Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Brief History of American Attitudes Toward Refugees

      [Back in September, in response to efforts opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in South Carolina, my colleague Dr. Byron McCane organized a group of Wofford College faculty to present a panel on the subject of refugees. My colleagues Dr. Laura Barbas-Rhoden (Modern Languages), Dr. Phil Dorroll (Religion), Dr. Kim Rostan (English) and I all participated. My job was to give a brief overview of refugees in American history in the September 24 event at Wofford.
      On Nov. 11, we reprised the panel at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, with the welcome additions of USC colleagues Dr. Breanne Grace (College of Social Work) and Dr. Rajeev Bais (Clinical Internal Medicine).
      Due to recent events, the refugee situation has unfortunately become a political issue in the presidential race, with candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush asserting that only Christian refugees should be admitted into the United States, and Donald Trump calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Below is an adapted version of my presentations at Wofford and USC. This previously appeared as a series of posts on History News Network.]
From the earliest days of the republic, the American attitude toward those fleeing conflicts and hardship abroad has been marked by an ambivalence and tension between two contradictory reactions.
On the one hand, Americans want to see themselves as a people who welcome refugees. In the 1790s, the American scientist David Rittenhouse said the United States was “an asylum to the good, to the persecuted, and to the oppressed of other climes.” The prominent historian Gordon Wood writes: “By the early 1790s Americans were not surprised that their country was in fact attracting refugees from the tyrannies of the Old World. The enlightened everywhere had come to recognize the United States as the special asylum for liberty.”
On the other hand, Americans have also feared that such people might represent a danger to the United States: religious, political, economic, cultural--or all of the above.
When I say from the earliest days, I mean just that. The decade of the 1790s saw nearly 100,000 immigrants come into the United States—at a time when the population of the country was about 4 million people. Probably at least 15-20,000 of them were political refugees, fleeing revolutionary violence and political oppression.
The first refugee crisis in United States history came during the first term of George Washington, in 1792. The revolution in Santo Domingo led to thousands of refugees fleeing the island, most of whom came to Richmond, Virginia. One historian’s estimate of perhaps 10,000 is probably too high, but there are records indicating the existence of at least 2,000 such refugees in the US by 1794. We know this because Congress voted a specific appropriation of $15,000 for the relief of the refugees (out of $6.3 million budget that year). As the historian of this incident concluded: “For the first time in its existence as an independent state, the United States met the refugee problem in its most tragic form, and met it with … generosity and human sympathy.”
Many thousands of other refugees also fled to the United States in the 1790s, mostly from the more famous revolution in France. They were, as one historian put it, of all political stripes: “Royalists, Republicans, Catholics, Masons, courtiers, artisans, priests and philosophers.” These political refugees started their own explicitly political newspapers and book presses. They brought their passions with them, and competing groups sometimes engaged in street violence against each other.
In 1795, the pro-British Jay’s Treaty damaged American relations with revolutionary France and threatened to result in outright war. If war came, the Federalists feared that the French would use “native collaborators to create revolutionary puppet republics” and “French emigres and Jacobinical sympathizers in the country [might] become collaborators.”
Suddenly, asylum seekers were seen as the threat within. In 1798, Federalist Rep. Harrison Gray of Massachusetts, said: “Do we not know that the French nation have organized bands of aliens as well as their own citizens, in other countries, to bring about their nefarious purposes? By these means they have overrun all the republics in the world but our own … And may we not expect the same means to be employed against this country?”  Another Federalist said that the new immigrants were “the grand cause of all our present difficulties” and plainly stated: “let us no longer pray that America become an asylum to all nations.”
As a result of this growing fear, Congress changed the law. The first Naturalization Law in 1790 had required only two years residency in the US before one could become a citizen. That was extended to five years residency in 1795, and then in 1798, Congress raised it to 14 years. All immigrants were required to register with the government within 48 hours of arrival, and the law forbade all aliens who were citizens or subjects of a nation with which the US was at war from becoming American citizens.
The crackdown on immigrants and refugees was inextricably wrapped up in domestic politics. The Alien Act, passed by a Federalist Congress and signed by a Federalist president, was a reaction to their fear that the newcomers were overwhelmingly supporters of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican party. Refugees from revolutionary France were joined by hundreds, perhaps thousands, fleeing political oppression in Ireland. Their historian Michael Durey concludes: “the radicals’ experiences after emigration were too varied and problematic to allow us to any longer assume uncritically that America was a welcoming asylum for them all. For many it was Bedlam.”
The Alien Act was allowed to expire, and the anti-French fever broke. But the tendency to both welcome and fear refugees would continue in the 19th century, long after the specific fear of the French dissipated.

