There is an ongoing narrative about how the Democrats are pro-immigrant or immigrant friendly. In recent weeks, Donald Trump has accused the Democrats of being “open border” advocates. The Democrats have been applauding themselves for having deep empathy for the plight of the immigrants. Most people believe that the Democrats are immigrant friendly while the Republicans are anti-immigrants. The boisterous far-right Republicans do not make it easier to make the case for the Republicans. But, what does history tell us? It might surprise many of you that the Democrats have led the efforts against immigrant for many years.
Since the country’s founding, immigrants were welcomed into the country with few exceptions. Obviously, immigrants considered “enemies” of the country were not welcomed. That led to the 1798 Alien Enemies Act that excluded immigrants from enemy countries, free access to the U.S. Although there existed a 1790 law limiting citizenship to “white people” only, immigration into the country was not limited by laws, until 1875 when the first laws limiting who could immigrate to the United States were enacted. The 1875 law denied immigration to “undesirable” immigrants who were mainly immigrants from Asia.
The Page Act established the authority of the United States to exclude certain immigrants according to certain classifications. In this case they targeted immigrants from Asia as well as criminals and prostitutes. In 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act, further limited Asian immigrants and added immigrants who “were likely to become a public charge” to the list of those who could be denied entry into the United States.
The Naturalization Act of 1906 standardized the process of immigration for the first time and created a federal agency to administer immigration. It also established the process for becoming a U.S. citizen. This immigration law was adopted by a Republican majority congress under Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. It did not put any quotas on Mexican immigrants entering, working, or leaving the United States.
Up until 1924, immigration rules for Mexican immigrants and workers were relaxed as most Mexicans were only required to make a payment of a nickel to cross the border and fill out a simple form at the border. In 1921, the United States adopted the Emergency Quota Act limiting immigrants to three percent of the those already in the country. Canadians and Mexicans were excluded from the quota system. The law targeted immigrants from Europe because citizens did not feel that the Europeans, especially those from Southern-Eastern Europe, could “assimilate” properly. In 1924, the “national-origin” quotas for immigrants was adopted. It further limited European immigrants and encouraged agricultural workers, among others. The Republicans were in control of Congress in both 1921 and 1924. Both presidents, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge were Republicans. There were no restrictions on Mexican immigrant workers.
Between 1929 and 1939, the Great Depression severely hurt the worldwide economic system and it led to mass poverty and shortages of job opportunities. The president during most of the Great Depression was Hebert Hoover. He was a Republican.
Although there were no laws limiting immigrant laborers from México, the United States embarked upon expelling as many Mexicans from the country as possible to make way for native-born Americans to fill the job vacancy left open. The expulsions ostensibly targeted undocumented Mexican immigrants, and it resulted in thousands of U.S. citizens, of Mexican descent, to be forcefully removed from the country.
To remove the Mexicans, both U.S. citizens and immigrants, communities used intimidation and sustained harassment to force the Mexican workers into México. The process generally followed the model used on February 26, 1931 when at La Placita, a Mexican gathering place in Los Angeles, was closed of by federal officers and anyone looking Mexicans had to show their papers. Once “identified” as “Mexican,” the individual was put on a bus, train or boat and taken to México. However, the majority were forced out from their communities when local laws or political pressure made it difficult for them to find jobs, and thus were left with no other choice then to leave the country.
It is important to understand the use of the term “repatriation” for this mass deportation. Governments deport individuals, a formal process where the immigrant is forced to leave the country under the law. A “repatriation” is the process whereby an individual leaves a country to return to their own country. It is normally an informal process, especially for Mexican citizens. In the case of the 1929-1936 Mexican Repatriations, it was not the law that deported the Mexicans, but rather intimidations, harassments and subterfuge that made them leave on their own.
There is considerable controversy over how many Mexicans were forced out of the country during this time. The Hoover Library claims that 49,000 Mexicans left “voluntarily” and 72,000 were forcefully removed. The “Tarnished Golden Door: Civil Rights Issues in Immigration,” a 1980 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report states that “federal immigration officials expelled hundreds of thousands persons of Mexican descent from the country.” The reports adds, “approximately 500,000 persons were ‘repatriated’ to Mexico, with more than half of them being United States citizens.”
Regardless of the number of individuals expelled from the country, including United States citizens, what is important to understand is that the expulsion of the people was not a federal government initiative, but rather local campaigns designed to improve the job prospects in their communities and to reduce the pressures on the welfare systems. They used the federal government to help them rid themselves of the “Mexican problem.”
There are no definitive records to the number of individuals deported during this period, so it is difficult to quantify where the most expulsions occurred.
