02/01/2013 04:23 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Immigration Policy and Racism

"...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-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!..."

Like the noble words from Emma Lazarus's sonnet "The New Colossus" engraved on a bronze plague affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, these sentiments express a foundational tenet on which the United States itself stands. In direct contradiction to these sentiments, however, immigration policy has not lived up to these guiding principles, based instead on essentialist and stereotypical notions of race, ethnicity, and religion.

In the current national debates over immigration reform, in its Jan. 30, 2013 editorial, for example, the conservative National Review referred to "Hispanics" as "hostile" to "free enterprise," and "[t]hey are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock."

These racially- and ethnically-charged representations of minoritized people perpetuate a long and dishonorable tradition of preventing "the huddled masses to breathe free."

We need to keep in mind that the notion of "race" is socially constructed. The concept of "race" arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning around the 15th century of the Common Era. Though "race" is a human-imposed invention, however, its implications have far reaching consequences impacting individuals and groups in profound ways.

While given the option of living in peaceful co-existence, European invaders stepped upon this land guided by the conviction that Providence destined them to expand from Atlantic to Pacific (from "sea to shining sea") led by the so-called Anglo-Saxon "race." This they used as justification in their unquenchable thirst for land ultimately resulting in their forced removal and physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, and an unjustified imperialist-inspired war with Mexico.

"This continent," a congressman declared, "was intended by Providence as a vast theatre on which to work out the grand experiment of Republican government, under the auspices of the Anglo-Saxon race" (quoted in Takaki, 1993, p. 176).

The Puritans fled England for the "New World" to practice their "purer" form of Christianity, believing God had chosen them to form "a biblical commonwealth," which would not tolerate any separation of "church and state," or, indeed, any religious beliefs outside their own.

The newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act in 1790 excluding all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and American Indians, the later whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as "domestic foreigners," even though they had inhabited this land for an estimated 35,000 years. The Congress refused to grant American Indians rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though it continued to deny Asians naturalized citizenship status.

Protestant American "Nativist" prejudices against Irish Catholics escalated in the mid-1850s when the so-called "Know Nothing" movement attempted to prevent Catholics from ascending to public office. After 1860, Irish were met with "HELP WANTED: IRISH NEED NOT APPLY" signs hanging in store windows.

Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants on the basis of "race" and nationality in 1882. Attempting to eliminate entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to constrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10-year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores. The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black Americans.

The editor of a newspaper in Butte, Mt., summarized the exclusionist sentiment regarding the Chinese held by many U.S. citizens: "The Chinaman's life is not our life, his religion is not our religion....He belongs not in Butte" (Swartout, 1992, p. 78).

The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the "barred zone," including parts of China, India, present-day Thailand, Burma, Asiatic Russian, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.

Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators in the U.S. Congress in 1924 enacted an anti-immigration law (Origins Quota Act, or National Origins Act) setting restrictive quotas of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, specifically Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slaves (so-called "PIGS" groups viewed as representing Europe's lower "races"), including Jews (the later referred to as members of the so-called "Hebrew race," considered the lowest of all the European "races"). The law, however, permitted large allocations of immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

In addition, the law included a clause prohibiting entry of "aliens ineligible to citizenship," which was veiled language referring to Japanese and other Asians dating back to the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricting citizenship to only "white" people and affirmed by a 1922 U. S. Supreme Court ruling (Takao Ozawa v. United States) in which the government denied Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, the right to become a naturalized citizen because he "clearly" was "not Caucasian."

Congress, in 1939, refused to pass an emergency measure, the Wagner-Rogers Act, which would have permitted entry of 20,000 children, primarily Jewish, from Eastern Europe over existing quotas. According to Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of FDR and wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration, who spoke out against the proposed legislation: "20,000 charming children would, all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

The 1952 McCarran-Walters Act overturned the 1924 law. Later, framed as an amendment to McCarran-Walters, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed "natural origins" as the basis for U.S. immigration. The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds.

Horace Kallen, a Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage coined the term "cultural pluralism" to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot"), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Returning to today, if we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on "race," nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion, and equity. We have a wonderful chance now to avoid the mistakes of the past and finally to "lift [the] lamp beside the golden door!"


  1. Swartout, R. R., Jr. (1992). From Kwangtung to the big sky: The Chinese experience in frontier Montana. In R. R. Swartout, Jr. & H. W. Fritz (Eds.), Montana heritage: An anthology of historical essays (pp. 63-82). Helena: Montana Historical Society.
  2. Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little Brown.