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Past Presidents' Perspectives: George Washington and Immigration

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One can imagine the thousands of former British white men across the newly-established United States of America nodding their heads in agreement when President George Washington released the details of the republic's first immigration policy.

In the Naturalization Act of 1790, Washington limited citizenship eligibility to aliens who were "free white persons" of "good moral character" only. The policy also established who were not free citizens: Native Americans, blacks, and other minorities, as well as some women.

Golf claps surely reverberated through the all-white Congress.

One provision of the law established that citizenship must also be gained through the father. So, foreign-born children of male citizens of the U.S. were considered natural born citizens. Children who came to the U.S. but did not have a father resident in the U.S. were out of luck.

Thousands of former white British men across the newly-established states nodded in agreement once more.

The sociopolitical struggle over who should and shouldn't be a citizen of the United States has been an American issue of contentious debate since the dawn of our country's existence. When Washington came into presidency in 1789, he set the foundation for future U.S. policies on a variety of fronts, including national banks, global aid in times of confrontation, and the establishment of the U.S. judiciary. One of his first major acts to sign into law was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which was later revised in 1795 and continued to evolve generation after generation into its current policy.

The overt racist and sexist tones of the Naturalization Act of 1790 should not be a surprise given the times. Washington and his wife Martha bought slaves throughout their lives and even spent their time post-presidency trying to track down Martha's personal slave, Ona Marie Judge, who ran away to New Hampshire, leaving no one in her wake to curl Martha's hair.

More than 200 years later, U.S. immigration law has evolved drastically. Blacks and other non-whites are citizens, and women no longer have to rely on their fathers for citizenship. Native Americans, too, are citizens, although they did not earn that right until 1924. If Washington were able to time travel to current day, he and his powdered brown locks would certainly be startled by the evolution of how we as a people embrace immigration. Had he been informed that in 2012, white births would account for less than half in the U.S., he would surely mount his horse to gather an army and start another revolution on behalf of his 18th century white brethren.

Or, maybe he wouldn't. Washington once said, "Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company." That spirit might enable him to adapt to modern day culture to avoid isolation and incivility. He would have learned to see men and women beyond the color of their skin.

While the Immigration and Nationality Act currently in effect is markedly different from the Naturalization Act of 1790, requiring aliens seeking naturalization to be of "good moral character" is one aspect of Washington's initial policy that has transcended time. Today, "good moral character" is defined not by what you are, but by what you are not. For example, immigrants seeking citizenship cannot have past convictions of murder, money laundering or felonies, among many other provisions. The underlying rationale -- that only good people should become part of our community -- remains as valid and relevant today as it was 200 years ago.

Many other provisions of the Naturalization Act of 1790 were based on social prejudices of the time. Were Washington still alive today, however, he likely would support policies more reflective of present day's social values. To gain better insight on how Washington would handle immigration in the 21st century, one has to look at his philosophy toward the issue, which he described in a letter to then Vice President John Adams in 1794. He wrote Adams,

The policy or advantage of [immigration] taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people.

Washington was correct in recognizing that the United States would soon become a melting pot, enriched by its immigrants' "language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them." He might not have foreseen how quickly the country would evolve multi-culturally and multi-racially, nor approved of it, but he apparently understood that the "intermixture" was inevitable. And if he truly valued men of "good quality," then he would have adapted his policies accordingly to reflect the ever evolving standard of decency and morality.

Golf claps would then surely reverberate through a multi-cultural and diverse Congress.