However, the expulsion of Mexicans was driven by municipalities, like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Antonio. It was the municipalities that paid for the expulsions of the Mexicans, not the federal government. The largest expulsion of Mexicans was from Los Angeles, as well as San Antonio and surrounding areas. Other municipalities, like Chicago, to a smaller extent encouraged Mexicans, whether citizens or not, to leave their communities during this time.
In San Antonio, the mayors, during this period were C. M. Chambers and C. K. Quin, who was appointed in 1933, after Chambers died. Quin was a former member of the Ku Klutz Klan. According to the Texas State Historical Association, San Antonio had been a “political machine” from the 1800s that used “patronage, graft, and vice” to remain in power. The Mexican American population had significantly increased between 1910 and 1930 and their votes were “manipulated through city or county patronage or through pressure from employers.” Both Chambers and Quin were democrats.
On January 1, 2006, California enacted the “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program.” The State of California apologized for the “fundamental violations” of the “basic civil liberties and constitutional rights during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration.” Most of the evidence to the number of those expelled from the United States comes from California.
A June 1931 memorandum written by a Los Angeles District director of immigration wrote, “thousands upon thousands of Mexican aliens have been literally scared out of Southern California.” [5, page 123] The mayor of Los Angeles during the time Mexicans were being expelled was a Democrat, John Clinton Porter was also a senior member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the president and the congress were Republican during this time, their involvement in the Mexican Repatriations of the 1930s was ancillary at best as there were no federal laws enacted to limit Mexican immigrants during this time. It was the municipalities, controlled by Democrats, that terrorized Mexicans, including many U.S. citizens, to leave the country.
In 1943 and then again in 1952, the United States enacted two laws to repeal the prohibition of Chinese and other Asian immigrants. The 1952 law added Communists to the list of undesirable immigrants and set quotas for immigrants with certain skills. It also gave the president the authority [Section 212(f)] to limit immigrants who could be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The Trump administration cited this provision as the basis for the travel ban it implemented against immigrants from certain countries.
It is important to note that it was the Democrats who adopted the law, even overriding the veto of Harry Truman, also a Democrat, who criticized the law as “a slap at millions of Americans whose fathers were of alien birth.” Nonetheless, the new law did not impose limits on Mexicans.
An immigrant work permit system was created on August 4, 1942 when the United States and México signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, also known as the Bracero Program. It encouraged and legalized Mexicans wanting to work American agricultural fields. It remained largely in place until 1964. However, by the 1950s, the Mexican laborers were again being targeted for removal from the country because of labor strife.
In 1950, Harry S. Truman established a President’s Commission on Migratory Labor. The report concluded that immigrant labor unfairly competed against American workers. John F. Kennedy determined that the U.S.-Mexican labor program was “adversely affecting the wages, working conditions, and employment” of the local workforce. The Bracero Program was officially ended in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson. [7, page 140] Both Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats. Before the Bracero Program ended, the pressures by native-born workers forced the second mass deportations of Mexicans.
On June 9, 1954, the United States initiated Operation Wetback. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, launched a massive deportation program using military tactics. Operation Wetback was designed from the onset to expel as many Mexican workers from the labor pools as possible, even those who had entered legally through the Bracero Program.
In addition to the military tactics of mass deportations, the 1954 operation also used the same tactics of fear used in the 1930s to force Mexicans back into México. Like the 1930s, many U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were also expelled from the United States.
The citizens were caught up in the raids and their constitutional rights were denied arbitrarily because of the color of their skin. According to a 1931 U.S. government report, “the methods of immigration officials in apprehending suspects have gone to the length of forcibly detaining groups of people many of whom are aliens lawfully in this country, or even United States citizens, without any warrant of arrest or search.” [6, pg: 133] The government report adds, “It is not only aliens who were involved in deportation proceedings; the rights of United States citizens are often infringed”, as well [6, pg: 135]
As many as 1.3 million people were expelled to México, during Operation Wetback.
Although the mass deportations happened under the auspices of a Republican president, Eisenhower, it is important to note that the operation was encouraged by the nation’s agricultural sector and ran in parallel with the government’s attempt to end the use of undocumented immigrants instead of immigrants with work permits. Also, little known to most readers is that México also helped in the operation by providing resources and transportation because it needed workers to fill Mexican labor needs.
In 1943, México had reminded the U.S. government that the purpose of the Bracero Program included a mechanism for controlling the number of Mexicans who left México to work U.S. fields. The Mexican government was complicit in the mass deportations because it wanted to regain control over its citizens in America. The farmers wanted access to documented workers and labor wanted higher wages. It was the immigrants that were rounded up that paid the price for “regulating” immigrant labor for both countries.
Nonetheless, it was a Republican administration that was responsible for Operation Wetback.
