A Historical Context for Immigration Policy and Sentiment Today: Q&A with Moshik Temkin

March 13, 2017
Moshik 2

In light of contemporary conversations about immigration, the Ash Center sat down with Moshik Temkin, an Associate Professor of Public Policy and a specialist in the history of the modern United States in global and comparative perspective, to talk about the history of immigration in the US and what it can teach us about modern debates and policy.

The US has a long history of anti-immigrant sentiment, dating from the earliest days of the republic. Over the course of our history, this nativist ire has manifested itself in a variety of different ways from the Chinese Exclusion Act, to anti-Irish discrimination, to the Immigration Act of 1924. Have nativist outbursts carried common social, racial, or economic themes throughout American history?

The history of anti-immigration politics in the United States is as old as the history of immigration. What we are witnessing now in the United States is, in many ways, a continuation of the anti-immigration impulse of the past. What these have in common is, in general, a strong ethnic and racial component, as well as a religious component. Anti-immigration has always been linked in our national history to a certain vision of what the country and its population should look like: in the main, white (as defined at each moment, because racial categories also change over time) and Christian (in the past, this meant Protestant). What we haven’t really seen is a President elected (by an overwhelmingly white and male majority) on a ticket that openly disparages immigrants and promises to punish them as well as forcibly close borders. Also, anti-immigration in the past usually surged in response to major crises such as economic failure or foreign wars. The anti-immigration rhetoric and promises that Trump espouses and many of his supporters love so much can be linked to a resentment of American global engagements and multilateral trade deals, but it can hardly be said that the America of 2016 was mired in economic or global crisis.

Today’s anti-immigrant sentiments are largely aimed at individuals coming to the US from the Middle East and Latin America, be they Syrian refugees or undocumented farm workers from Mexico. Does the upsurge in anti-immigrant rhetoric today have common strands with early nativist or xenophobic movements?

There are usually two main aspects to anti-immigration politics: an economic one and one centered on “values” (be they cultural, religious, or social). Anti-immigration activists of the past, like those of today, generally argued that foreigners coming to this country hurt the economic interest of native-born Americans by, supposedly, stealing jobs and being a drain on scarce resources. But the main driver of anti-immigration “sentiment” has always been hostility to foreigners, and to the outside world. The only thing that farm workers from Mexico and Syrian refugees have in common, in the eyes of many Trump supporters, is that they are somehow fundamentally different from “real Americans,” i.e., not white and not English speaking, and not culturally “like us.” One thing that strikes me as different, however, is that in most nativist episodes in the past the priority was to close the country to new immigrants. In the Trump era, we are seeing an alarming zeal to find immigrants who may have been living in this country for a long time, and deport them even if their children are Americans born in this country. The idea is not just to prevent the entry of immigrants, but also to make those who do so suffer as much as possible.

Was Donald Trump’s election victory an affirmation of the political power of nativism in the United States?

I do not believe that nativism is more powerful in the United States today than it has been in the recent past, and it is certainly not as powerful today as it was in the more distant past, say in the 1920s. Today’s America would be unrecognizable to Americans then. Trump benefitted from a twisted political system that for many reasons does not reflect the democratic will of the American people and heavily rewards his mostly white, rural constituency. The United States is a multicultural, multiethnic society, and will continue to be so irrespective of how the Trump administration and his hardcore base might feel about that. It might even be argued that much of the administration’s policy toward immigrants, in conjunction with ongoing GOP efforts to make voting increasingly difficult for people of color, are an attempt to “push back the clock” to an era when the United States was an overwhelmingly white country. That era is not coming back despite their best efforts. 

Is the Trump Administration’s ban on travel from individuals from certain countries in the Middle East consistent with this deep-seated history of anti-immigrant sentiment?

Yes. In the past, even anti-immigration activists made distinctions between different kinds of immigrants. When the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, it didn’t categorically shut the borders. It was designed primarily to keep out immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Mexicans and East Asians. The country continued to welcome, and hope for, “Nordic” immigration — people from Northern and Western Europe. There were fewer such immigrants, but they were seen as culturally appropriate and economically self-sufficient. Similarly, this latest wave of immigration banning, as seen in the President’s executive orders, targets not all Muslims but rather Muslims from countries in dire straits or from countries that this administration sees as an enemy (Iran). It also targets the most vulnerable Muslims in the world, at the moment — Syrian refugees from civil war. The executive order, however, spares Saudi Arabia, for example, which is the one Muslim country that has demonstrably produced terrorists that have killed Americans. But those are Muslims that contribute to some of our most lucrative businesses, including the President’s. And so the idea here is to specifically target Muslims that are most in need of our help.


See also: Ash Features, 2017