The current debate over immigration that is taking place in the United States is certainly nothing new. Much as Americans like to pride themselves on being a “nation of immigrants”, this has never been a particularly easy place to come as a foreigner and start a new life. With each new ethnic and religious group that has landed on these shores, there has been a certain amount of suspicion. I am not saying this to demonize anyone who wants to place any kind of restriction on immigration, but as a way of framing the issue I intend to address.
Way back in 1790, restrictions were put in place that limited just who could become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America (as opposed to those who became citizens by virtue of being born within our borders). The specific groups that caused concern changed over the years. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was mainly Asians who worried Americans. Congress passed a law that restricted many types of immigrants, including “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons…” One wonders what kind of test they employed to measure what constituted an “idiot”, as a good number of persons living in any country on earth at any point in history have surely deserved this label. Yet, the law was more specific in excluding,
…persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia, situate south of the twentieth parallel latitude north, west of the one hundred and sixtieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the tenth parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situate on the Continent of Asia west of the one hundred and tenth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and east of the fiftieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the fiftieth parallel of latitude north, except that portion of said territory situate between the fiftieth and the sixty-fourth meridians of longitude east from Greenwich and the twenty-fourth and thirty-eighth parallels of latitude north…
Immigration Act of 1917
If you found that confusing – and you undoubtedly did – then let me put it in plain terms for you. This law barred immigrants from any part of Asia except for the Russian Empire, Japan, Korea, and eastern China. This was understandably a problem for many people of Asian descent who were planning on immigrating to the U.S. Continue reading