13 Apr From Jews to Syrians, America’s Long History of Rejecting Refugees
First published in ISSF Policy Roundtable 1-8: Immigration and Refugee Policy in Donald Trump’s America, April 22, 2017
The Trump administration’s Executive Order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into The United States,” raised fears about acts of discrimination and potential violence against Muslim migrants and even citizens in the U.S. The first version of the Order, issued in late January 2017, banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. This led to intense criticism, because barring civilians from fleeing a warzone seemed to be a shocking betrayal of America’s moral responsibility, not least because U.S. military efforts in the Middle East were partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the breakdown in regional security. The initial order also ran afoul of U.S. and international law by discriminating between Christian and Muslim refugees. A Federal District Court judge quickly issued a temporary restraining order that blocked implementation, which was subsequently upheld by a panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The administration responded by issuing a new order in early March that removed the exemptions for Christians and changed the status of Syrian refugees, who would face a 120-day suspension rather than an indefinite ban. But these changes have not convinced critics, many of whom suspect that the order is broadly aimed at Muslims, and federal judges blocked the revision as well.
Unfortunately, there are many historical precedents for discriminatory immigration restrictions that focus on particular ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. Immigration flows into the U.S. were relatively open, particularly those coming from Western Europe, until the late nineteenth century. Between the Civil War and WWI, the United States shifted from a relatively open country of immigration, to one with restrictions, particularly on immigrants from countries that were considered undesirable. Immigration policy shifted from the state level to the federal level, making national level politics paramount in determining the direction of policy. In New York and the East Coast the focus was on Irish, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants. However, the main impetus for immigration restriction would truly begin on the West Coast of the United States. California became the focal point for immigration restrictions as Chinese immigrant laborers came to fill jobs in the gold fields and mines, as well as building the Trans-continental railway. A coalition of unions, Southern Democrats, exclusionists (i.e., nativists) like the Anti-coolie clubs, and pragmatic Republicans supported Chinese exclusion. After many years of political wrangling and rewriting of the Burlingame treaty with China, the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882,1888, and 1892 effectively suspended the flow of Chinese immigrants, consolidated federal control of policy (particularly through the Immigration Act of 1875), and would ultimately lead to broader restrictions at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Nativism was also growing beyond the West coast. Increased flows from Southern and Eastern Europe raised concerns that these immigrants from mostly Catholic backgrounds were less intelligent and would be difficult to assimilate. Many of these immigrants were considered to be of ethnic stock that was not desirable, hallmarks of early 1900s eugenicist thought that there was a hierarchy of races. Similar efforts occurred to restrict the number of Asian immigrants to California. Nativist groups fought for literacy tests and other restrictions that would keep these immigrants from being able to enter the country.
After World War I, a war weary and isolationist Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1921 and the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924, which established a system of quotas based on national origins. The 1921 Act created quotas based on the 1910 census that limited immigration to 3% per year of each European nationality already residing in the U.S. Some felt that this still allowed too many Southern and Eastern Europeans. The 1924 Act limited immigration to 2% per year of each nationality, based on a decades-old census conducted at a time when there were fewer immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. The predictable effect was a sharp reduction in the number of new entries from targeted countries. The annual ceiling from the 1921 act of 387,803 was reduced to 186,437. This was a huge reduction in levels of immigration, which previously stood at approximately 700,000 per year. By 1925, Japanese exclusion was also phased in along with the already existing Chinese exclusion policies
These decisions institutionalized racial bias in U.S. immigration policy, which had a major impact on refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, during World War II. The refugee issue became a particularly poignant one for the U.S. during the early years of WWII. As the Nazi government began to persecute Jews in Germany, many tried to escape to other countries, including the United States. Unfortunately, the restrictive policies implemented during the 1920s and anti-Semitic personnel in the State Department kept many Jews from getting the papers they needed to leave Germany and other parts of occupied Europe. As Daniel Gross recently noted, “Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”These refugees were not only turned away by the U.S., however. Other countries also turned away Jewish refugees, many of whom perished in concentration camps during the Holocaust 
It is important to note that the U.S. diplomatic corps was a key player in keeping Jews from gaining visas to leave Germany. After an investigation by Treasury officials in 1943, the “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews” found “the State Department guilty of ‘willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler’.” Even these highly trained professionals allowed their own racial biases to taint their role in processing visa applications. Today, airlines and border officials play a role along with diplomats in the processes which allow or limit the movement of immigrants into the country. As more people become involved in these processes, particularly airline employees who may not be trained to read the appropriate documents, it is possible that there will be greater reliance on racial and ethnic profiling as people travel across international borders. In fact, the Executive Order may encourage that profiling by targeting specific countries and groups.
The good news, however, is that U.S. allies have not yet followed the U.S. example. Germany has taken the lead in welcoming Syrian refugees in Europe, and Canada has continued to accept Syrian refugees. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have urged continued support of those fleeing violence in the states covered in Trump’s Executive Order, and from other parts of the world. Apparently the lessons of history have not been lost on all countries, even if the United States is suffering from temporary amnesia.
Even after the devastating terror attack on 9/11, the country did not turn its back on its Muslim citizens and allies. More recently it welcomed Syrian refugees, though in comparatively smaller numbers. These individuals have not been a source of terrorism; U.S. vetting processes have so far proven to be robust. In order to avoid potential negative impacts on the security of the United States it is imperative that the U.S. maintains strong relations with its Muslim allies. Doing so will reduce opportunities for groups like ISIS to recruit new followers. It is thus a security interest and a humanitarian imperative that we avoid the mistakes of the past.