talk is irresponsible. Trump’s remarks painting Mexicans in broadstroke as “killers,” “criminals,” “drug dealers,” and “rapists” echo the sentiments of those who claimed that non-white immigrants, especially the Chinese and Japanese, would somehow corrupt American society, culture, and morals. Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States runs parallel to past U.S. immigration laws that banned entire groups of people from entering because of prejudice against those groups. Some may argue that Trump was not painting all Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists.” They may argue that Trump does not hate Muslims and that he simply wants to impose a temporary security measure. But these arguments belie a deeper point—Trump’s rhetoric and popularity both reflect and reinforce strong anti-immigrant sentiments, especially among many whites.
Trump and his supporters espouse these ideas and conclude by declaring, “Make America Great Again!” But what “again”—what period in U.S. history—are they referring to? The “again” of when only whites could become naturalized citizens? The “again” of when white Americans feared Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians during the “Yellow Peril” and decided to ban them from entering the United States? The “again” of when virtually all non-white immigrants were banned from entering the United States? The “again” of a United States government committed to developing a homogeneous, white America from the supposed threat of anyone who did not fit this mould?
As the history of U.S. naturalization and immigration law demonstrates, anti-immigrant sentiments, especially among white Americans, have a xenophobic and racist pedigree rooted in mistrust, fear, and bigotry. Only since 1965 has United States law moved towards welcoming diverse groups of immigrants into American society. And if, as Nikki Haley argues, we should live up to the ideal of “welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion,” we must first acknowledge what “properly vetted” and “legal” has historically meant in terms of immigration to and naturalization in the United States. We must understand and learn from our nation’s oft-ignored history of xenophobic and racist naturalization and immigration laws. We must not repeat this chapter in our nation’s history. Because as philosopher and novelist George Santayana observed in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Only then can we ensure that the United States lives up to the ideal described in Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and inscribed on the Statute of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!