Fear of an Immigrant Nation
Many seem startled by the recent maelstrom of political rhetoric on immigration bans, fake news, and “alternative facts” under the Trump administration. Yet, some of these features of 2017 American politics aren’t novel or new, especially regarding immigration. On a recent episode of “Here and Now,” Joanne Freeman and Ed Ayers talked about bans and restrictions on immigration throughout American history.
In a move that was part politics, part nationalism, French immigrants were restricted during the 1790s. John Adams and the Federalists sought to limit French-born citizens on the presumption that they represented dangerous ideological elements that could threaten national security (by fomenting “revolution”, for example). This led to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which included powers to deport foreigners, and made it harder for new immigrants to vote. These moves not only served to strengthen national security in the eyes of the Federalists, who were partly responding to tense relations with France, but also constituted a political weapon against Republicans.
The Sedition Acts made it possible for the government to arrest and imprison dozens of Republican newspaper editors for “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing.” Generally, Republicans were not only more open to French immigrants and ideas, but also fiercely critical of Adams’ administration. So although the Sedition Act clearly violated protections under the First Amendment, it was up to states like Virginia and Kentucky to challenge this rule and pass legislation that nullified the federal laws within those states.
Historically, immigration, media and government-directed speech become divisive issues when the United States has tense foreign relations. Freeman points out, that for immigration in particular, fear has always played a key role in influencing political decision making. “It’s always fears of one kind of another that are causing these moments of immigration strife, and it’s the same fears over and over again, Freeman said during the episode.” “Fears of dangerous ideas, of race, religion, or even fears that have something to do with partisan politics. We sort of fall into that space, and it depends on the historical moment we are in, what kind of fears are foremost.”
Fear led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law in U.S. history which barred a specific nationality/ethnic group’s “skilled or unskilled” laborers from entering the country. During the 19th century, labor leaders, such as Denis Kearney and H.L. Knight, published popular racist arguments in articles like “Appeal from California. The Chinese Invasion. Workingmen’s Address.” The story claimed that the Chinese were a race of “cheap working slaves,” and that
Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents. They are imported by companies, controlled as serfs, worked like slaves, and at last go back to China with all their earnings. They are in every place, they seem to have no sex. Boys work, girls work; it is all alike to them.
Kearney’s words resonated with many California workers who could not compete with the Chinese. Especially since Chinese laborers always seemed willing to work longer hours and for less pay. Thus, in Kearney’s mind, the destitute white worker could “only go to crime or suicide, his wife and daughter to prostitution, and his boys to hoodlumism and the penitentiary.” This fear of the other existed not only amongst working classes, but also politicians and populist leaders.
When California governor John Bigler voiced his opposition to the “Asiatic tide” in his 1852 campaign for re-election, Norman Asing, a Chinese-American restaurant owner, responded to in an open letter. Published in The Daily Alta California on May 15, 1852, it read:
Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States… The effect of your late message has been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil… You argue that this is a republic of a particular race — that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false to the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you.
Although historians like Mark Kanazawa note that Chinese immigrants helped the Californian economy grow with crucial tax revenue, it’s unclear if the presence of Chinese immigrants actually threatened the livelihood of white laborers. However, between less abundant surface gold during the Gold Rush and fewer available jobs within the vicinity, white laborers did perceive a correlation between the lack of prosperity/work and the presence of other races. This correlation may have been mistaken as causation, and hence the widespread fear that foreigners were somehow “ruining” America for “Americans.”
This century-old incidence of race-based immigration restriction offers us parallels and insights into our present day fears. Norman Asing’s words resonate in today’s America, which is more diverse than ever and yet, seemingly, more divided.
Learn more about the history of immigration.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist