Donald Trump’s supporters praise him “telling it like it is” when it comes to immigration, as if he’s the only one willing to be “tough” on immigrants. In fact, he’s employing one of the oldest tricks in the book. His “build the wall” rhetoric—and the entire wave of anti-immigrant anger gripping much of this country—is just the most recent chapter in a story that dates back to before the Revolution.
Ben Franklin’s Cosmic Case Against Immigrants
Ben Franklin, the godfather of our nation, expressed his desire to make America white again in 1751, well before he embraced the idea of an independent America. In Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., he said that German immigrants would put a strain on the colonial economy, calling them “Palatine boors” who “swarm into our settlements” and “will never adopt our language and customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion[.]”
Or, to put it in more modern terms:
Franklin also complained that African slaves were taking jobs away from poor colonists and, ever the big-picture guy, made a fascinating case for racist immigration policy:
“And while we are … making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people?”
Presumably, he knew through his involvement with the Illuminati that aliens did exist, and that they preferred white people.
“Hordes of Wild Irishmen”
In 1798, fearing that European immigrants and Americans sympathetic to France would undermine the power of the federal government, a Federalist-controlled congress passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
In addition to severely curtailing First Amendment rights, these acts aimed to keep foreigners from gaining a foothold in the new nation. Immigrants now had to live in the States for 14 years, rather than five years, before gaining the right to vote, and the executive branch had the power to deport or imprison foreigners merely for seeming dangerous or being from a country considered an enemy of America.
The Federalists were using scare tactics to suppress voters they knew they couldn’t win over. Representative Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts said the acts would keep “hordes of Wild Irishmen” and “the turbulent and disorderly of all the world” from destroying the country, but really he just knew they would vote for the other guy.
Newcomers to the country tended to support Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, particularly after the Federalists made their views on immigration clear, and accusing them of being traitors seems to have backfired. Jefferson and his party triumphed in the 1800 elections, before John Adams had signed a single deportation order, although many foreigners had already fled the country.
By the mid-1800s, despite Franklin and Otis’ warnings, German and Irish immigrants were pouring into the country. They tended to take low-paying jobs, packing into urban areas. For the first time, Protestant Americans were forced to interact with a high volume of people whose language, customs, and religion were foreign to them. It went like you might expect.
Self-styled “native Americans” – forgetting that their ancestors were the ones who immigrated, spread disease, committed heinous crimes, and stole a lot of jobs from actual Native Americans – blamed these Catholic immigrants for their economic hardships and rising crime rates. In 1849, some frightened Protestants founded the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. They came to be called the Know-Nothings because of their refusal to acknowledge their membership in public, but they were far from mute when it came to immigration.
Comparing their religion to a “maddened horse” and a “devouring flame,” Know-Nothing nativists railed against Catholics. They campaigned to bar Catholics from public office, argued that Catholics should not be allowed to vote, and tarred and feathered a Catholic priest in Maine. The political wing of the Know-Nothings, the American Party, held over 50 seats in congress in its heyday.
The Know-Nothings eventually fractured over the issue of slavery, just as polls suggest Trump supporters would split if forced to take a position on the Emancipation Proclamation, but their views lived on. Anti-German sentiment was so bad that Friederich Drumpf, the Donald’s grandfather, changed his name and insisted he was Swedish when he moved to America from Germany in 1885.
The “Yellow Peril” and The Chinese Exclusion Act
At first, Americans tolerated the Chinese laborers who came to work in the mines after gold was discovered in the West. As it got harder to find gold, however, and the immigrants began to take other low-paying jobs, “native” Americans grew angry.
Particularly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese immigrants had to take whatever work they could find, oftentimes to support families back in China. Unable to blend in with the white people around them, they tended to cluster together in “Chinatowns,” which the white working class quickly came to regard with suspicion.
Reviling the immigrants for driving down wages, white Americans began to view the Chinese as sub-human, associating their neighborhoods with gambling, opium, and prostitution. Orator and politician Horace Greeley summarized this view: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.”
He didn’t even have the class to add, “And some, I assume, are good people.”
Fearing this “Yellow Peril,” a mob of 500 nativists attacked Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871. In what may be the largest mass lynching in U.S. history, they tortured and killed roughly 20 Chinese immigrants, including children, and at least one white man who was trying to defend them.
The persecution continued and eventually became law. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned the immigration of laborers (and nearly all non-laborers) from China while preventing Chinese immigrants already in the U.S. from becoming citizens. A select few were allowed into the country, provided they carry certificates proving they were professionals who wouldn’t steal jobs from American laborers.
Originally meant to last ten years, the immigration ban was renewed in 1892 and eventually extended indefinitely. It was not repealed until 1943, when America needed China’s cooperation in the fight against Japan. Speaking of which…
Comparing refugees to poisonous Skittles may sound modern, but the fear that immigrants threaten national security is an old one. It’s what led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign an executive order that resulted in the effective imprisonment of well over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in 1942.
Roughly two thirds of those forced into internment camps were American-born and evidence that they were plotting against America was hard to come by, but Pearl Harbor and the lingering specter of “Yellow Peril” were enough to convince many Americans to distrust all Asians. Internment lasted for the duration of the war, forcibly uprooting families from their homes, jobs, and schools as well as separating them from their wealth and possessions, sometimes permanently.
America officially apologized to those it had interned in 1988, after a report commissioned by Jimmy Carter found that racism, not a credible threat of Japanese sedition, had fueled the imprisonment of an entire diaspora community.
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”
When Donald Trump launched his campaign with these words, he was tapping into a vein of nativism that has run through our entire history. Today, American mistrust focuses on Muslims and immigrants from Central and South America, but the same charges were brought against the Irish, Germans, Japanese, and countless others before them. Immigrants, we’re told, import drugs and commit violent crimes. They take jobs away from “natives.”
Most unforgivably, they refuse to assimilate and adopt American values. Chief amongst those values, history suggests, is the belief that those who don’t fit last decade’s definition of “American” harm our country just by being here.
These accusations have given rise to widespread violence, nasty stereotypes, and some sickening acts of congress. In the grand scheme of things, though, no one has managed to keep the face of America from changing. That’s why, today, the son of a Scottish immigrant and grandson of German immigrants can run for president with a self-described “evangelical Catholic” as his running mate.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, they’re both very concerned about what immigrants are doing to this country.