Fifty years after the Alien Act, revolution in Europe again produced a similar American reaction to the influx of refugees. The revolutions of 1848, starting in Paris and spreading through much of Europe, also produced a large number of political refugees to the United States, especially Germans who were known in the U.S. as the “Forty-eighters.”

The American government generally welcomed the revolutions, seeing them as democratic in character, and thus consistent with American values. In fact, the United States “was the only major government which saw fit to send greetings to the Parliament at Frankfurt.” President James K. Polk stated: “The great principles of … the Declaration of Independence seem now to be in the course of rapid development throughout the world.”

But as students of the Revolutions of 1848 well know, those revolutions were more complex than that, and so were the refugees who fled to America. According to their historian, the “typical Forty-eighter was a freethinker, if not an atheist. They believed in universal suffrage, abolition of the Sunday laws, taxation of church property, establishment of the eight hour day, and government ownership of the railroads.”

Some Americans thus denounced them as “socialists, rationalists, atheists and desecrators of the Sabbath.” Southerners in particular feared their influence because the Forty-eighters were thought to favor abolitionism.  Some Forty-eighters were, in fact, socialists.  One, Ernst Schmidt, would later run for mayor of Chicago in 1859 on a socialist ticket, while others formed their own utopian socialist communities in the United States.

Some of the Forty-eighters were also liberal Catholics, and of course at the same time thousands upon thousands of Irish Catholics were arriving in the United States as economic refugees of the famine in Ireland. This combination gave rise to an explicitly nativist movement that found political expression in the American Party, more commonly known as the “Know-Nothings.”

The Know-Nothings never actually succeeded in changing American law regarding refuges and immigrants, but in their oath, members pledged to never vote for any man for any office who was not born in the United States. They called for “War to the hilt on political Romanism” and “Hostility to all Papal influences when brought to bear against the Republic.” They effectively argued that Catholicism was not so much a religion deserving First Amendment protection as a dangerous political movement contrary to democracy. (This is reminiscent of Dr. Ben Carson’s recent statement that Islam is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.”)

The Know-Nothings saw the Irish and Germans as a religious/political threat, bringing “Popery” to the United States and thus undermining American principles. The Know-Nothings wanted to deny the newcomers the right to vote—they called for increasing the required number of years of residency from 5 to 21 before an immigrant could vote. (I cannot help but wonder how the Know-Nothings of the 1850s would have reacted to the sight back in September of the Pope, standing where the President stands when giving the State of the Union, addressing the United States Congress, while the Catholic Speaker of the House and Catholic Vice-President sat behind him.)

Despite these political reactions in the mid-19th century, what seems note-worthy in retrospect is that there was no legislative attempt to actually prevent any people from coming into the United States prior to 1882. When it happened, it was deliberately, openly discriminatory. That year, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was an explicitly racial law, a response to the popular backlash against the large number of Chinese in the west, which barred immigration by the Chinese.

Most American are familiar with the fact that many Chinese came to work on the transcontinental railroad, but what is often forgotten is that many were also refugees from the one of the bloodiest periods of Chinese history, the era of the Taiping Rebellion—in the 30 years before the Chinese Exclusion Act, an estimated 20-30 million Chinese died in a major civil war and several different rebellions. Over 1.5 million fled China, and historians estimate that 250,000 of them came to the United States. (Oregon alone had about 100,000 Chinese in 1890.) The Exclusion Act remained law for 60 years, until it was finally repealed during World War II, when China was an American ally in the war against Japan.

Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, for most of the people of the world, the United States remained a place of asylum. The great turning point was World War I. The previous two decades had seen millions of immigrants, many from southern and eastern Europe, arrive on American shores, leading to increasing calls for limitations.

Once America entered the World War in 1917, the fear that lingering attachments of these relative newcomers to their mother countries might create conflicting loyalties in wartime led to the propaganda theme “100% Americanism.” In addition to the well-known reactions against German-Americans, any so-called “hyphenated American” now became suspect. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 added the fear of radical politics to the mix—this, despite the fact that many of those seeking asylum in the United States because of the revolutions in Russia were fleeing the Bolsheviks, not people who shared their views.

The postwar period saw immigrants—particularly those suspected of radical politics—subjected to heightened levels of scrutiny and even deportation. The drive to put restrictions on eventually led to legislation: first the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and then a permanent Immigration Act in 1924.

As a result of decades of growing nativist sentiment, the United States for the first time in its history imposed quota limits on the number of people allowed to come into the country: 165,000 maximum per year, with a quota that was based on the number of people from that country in the 1890 census. No specific provision was made in the legislation for refugees. Supporters of the legislation made it clear that the goal of maintain an “Anglo-Saxon” nation was more important that being an “asylum for the oppressed.”

Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina said:
Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation.
After 140 years of effectively welcoming all those who wished to come, the United States shut the door.

