A Brief History of Anti-Immigrant Propaganda
One often overlooked yet highly controversial provision in President Trump’s executive orders on immigration includes a plan for sanctuary cities to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by “aliens.”
The provisions are nestled in Trump’s executive order on securing the nation’s interior. Under a section on “sanctuary jurisdictions,” the President’s executive order called for the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly “comprehensive list” of crimes.
This section reads as follows:
“To better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the secretary shall utilize the Declined Detainer Outcome Report or its equivalent and, on a weekly basis, make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.”
The wording, as you probably noted, failed to clarify whether the “aliens” or foreigners in question were documented or undocumented immigrants. I believe this proposed list amounts to nothing more than a concerted government effort to discredit and vilify our immigrant communities. In other words, this is pure propaganda, plain and simple.
Trump’s narrative however is easily disproven by the facts. What’s deeply disturbing however, is the fact that baseless anti-immigrant propaganda is as American as apple pie.
While immigration is the starting point to almost every American family’s story, there’s always been a tendency among established residents to blame the latest immigrant wave for the nation’s most pressing problems, especially in response to difficult economic times and national security threats.
Throughout our young nation’s history, there have been sporadic outbreaks of navitism like the one I believe we are witnessing now. This is the belief that our way of life is under attack and needs defending from corrupt, criminal, foreign influence.
In 1775, before the United States had gained its independence, Benjamin Franklin warned against the destructive forces of German immigration. “A Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
A century later, in response to a new wave of Irish and German immigration, the “Native American Party,” or the “Know Nothings” as they were popularly dubbed, grew in popularity. The party capitalized on growing anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment by promising to crack down on immigration. In the mid-1850’s, the “Know Nothings” won six governorships and gained control of various state legislatures before dividing over slavery and eventually falling out of favor.
During the economic crisis of the 1880’s, Chinese immigrants became the ethnic target du jour. For decades, Chinese immigrants provided cheap labor in the mines and railroads that expanded our country to the west. Amid an economic slowdown in the early 1880’s, tensions grew as jobs became scarce. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration and precluded those already here from gaining American citizenship. This was the first law preventing a specific group from entering the United States. It wasn’t officially repealed until 1943.
From the late 1800’s through the early 1930’s Italian immigrants fled economic hardship by moving to cities on our East Coast. Our response at the time was spike in anti-Catholic hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which recruited millions of members in an effort to scare off minority groups. Congress did their part by passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply limited entry from Southern and Eastern Europe and placed an outright ban on immigration from Asia. These quotas remained in place until 1965.
Around this time, thousands of Eastern European and Russian Jews fleeing persecution made their way to America, only to be targeted by the KKK as well. Anti-Semitic sentiment was further spread by influential public figures like automotive magnate Henry Ford, who purchased his hometown newspaper and used it to rail against “the Jewish plan to control the world.” Beloved aviator Charles Lindbergh also joined in the hateful rhetoric and later became a spokesperson for a large nativist, isolationist group called America First.
During the Great Depression, as millions of Americans struggled to find employment, some leaders, including President Herbert Hoover, accused Mexican laborers of stealing precious American jobs. As a result, as many as 2 million people of Mexican heritage, including many who were American citizens, were deported to Mexico. in 2005, California became the only state to officially apologize for its role in violating the civil liberties of Mexican-Americans during this period.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were demonized and labeled a security risk. On direct orders from President Franklin Roosevelt, over 100,000 of them were rounded up and forced to live in interment camps. The majority of those forced into interment camps were American citizens, many of which had sons fighting for the US against Japan in World War II.
And so it appears, Mexican immigrants are today’s target of choice. The raids we’ve seen over the past week, the relentless attacks on “sanctuary cities” and the proposed weekly immigrant crime blotter are all a part of discrediting this community. Immigration has long been a festering wound in America, but rather than treating the problem via sensible immigration reform, we have resorted to an American tradition that needs to be put to rest once and for all.
If history is any guide, it’s worth noting that this anti-immigrant fervor usually subsides. And more often than not, the newcomer is eventually woven into the fabric of America. As the founder of the Immigrant Archive Project, the question I keep asking myself however, is how do we prevent today’s immigrants from becoming tomorrow’s xenophobic nativists? Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.