Most everyone knows that tomorrow is the day that Japan attacked the United States, launching the U.S. into World War II. If you don’t know this, then please stop reading now because any discussion about national policy does not pertain to you. World War II created the United States that everyone knows today. It is the catalyst that made the U.S. the most powerful nation in the world. But like everything else, the lessons from history are forgotten and the errors of the past are committed repeatedly, albeit with some nationalities changed along the way. Although World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor was not about immigration, the issue of national immigration policies played out in the politics of the day. They offer lessons for today’s debate on immigration.

Immigrant bashing and anti-immigration political rhetoric has existed in the United States for as long as the United States has been a country. It is important to note that one immigrant demographic has mostly remained excluded from the generalized anti-immigration sentiment across the country, then and today. Immigrants that are white and Protestant are generally excluded from attempts to exclude them from the country. The case of the German immigrants versus those from other countries, especially from those from Japan during World War II, demonstrates this.

Prior to World War II, and from the moment the Thirteen Colonies were established in the New World, German colonists immigrated and settled in the soon to be United States. They formed German towns, most notably Germantown in Pennsylvania. They came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch overtime. To this day, the German immigrants have kept much of their language and cultural heritage intact. Like many immigrants today, the German immigrants migrated to the United States for economic reasons.

The interesting thing to note about the German immigrants is that most were Protestant, with only about one-third being Catholic. Also, among the German immigrants in the 1800’s, were Jewish Germans who were better educated and fared better economically then the other German immigrants who were flowing into the United States.

Around the middle of the 1800’s, nativists groups started to argue against immigrants coming to America. One such group, the American Party, argued for traditional “American ideals” centered around the notion that the white-Protestant culture was the desirable culture for the future of the United States. They called for restricting immigration, immigrant rights and demanded an end to immigrants entering the country. Although some Germans were targeted, the American Party’s primary target were the Irish.

Because of World War I, many German immigrants Americanized their names so that they could blend better into America as they left Europe for a better life in their new country. Among the German immigrants was Donald Trump’s grandfather. Although Donald Trump lied about his grandfather immigrating from Sweden in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” the true origin of the Trump family is from Germany through his grandfather and Scotland through his grandmother, who coincidently were both economic immigrants to the United States. Like other German immigrants, Trump’s grandfather Anglicized his name because his German pedigree was bad for the Trump business.

Although some Germans were targeted during World War II for their German heritage, their numbers were substantially less then the Italians and the Japanese during this period.

The Japanese, like their other immigrant populations, have immigrated to the United States since the country was founded. Most Japanese immigrated for economic purposes, like their other immigrant brethren. And like, other immigrants, the U.S. business owners and the government encouraged immigrants to come to the country to shore up labor resources. But, unlike their German counterparts, the Japanese were not white nor Protestant and thus they were treated very differently by U.S. citizens throughout history.

The original Japanese immigrants were recruited to build the railroads. They were known as Issei, or a Japanese immigrant to North America. As the railroad construction winded down, the Issei took on agricultural jobs across the country. Discrimination and anti-immigrant pressure limited further Japanese immigrants by the early 1900’s.

Although Hitler was the true antagonist, it was the Japanese that were targeted by the hysteria against immigrants during World War II. Unlike their German counterparts, the Japanese were interned in U.S. internment camps across the country, including two-thirds of the Japanese-descendants who were U.S. citizens at the time of their internment.

The discrimination against Japanese immigrants and the nativists activities of groups, like the American Party, led to the Immigration Act of 1924 which set quotas by country from which immigrants to the U.S. could immigrate from. The new immigration law effectively ended the notion of “open borders” for immigrants wanting to relocate to the United States. The new law was also known as the “Asian Exclusion Act” and it severely restricted immigrants from Africa, Asia and Muslim countries.

The result of the new immigration quota system was that almost 86% of the immigrants permitted under the new quota system were from North European countries, like Britain, while eastern and southern European immigrants, like the Italians, were highly restricted.

The immigration quota system was changed under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which eliminated the National Origins Formula used for the quota system and replaced it with today’s system that encouraged familial ties for immigrants and their job skills. It is the familial ties of the current immigration policy that has led to the controversy over “chain migration” that many nativists complain about today.

However, the 1965 Act, although ostensibly designed to encouraged immigrant skills as a qualifier, it continued to set low quotas that limits the number of immigrants needed to fill the labor requirements of the country. Thus, the issue of undocumented immigrants is exacerbated instead of resolved.

The current form the immigration reform debate centers around the notion that skilled-based immigration is the solution to the immigration problem. However, like its predecessor attempts at immigration reform, the true underlining driver is not equal and open immigration to fill labor requirements, but rather culturally-driven immigration that fills a perceived need for like-minded immigrants rather than those who bring their culture and their language with them.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...