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Jose-Antonio Orosco: Remarks hark back to racist immigration legacy

The condemnation of Trump’s recent remarks on immigration has been swift and widespread.

Most of the denunciations cast his ideas as seriously out of line with American ideals on immigration. The problem is that they aren’t really.

From the very beginning of our nation, there has been a white nationalist core driving our immigration priorities. Even as we struggled to be a “nation of immigrants,” most of the people we allowed in were chosen on the basis of national origin from the “whitest” parts of Europe. 

The inaugural U.S. naturalization law of 1790 required anyone who wanted to become a citizen had to be a “free white person.” At its start, the framers envisioned the U.S. as a political society for members of a specific racial caste. This requirement remained in place until the mid-20th century. 

In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, one of the most significant comprehensive immigration bills in our history. It limited the number of immigrants each year and made selection contingent on country of origin.

Immigrants from nations in Northern and Western Europe, such as Norway, faced almost no limits on entering. But Southern and Eastern European immigrants were severely restricted. Immigration from Asia had been almost completely prohibited for several decades by this point. 

Guest Writer

Jose-Antonio Orosco was born in Ecuador and raised in New Mexico. He earned a B.A. at Reed College and M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California at Riverside, then joined Oregon State University as an associate professor of philosophy. He is the author of scholarly works on U.S. immigration policy and farmworker folk hero Cesar Chavez. His specialties include immigration, Latin American culture and social and political philosophy.

The shocking issue with the act is its little known origin: The law was the brainchild of a notorious white supremacist named Madison Grant.

In 1916, Grant wrote a book, “The Passing of the Great Race.” In it, he argued that the truly white people in the U.S., the Nordics, were at risk of becoming extinct because of a massive influx of Poles, Italians, Greeks and Jews, whom he did not consider white.

Grant’s book became a bestseller, and reading groups were formed among members of Congress.

Grant was subsequently asked to chair the committee assigned to advise Congress on immigration. The result was Johnson-Reed.

Grant went on to inspire the Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage in Virginia. It was widely copied across the U.S., so for almost half the 20th century, U.S. immigration policy and marriage laws were specifically designed to create a white majority population. 

Congress didn’t dismantle this system until 1965, replacing it with one that shifted the demographic makeup of immigrants. Since 1965, the bulk of legal immigrants have come here from Asia and Latin America.

The new policies favored creating a diverse pool of immigrants rather than one based on national origins. And they encourage immigrants, once here, to bring their family members from their former home countries in a process called “chain migration.”

Trump’s remarks, praising Norway while denigrating Haiti and the nations of Africa, reflect the immigration policy he has been pursuing over the past year. That strategy suggests he wishes to return U.S. immigration policy to Grant’s way of thinking. His preference for individuals from Scandinavia versus Africa or Latin America would, clearly, have pleased Grant immensely.

Trump’s advisers have proposed to reduce the total number of immigrants and implement a merit system. Applicants demonstrating English proficiency and high-order job skills would enjoy preference. Family ties with earlier immigrants would be discounted, drastically limiting immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

About a century ago, Americans struggled to find a language to describe what a multicultural, racially diverse and democratic society would look like. One group of progressive thinkers, led by John Dewey, Alain Locke and Jane Addams, urged us to imagine a nation where immigrants were not forced to assimilate to a single mold, but encouraged to keep their traditions and enlarge the possibilities of what it means to be an American.

This theme is missing from public discussion on immigration today. But if we are looking to the past for hints about how to shape an immigration policy that does not reinvent a white nationalist vision, perhaps this is a conversation we need to revive.
 

Comments

country97

I've subscribed to the News Register since 1974 and feel it's time to break ties. I feel that commentary is more than being lectured from one point of view to the exclusion of others Front page news is more than giving an immense amount of the front page space to a sort of McMinnville version of the "Sound of Music".
One thing that has helped me to come to this conclusion is that I have had my vehicle tuned to 1260 am the local radio station. Local news and weather is current and topical.

Bill B

how about inviting a guest speaker who speaks from the conservative side for a change. Again the NR is leaning way left!

Immigrants to our country in the 1700s and 1800s had to prove they had skills that would contribute to the country's success. As far as I'm concerned, that should continue.

VE

At the end od WW2 we allowed people from the most evil county of the time (Germany) into the US. Some were allowed for their bomb and missile making abilities like Werner Von Braun, others were allowed for reasons I do not understand. Naturally, some of these Germans and their decendents are against those people south of the border, Interesting. Ve

Jeb Bladine

Country97,

I'm not sure your comment about front page news is fair. I assume your example is the Page 1 feature about MHS Twilighters, which was surrounded by 4 other stories: Mac businessman, church leader arrested on child sex charges; Mother charged in baby's death; sex abuse charges; Woman dies following medical emergency in the jail; and, Dog shooter gets 48-hour jail stay.

Including a front page community feature admittedly is a regular practice to soften the impact of what often is an array of troubling local news stories.

Our newspaper commentary no doubt is not conservative enough for everyone, but before leaving 40-plus years of readership, I hope you might glance through the hundreds of commentaries, editorial and letters in our total online archive, and perhaps see that a majority are more moderate than either conservative or liberal.

Or, maybe you'll think otherwise. We would miss you as a reader!

Denise

I agree with Bill B,

The NR is becoming a mouthpiece for the left.

I’d like to see the press present the news in a unbiased manner rather than promoting the personal views of the editors.

It’s no wonder people are leery of news organizations.

Really, NPR is about the only quality, unbiased news source remaining.

Pity.

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