It is probably no coincidence that this change corresponds roughly with the emergence of the nation as a great power on the world stage. While outsiders had long been viewed suspiciously—especially those with different religious or political views—now such people were perceived as not just a potential internal threat, but as what we would now call a “national security threat.”

There was no need for an American policy toward refugees prior to the 1920s, since there were so few restrictions on entering the United States. The immigration restriction legislation, however, changed that. It required that no more than two percent “of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States Census of 1890” be allowed into the United States in any year. By setting strict numerical quotas based on the country of origin, the law left no flexibility depending on the circumstances in that country, and thus no ability to adjust to a refugee problem.
Thus the Immigration Act of 1924 set the stage for two disgraceful incidents in America’s history of dealing with refugees. Despite the rising persecution of German Jews in the late 1930s, all German immigration to the United States was subject to the existing yearly quota (due to the formula noted above, Germany actually had by far the highest quota in the world, over 50,000). In early 1939, in the aftermath of Krystallnacht in November 1938, Sen. Robert Wagner of New York proposed to Congress a Refugee Act that would allow 20,000 German children into the United States, over and above the established yearly national quota.
Wagner’s intent was that those children would be German Jews, but fearing that anti-Semitism would doom the bill, he did not specify that in the legislation. Opponents argued that, whatever its merits might be, the bill would undermine the quota system. They also made an economic argument. One said in testimony to Congress: “These children, if admitted, will presumably grow up and as youths will become competitors with American citizens for American jobs.” Opponents killed the bill in Congress, and no refugee children came to the United States. There is no way to know how many children might have able to enter the United States, but it seems likely that some who might have been saved later died in the Holocaust.
In another case that has become much more well known in recent weeks, we know exactly how many could have been saved had they been admitted into the United States. In the midst of the Refugee Bill debate, the ocean liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg for Cuba with over 900 German Jews fleeing the Nazi regime. Opposition arose in Cuba to letting them into that country, with anti-immigrant groups claiming that the passengers were Communists and thus should not be admitted. Only 22 of the Jewish passengers were allowed into Cuba. 743 were awaiting visas to enter the United States but had not received them. They cabled the State Department and the White House from the ship asking to be allowed into the United States. But at that time 83% of Americans opposed any relaxation of the immigration laws, and since the German quota for the year had already been filled, they were denied entry. The passengers returned to Europe. The British, Dutch, Belgians and French took in the refugees. But due to the German occupation during the war of all of those countries save Britain, some 254 of them died in the Holocaust. The United States government, knowing full well that Germany was persecuting its Jews, refused to alter its immigration policy to save refugees and 254 lives that could have been saved were lost.
World War II, of course, created an unprecedentedly large refugee problem. In 1945, President Truman did what FDR never did: he issued an executive order allowing in 40,000 refugees above the quotas. In 1946, he proposed to Congress the Displaced Persons Act, which produced the same kind of response as Wagner’s Refugee Act did in 1939—opponents charged (despite the nearly full employment postwar economy) that they would take jobs from returning veterans. Some argued that the bill would allow Communists into the United States. Concerns that large numbers of Jews (who were often equated with Communism) would be admitted led supporters of the legislation to stress that most of those admitted would be Christians. This time opponents did not defeat the bill. It passed. They did, however, cut the number admitted into the US in half, from 400,000 to 200,000.
Throughout most of the cold war, U.S. policy toward refugees was largely driven by cold war foreign policy, and on a case-by-case basis. As a rule, those fleeing communism were welcomed. The United States admitted refugees of the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet-backed regime in 1956, for example. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the United States conducted “Operation Safe Haven” for Hungarian refugees. Eisenhower said: "It is heartening to witness the speed with which free nations have opened their doors to these most recent refugees from tyranny. In this humanitarian effort our own nation must play its part." That pattern was repeated several times: those fleeing the Cuban revolution in 1959, as well as the boat people seeking to escape North Vietnam’s conquest of the south in 1975 (under the Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act), were welcomed into the United States, while those fleeing other tyrannies were often out of luck. In 1980, the Refugee Act finally put refugees outside the regular immigration system, allowing for 50,000 refugees per year.
In sum, the reactions we see today to the prospect of admitting refugees from Syria and elsewhere have a long history in this country. Americans have a history of both welcoming and refusing refugees. Today we face a choice: which of those legacies will we embrace? When I began working on this issue nearly three months ago, I had some hope that it would be the former. The events in Paris and San Bernadino—and more importantly, the generally fearful reaction of many Americans to those events—have left me fearing that Americans are more inclined to opt for the latter. What this overview of the history shows is that such fears have in the past been overblown, and Americans have often had great reason to regret their fear-driven, short-sighted overreactions. Nevertheless, that list of regrets looks likely to grow longer.