• Show Notes
  • Transcript

How has American immigration policy shifted over our national history? What can these changes show about how the U.S. defines “us” and “them”? 

Heather and Joanne discuss the politics and prejudices surrounding the two 1790s Naturalization Laws, the Immigration Act of 1924, the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, and the current Republican rhetoric about migrants at the Southern border. 

Join CAFE Insider to listen to “Backstage,” where Heather and Joanne chat each week about the anecdotes and ideas that formed the episode. Head to: cafe.com/history

For more historical analysis of current events, sign up for the free weekly CAFE Brief newsletter, featuring Time Machine, a weekly article that dives into an historical event inspired by each episode of Now & Then: cafe.com/brief

Executive Producer: Tamara Sepper; Editorial Producer: David Kurlander; Audio Producer: Matthew Billy; Theme Music: Nat Weiner; CAFE Team: Adam Waller, David Tatasciore, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, and Jake Kaplan. Now & Then is presented by CAFE and the Vox Media Podcast Network.


  • Nicole Marea, “Why Ron DeSantis is baiting Biden on the border,” Vox.com, 9/22/2022
  • Andy Newman and Raúl Vilchis, “Seeking Asylum in Texas; Sent to New York to Make a Political Point,” New York Times, 9/15/2022
  • Deepak Bhargava and Rich Stolz, “The US’s ‘immigration crisis’ is admitting too few immigrants, not too many,” The Guardian, 9/23/2022
  • Ben Mathis-Lilley, “The Fake Pamphlet Given to Martha’s Vineyard Migrants Is Very Funny and Also Possibly Criminal Evidence,” Slate, 9/20/2022


  • Stephen Pincus, “America’s Declaration of Independence was pro-immigrant,” Aeon, 9/22/2016
  • David Weissbrodt and Laura Danielson, “The Source and Scope of the Federal Power to Regulate Immigration and Naturalization,” University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, 2004 
  • Ilya Somin, “Immigration Law Defies the American Constitution,” The Atlantic, 10/3/2019
  • “Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Ariela Gross and Alejandro de la Fuente, “Citizenship once meant whiteness. Here’s how that changed,” The Washington Post, 7/18/2019


  • Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “How 1800s racism birthed Chinatown, Japantown and other ethnic enclaves,” NBC News, 5/13/2019
  • Anna Diamond, “The 1924 Law That Slammed the Door on Immigrants and the Politicians Who Pushed it Back Open,” Smithsonian Magazine, 5/19/2020
  • Adam Serwer, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots,” The Atlantic, 4/2019
  • Calvin Coolidge, “Address Accepting the Republican Presidential Nomination,” UCSB Presidency Project, 8/14/1924
  • Stephen Rohde, “The United States — A Model for the Nazis,” LA Review of Books, 9/3/2017


  • Josh Zeitz, “The 1965 Law That Gave the Republican Party Its Race Problem,” Politico, 8/20/2016
  • “Our New Immigration Law,” American Legion Magazine, 2/1966
  • Steven M. Gillon, “ How a Little-Known ’60s Congressman Unwittingly Upended U.S. Immigration,” History.com, 2/2/2018
  • Jia Lynn Yang, “The Surprising Origin of Our Modern Nation of Immigrants,” New York Times, 6/13/2020

Heather Cox Richardson:

From Cafe and the Vox Media Podcast Network, this is Now and Then. I’m Heather Cox Richardson.

Joanne Freeman:

And I’m Joanne Freeman. This week we are talking about a topic which I think probably for most people listening is an obvious topic to talk about, and that is immigration in US history and how Americans have dealt with othered, included, excluded immigrants over time.

Now, obviously this is sparked by the number of events that we just recently saw. One of them by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who decided that he would arrange for the transportation of 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. They were brought there and they were left there. Texas Governor, Greg Abbott did something similar, sending two buses full of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’s house in Washington DC.

Now, obviously these are things aimed at getting attention, right? They are political maneuvers. People have been using the word stunt, which on the one hand I understand the use of it. On the other hand, I kind of resent it because even though this is not the intent of the word, it feels a little dehumanizing to me. And I don’t think these are stunts. They should be crimes, but they’re certainly offenses in one way or another. So stunt is a little too cutesy a word for it. But regardless, these are pretty dramatic as so much else these days, in your face offenses against a lot of things, and certainly displays of a lack of empathy.

So this particular tactic might be a little bit new, but certainly it does not represent a new feeling in general about how the United States treats immigrants, about what we think about the place of immigrants within the United States, about the weird sort of upside down logic of a nation that likes to consider itself a nation of immigrants, and then fight so hard to keep immigrants out.

We are deeply conflicted as a nation about immigrants and immigration, and always have been. And that’s some of what we want to talk about today.

