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Because President Trump’s first travel ban did not pass legal muster, he, on March 6, 2017, signed a new executive order that restricts refugees and immigrants from six predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States. The new order dropped the restriction on travelers from Iraq as well as those with valid visas.
Trump’s travel ban is not, historically speaking, a particularly novel policy. It is a policy that harkens back to some of the ugliest moments in American history, moments that not only highlight racial and religious bigotry, but also demonstrate that the nation’s political leaders had rejected many of the United States’ core values. Through his executive order, President Trump and his supporters are signaling that they too have lost faith in America’s ideals and institutions.
In the 1870s, for instance, U.S. House of Representatives’ reports stated that Chinese immigrants were “impregnable against all [American] influences, and remain . . . distinct from us in color, . . . in language, in customs, in habits, and in social peculiarities.” These traits, along with their “peculiar [non-Christian] institutions,” “render them undesirable members of society.” As a result of this view, the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Similarly, in 1918, the superintendent of New York City’s public schools noted that the new immigration from southern and eastern Europe “has brought to our shores people whose racial history makes the problem of Americanization or assimilation much more difficult.” The Italians, Poles, and Russians who made up the bulk of this wave of immigration were largely Catholic and Jewish and were seen as a threat to America’s Anglo-Saxon and Protestant heritage. From this fear emerged the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which limited immigration to two percent of nationalities present in the U.S. in 1890. This restriction essentially stopped the flow of emigration from southern and eastern Europe.
The Chinese Exclusion and the Immigration Restriction Acts pointed to two disturbing trends during the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. The first was an essentialist mode of thinking that suggested certain groups of people had particular, unchangeable traits that made them unable to acclimate to American society. This, it should be remembered, was an era of racialist science that posited the inherent “inferiority” of those who hailed from areas other than northern and western Europe. The second trend, and intimately related to the first, was a belief that America’s institutions—its public schools, churches, and other cultural and educational bodies—could no longer inculcate the nation’s democratic norms and values and, thus, acculturate newcomers.
Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants and refugees seems to have a shared ideology with the earlier restrictionist policies. By banning particular nationalities, the president is suggesting whole populations have shared traits and values that are unwelcome in the United States. Additionally, Trump and his advisors seem to have lost faith (or never had faith) in the ability of America’s institutions to cultivate democratic values—the rule of law, a concern for the common good, civic responsibility, etc.—among immigrants and refugees.
President Trump’s travel ban does not help make America great again. With thinly veiled racialism and religious bigotry at its core, the executive order simply makes America’s hate official policy again.
Paul J. Ramsey is an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University and is the author of numerous works on the history of immigrant education, including Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s “Polyglot Boardinghouse” (Palgrave Macmillan).