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Trump’s immigration policy is more American than you think
Amer Zahr
Amer Zahr
Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 11:36 am (8 Comments)

It's quite popular these days to declare that Donald Trump's racist views on immigration are "un-American."

He only wants white people coming here. "Why can't we have more people from Norway?"
He wants to get rid of Latinos and black people. "Do we really need more Haitians?"
He devalues, denigrates, and dehumanizes the culture of Africans. "They come from shithole countries."

I can just hear my well-meaning fellow countrymen. "That's not American!" "That isn't who we are as Americans!" "The founding fathers would have never stood for that!" Um... yes, they did.

At the founding of this nation, after writing a Constitution and electing a first Congress and President, the pioneers of the American idea had to decide something quite important. They had to figure out who all these new rules applied to. Who would get to be citizens? Who would get to be "Americans"?

So, on March 26, 1790, the first Congress of the United States declared that a person could become a naturalized citizen of this new nation, as long as they were "of good character," a resident "for the term of two years," and, quite importantly, "a free white person." Yes, you had to be white to become an American. This notion was not some aberrational social custom. Nor was it confined to certain pockets of this new and expanding America. It was the law. Whiteness was legality.

The naturalization laws were modified a bit over the years. The residency requirement changed every now and then. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment provided that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States," although it took a Supreme Court case in 1898 to confirm that this applied to non-white persons. All former Black slaves became American citizens, confirmed in the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

American legal history also witnessed the exclusions of entire populations (the adorably-titled "Chinese Exclusion Act" of 1882), quotas based on national origin (in 1921 and 1924), and a number of other immigration (and anti-immigration) measures.  Despite all these ups and (mostly) downs, naturalization laws, true to their origins, unrelentingly continued to trumpet "whiteness" as a requirement.

During this era, a number of individuals petitioned for whiteness from American courts. A Japanese guy (unsuccessfully). A man from India (unsuccessfully). A Chinese person (unsuccessfully). Some Armenian guys (successfully, that's how we got the Kardashians). A half-European, half-indigenous gentleman from Canada (he wasn't "white" enough for naturalization). And a bunch of Arabs ("white" enough, sort of, if they were Christian, and close to Europe, but basically, kind of).

Explicit racial requirements were finally dropped from American naturalization laws in 1952. That's when Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, the law that laid the basic frameworks for our current immigration system. So, from 1790 until 1952, "whiteness" was the prime determiner in American naturalization eligibility. Think about that for a minute. 162 years of whiteness as the legal bedrock of American immigration policy. Only 66 years of its statutory absence.

Now, of course, the authors of these historical racist immigration laws were much more rhetorically cultivated than our current president. Ideologically, however, he would have fit in with them just fine. Similarly, today, President Trump clumsily professes white supremacist immigration ideals, supported by a political party that largely agrees with his stances, just much more articulately.

We would be well-served to recognize this history. The marriage between citizenship and race is in the DNA of America. When someone who was not a "free white person" was denied citizenship, he was not simply the victim of an incident of isolated bigotry. He was the intended target of the law. To be nonwhite was to be illegal. And sadly, but quite starkly, those days dominate our history. They were not, as we might like to fantasize, a blip.  In 1992, Toni Morrison put it quite succinctly: "In this country, American means white."

So, are Trump's views on immigration racist? Definitely. Are they un-American? Our history says quite the opposite.

* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (8)
  1. How much like Australia’s history with it’s White Australia policy. Today the only people in Australian immigration detention centres on Manus and Nauru are black and brown skinned. In the first telephone conversation between President Trump and our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Turnbull stated that 90 percent of Syrian refugees accepted into Australia will be Christians.

    • Would that be legal Evelyn? Forgive my (American) ignorance about Australian civil rights & immigration laws. I know there were quotas to bring in more Europeans to change the demographics; but I don’t know about current laws there. I feel sick about the people in detention centers. In both our countries. I feel like we are all living in some dystopic futurist sci-fi novel.

  2. When Toni Morrison says, “To be American means to be white” she reflects the general attitude of our community. I was born in America as were both of my parents. I have lived here all my life. I served in the armed forces during the Vietnam Conflict and was a police officer for 32 years. I am as American as any white person who traces their history back to the Mayflower. Yet, when I talk about those who are not members of our Arab community, I refer to them as Americans which is a substitute term for a white person. It only applies to white people and not my Asian or African American brothers and sisters nor any other person of color.

    • Sorry – I’m confused by your comment. Did you write that you don’t think of your Black & Asian friends as American?

      Furthermore not all Arab Americans are white. My Lebanese American father was called “a black man” & people in Ohio tried to prevent him from marrying my blonde German refugee mother. (About 17 years before Loving & Virginia made mixed marriages a guaranteed civil right). Later when they tried to move out of NYC to Connecticut they were kept from most towns. (Black people & other POC had to live in cities – called redlining). I was prevented from swimming in public pools as a tiny child. And later as an older child frisked in shops & mocked by policeman for my colour in a town full of mostly pale Euro-Americans.

      Your comment seems to imply that all Arab Americans can pass for the construct of “White”. And it is a construct.

      The only reason so many Lebanese & other Arab Americans look so pale & European now is because our brothers keep marrying pale non-Arabs. One only has to look at photos of our Arab American communities from 100 years ago & compare them w/ now. My whole family from Marjeyoun looks like they are descended from the Mamluks & Ethiopian Copts that visited Lebanon & Syria (occupied in the case of the Mongolian Mamluks).

      Not all of us can pass or want to. I hate when people say to me “You don’t look American”. And Arab Americans need to stop speaking as if black Lebanese & black Palestinians & black Egyptians & black Yemenis etc. don’t exist. Arabs come in all colours & w/ varied facial features & hair. It’s a culture & language.

      *Loving v. Virginia ruling. (For some reason I’m no longer able to change anything after I’ve typed here. I’m on a new phone & didn’t have that problem before. Or Amer it is on your end? I can backspace to change the last typing – but can’t go into the middle of the field of copy).

  3. Suzanne Nobel ... January 19th, 2018 - 22:19

    So just cause it was done in the past doesn’t mean it’s correct. Shouldn’t we aim to do better for ourselves and others? Sure, it didn’t start with Trump, but it sure is hell is getting worse under him. We should aim hire, not set the bar lower.

  4. Khalil El-Saghir ... January 25th, 2018 - 22:21

    Identity, individual or collective, is a work-in-progress and doesn’t necessarily progress in a straight line. Slavery was constitutionally, culturally, and socially all-American once.

  5. I remember being astonished when I was younger & first heard that Indigenous Americans fought in EVERY SINGLE WAR since Europeans arrived on their land & yet did not have citizenship until (after?) WWII.

    The Chinese Exclusion act impacted us (‘Syrians’ Syria-Lebanese) a lot since we are from Asia. Somebody burst out laughing in my face once when I said we were considered “mongoloid”. That was the word for Asian of course (Negroid / Caucasoid / Mongoloid). It so bizarre. Wow. What a Dante’s Circle the 18th c. lunatic who invented that mad race theory put us in. Three races. Lol. What a tangled web. Can more Arab Americans get on board w/ deconstructing this oppressive paradigm. You’re not “white”. Although some of you may be part European and/or very pale.

    *Syro-Lebanese (correction to above)

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