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Is the Trump travel ban racist? Whiteness has played a central role in U.S. immigration history and

The cry is that the recent Supreme Court endorsement of the Trump travel ban from several majority Muslim countries is “un-American” and racist.

It is in fact quintessentially American.

In 2014, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi observed then that race is a reason the Republicans wouldn’t allow a vote on immigration reform. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they’re not bringing up an immigration bill,” Pelosi said at the time. “I’ve heard them say to the Irish, ‘If it were just you, this would be easy.’”

Pelosi’s observation is historically accurate. Until 1952, race was the epicenter of U.S. immigration law and policy. As the country constructed its nascent immigration laws in the 1800s, the fundamental question turned on who was white, a definition that shifted with the waves of new immigrants. Italians, Jews, and the Irish - who were once referred to as “white negroes” because they worked in the Northeast as maids, cooks and waiters - slid from non-white to white as the country moved to racially exclude others.

Between 1790 and 1870, only white immigrants could become citizens. Congress in 1790 declared that a “free white alien” who had resided in the U.S. for two years and had good moral character could naturalize. In 1852, the Court in Dred Scottfound among other things that blacks, free or slave, were not - and could not become - U.S citizens. Congress overturned it in 1866 when it found “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power…..are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” Two years later, it wrote this definition into the Fourteenth Amendment. After 1870, only whites and people of African descent could become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S.’s first law targeting one group, forbade the Chinese - painted as criminals – from naturalizing. Congress banned virtually all immigration from Asia in1917.

Who exactly was “white”? The Supreme Court took various approaches to this slippery assessment, basing its legal definition on “scientific studies” and the “instinctive” opinion of everyman. In 1922, for example, it held in Takao Ozawathat the Japanese weren’t white because, “as sustained by numerous scientific authorities, they are not members of the Caucasian race” and, in 1924, Congress banned Japanese immigration.

The Court in 1923 found in Bhagat Singh Thind that “a high-caste Hindu of full Indian blood” could not naturalize even though he argued he was Caucasian. The Thind Court said the word “white” should be interpreted “in accordance with the understanding of the common man.” Straining credulity, the Court concluded: “It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize[s] it andreject[s] it through assimilation.” U.S. society rapidly taught new arrivals the overriding value of white skin – Thind, as we see, did not challenge the racism implicit in his legal battle, but instead fought to be considered white and lost (he eventually naturalized under state law.)

It was WWII that coaxed the U.S. away from racial bans as it fought another racist, Hitler. Germany in 1935, with its citizenship limited to “Aryans,” was said to be the only country other than the U.S. with such racial restrictions. In 1940, the U.S. opened citizenship to “descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.” Then, in 1943, the Chinese were allowed to naturalize, followed in 1946 with restrictions lifted for Indians and Filipinos.

Congress in 1952 reformed immigration law, officially ending legal racial bars. Still, entrenched white supremacy, impacting every aspect of U.S. society, also cycles through immigration policy with influential exclusionists putting a chokehold on Congress. The estimated 12 million undocumented who would benefit from reform are largely indigenous Mexicans and Central Americans. Can we honestly imagine Congress delaying if these undocumented were Norwegian or German?


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