U.S. Immigration Crackdowns Not Unusual During Times Of Crisis

Jun 21, 2020
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President Trump confirmed that new visa restrictions are coming in an interview with Fox News on Saturday but declined to give details. There are already strict immigration policies in place which have been tightened even further in response to this pandemic. And these policies have historical echoes from more than a century ago when the country was gripped by an earlier pandemic, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Immigration crackdowns aren't unusual when the country faces a crisis, says Dan Tichenor, an immigration historian at the University of Oregon. He points to 1918 - the influenza pandemic that killed more than a half a million Americans.

DAN TICHENOR: There's clearly echoes - or, you know, the old Mark Twain quote - that history doesn't repeat itself. It often rhymes.

AMOS: In 1918, the pandemic swept the country during a World War and economic uncertainty. An American political movement known as nativists controlled the Congress, and they aimed to limit immigration, says Tichenor.

TICHENOR: They are desperately trying to connect the pandemic to their great cause of restricting immigration - and particular kinds of immigration because they view the southern, eastern Europeans as racially inferior, as they do all kinds of other people.

AMOS: The nativist arguments of 1918 resonate with the ones made today, he says.

TICHENOR: The idea that we can't keep our country safe and prosperous if we allow in certain kinds of immigrants - so all of that definitely rhymes.

AMOS: But the rhyme didn't come right away. For one thing, the 1918 pandemic targeted everyone. Immigration was already down because of the war. And, says historian Alan Kraut, immigrants were on the frontlines fighting for their new country.

ALAN KRAUT: It was hard to make the case that immigrants were a menace and a threat to the democracy when, in fact, they were defending the democracy.

AMOS: But by the 1920s, as the economy worsened, nativists in Congress and their anti-immigration allies won the fight, says Tichenor. Policies that stood for almost a half century - sweeping legislation that restricted immigration based on national origin.

TICHENOR: And imposes a pretty draconian ceiling on annual immigration, and that sits, really, until 1965.

AMOS: Fast forward to the present-day COVID crisis. The U.S. closed its borders - a move adopted by most countries around the world - but the Trump administration also shut off asylum claims at the southern border, suspended all refugee resettlement. And then in April, President Trump announced a temporary suspension of immigration not on the basis of health risks, but to bar immigrants who would compete for jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will be issuing a temporary suspension of immigration into the United States. You heard about that last night. By pausing immigration, we'll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs.

AMOS: The restrictions are unprecedented, says Alex Aleinikoff, head of the Zolberg Center on Migration and Mobility at The New School in New York.

ALEX ALEINIKOFF: The pandemic has given the Trump administration the justification for accomplishing much of what it has wanted to do throughout its term.

AMOS: And historian Alan Kraut notes the echoes of a century ago, when a devastating pandemic was followed by an economic depression - the same forces at play today.

KRAUT: It's the perfect moment to sort of slide through immigration restriction. And what better way to justify these kinds of sentiments than to say that they're connected to the public's health in a more general way?

AMOS: He adds that history shows temporary measures can last for decades. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.