In 1965, the next phase of the immigration process was launched. The Hart-Cellar Act, or the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA) repealed the national-origins formulas used to limit European immigration and encouraged the “family reunification” strategy for issuing immigrant visas. The new law moved away from labor and instead looked to reunite immigrant families with foreign members. The law also, for the first time, set quotas on Canadians and Mexicans. Labor unions had been pushing for higher immigrant labor limits.
This law was formulated by two Democrats, Emanuel Celler and Philip Hart and enacted by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat, was president at the time.
The INA remains the law limiting immigrant labor from México to this day.
The next major change to the American immigration public policy did not happen again until 1986 when Republican president Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Reagan provided a pathway to citizenship to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who were living in the United States before the law was signed. The House was controlled by the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by the Republicans.
The Reagan law also provided for sanctions against employers knowingly hiring undocumented workers, but it has not been adequately enforced.
The 1990 Immigration Act signed by George H. W. Bush and enacted by a Democrat-controlled congress imposed a limit on work permits for immigrant labor and emphasized “family reunification” as an immigration basis. It also created the “Diversity Immigrant Visa” category to encourage immigrants from countries deemed as low immigrant countries. It allocated a set number of visas to be issued to each country in the form of lottery system.
In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress enacted the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA)”. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was the president who signed the law. The law made it easier to deport immigrants and harder for them to immigrate into the country. It is the law used today to enforce border security and separate children from their parents under the provisions of prosecuting the parents. It also made it harder for immigrants to access welfare programs.
In 2002, a Democrat Senate and a Republican House enacted the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. George W. Bush, a Republican, signed it into law. The law increased the number of Border Patrol Agents and began requiring schools to report foreign students attending classes. Foreign nationals were also required to carry ID on their persons.
In 2005, the Real ID Act set security standards for identification to enter federal buildings, imposed identification standards on states and added restrictions to political asylum applications. The law also increased enforcement tools and allowed for building barriers along the borders. It was adopted by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush, also a Republican.
Barack Obama, a Democrat, unilaterally created an immigration policy through an Executive Order allowing children brought into the country without documentation to remain in the country for two-year periods. It has become known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA or DreamAct). The policy is not law and only provides work permits and relief from deportation to the beneficiaries for two-year periods. There is no long-term pathway to legalization for the recipients.
In 2017, Donald Trump, a Republican, attempted to end the DACA program but it was reinstated by court order the following year. Currently, several Republican states, including Texas, have sued the Trump administration over DACA.
The continued debates over immigration uses the narrative that the Republicans are anti-immigrants while the Democrats are pro-immigrants. Many readers believe this to be the reality. However, over the history of immigration reform, the Democrats have led, or enacted the most draconian laws limiting immigrants, especially labor immigrants from seeking work in the United States. The mass-deportations were driven by labor needs under Democrat governments, except for the 1954 Operation Wetback, under Dwight Eisenhower.
Moreover, the Republicans have enacted the most permissive immigrant laws, including Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform law. The notable exception to this has been Donald Trump who has advocated for mass deportations and the removal of the legal protections for those seeking admission into the country. Even then, the Democrats have had several opportunities to deal with DACA, even in the minority, through legislative gamesmanship, and other than protests and speeches, have yet to offer a concrete solution to the problem.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke running against republican Ted Cruz is the prime example of this. O’Rourke offered speeches and joined marches against the separation of children at the border in recent days, but offered no legislation at the House. Whereas, Ted Cruz, the Republican offered legislation to resolve the problem, although it did not gain any traction. Nonetheless, Cruz offered a concrete solution, while O’Rourke talked about the problem, further creating the illusion that the democrats are trying to help the immigrants in the community. (typographical corrections were made on June 29, 2018 @ 10:15ET)
1. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1952
2. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1961
3. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1954
4. United States. Report on the enforcement of the deportation laws of the United States. Washington: G.P.O., 1931
5. Tirman, John; “Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash”; MIT Press, March 13, 2015
6. Oppenheimer, Reuben; “The Administration of the Deportation Laws of the United States, Report to The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement”; United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1931
7. Hayworth, J.D. and Joe Eule; “Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror”; Simon & Schuster; 2013
Thank you once again for a very interesting read. I don’t always agree with your more opinion oriented pieces, but I absolutely love when you give these historical snapshots. Always something new to learn. Please continue ALL the great work you do; even when we don’t agree, the free exchange of ideas only strengthens us all.
I do have one question, I believe I had read in a few different articles that Mr. O’Rourke had plans to either submit or co-sponsor a bill addressing the family separations around the same time Mr. Cruz had stated the same. Did Mr. O’Rourke not follow through with this statement after the fact?
DACA was an executive order, not a law. I do not understand why Trump was unable to end it by executive order, being overruled by the courts.
Why is the court intervening in a matter of non-law? We are governed by laws, not by courts.
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