Heather Cox Richardson:

I think before we get into this, I want to make it clear that the people that DeSantis dumped in Martha’s Vineyard with no notification to the people who lived on Martha’s Vineyard that they were coming, were in fact here legally. They had applied for asylum, which is legal. So they entered the country at an official point of entry. They had been processed at a detention facility. And they told a customs and border patrol agent that they’re afraid of returning to their home country and want to seek asylum. So they are here legally.

And what happens is that once a migrant goes through that screening phase, they have to apply formally for asylum status and then wait for their case to go to an immigration court.

And because we’re short of courts that can handle immigration cases, that part of their case can take up to a year or even more. And they can’t apply for work. And under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, people who have asked for asylum can’t be authorized to work until they have been proven to be eligible to work in America.

So they were in this sort of limbo. And it appears that people, and I’m using that sort of carefully, promised them to be able to get work in Massachusetts, as well as a number of government benefits for which they actually weren’t available.

Joanne Freeman:

And support and homes and a variety of other things, right? You’re going to go there and we’re going to have all sorts of things available so that we can help you get established.

Heather Cox Richardson:

There are many things about that movement, about the two chartered planes and the 48 people who were on them, that are now being litigated in court, not only by the migrants who’ve launched a class action suit, but also by people in other states as well who are related in one way or another. So there’s a lot of pieces of that that are going to be going forward in our court system. But the migrants themselves were not, as DeSantis has said, undocumented, or as he calls them, illegal.

Joanne Freeman:

Even though you’ve said it twice, I’m going to say it again because it’s going to relate to some of what we’re saying today. They were not illegal immigrants. They were going through the process of what you do, process set in place if you want to claim asylum.

What’s been interesting to me over the course of the last week or so is that when I’ve been engaged in conversations with people, some of them admittedly on social media with people who do not agree with me, they won’t acknowledge that these people were here legally. They cannot get beyond saying, “Well, these were a bunch of illegals.” And the degree to which for some people, immigrant and illegal are the same thing, is a big problem.

So I just want to reiterate that again. First of all, that’s not a fact that immigrant and illegal are the same thing. But particularly for these people, they were actually going through the process and they were shifted out of it by two governors.

Heather Cox Richardson:

To make a political point. And that’s going to matter going forward as well. But the reason I actually wanted to do this episode was less about the present, although it’s very important for the present, but because of the fact that America has prided itself on being a nation of immigrants from the very beginning. And most people don’t recognize that our early history is really caught up in the desperate need for people to come to the North American continent and essentially to push off the land, the Indigenous Americans who are here.

So the idea that somehow we as a nation need to provide fences to preserve what’s here, just seems to me to be just this bizarre paradox. So tell us about the early period.

Joanne Freeman:

If you want to play the game that so many people do by pointing to the FOUNDING in all capital letters, and saying, “Well, if people then believed it or thought it or did it, then it’s the founding. That’s what we should be thinking.”

In that period, the fact of the matter is, if you think about Colonial America and then early National America, we were colonies and then a new nation, and these colonies and the new nation wanted people, needed people, needed people to come into the country, partly, literally just to populate lands as you just suggested, Heather. After the Revolution, there were lands that could have been or needed to be settled that were being sold. Some of the selling of those lands, that money was being used to pay debts of various kinds. There was a need for laborers of various kinds. So a new nation certainly wasn’t initially saying all immigration is bad, we don’t want any immigrants. There was a need for immigrants.

So as a matter of fact, in Colonial America, by 1755, the colonial population surpassed one million residents. Some in England were worried about that number being too large. So in 1763, Britain prohibited colonists from settling on the land acquired from France during the Seven Years War, and began to curtail colonial naturalization authority.

Now, those actions actually infuriated the colonists. So Britain says, “Yeah, there’s a lot of people there. We want to control this.” The colonists were outraged at the stem of people, the flow of people who were needed in the colonies, being curtailed, to the point that they complain about it in the Declaration of Independence, where they charge King George III with preventing “the population of these states for that purpose, obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”

Heather Cox Richardson:

What about The Constitution? I find it fascinating that I believe there is only one office in America that you must be native born in order to hold. Is that correct?

Joanne Freeman:

You’re talking about the presidency.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Presidency. You can come from another country and be a senator or representative or on the Supreme Court or any number of places. The only person who can’t be foreign born is the President, which I think is a really interesting distinction. The fear, of course, that there would be a puppet put in place.

Joanne Freeman:

Of a foreign power.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Of a foreign power, yes. But for the rest of it, they seem to be perfectly fine with the idea of someone coming in from another country and becoming a naturalized citizen.

Joanne Freeman:

Well, don’t forget that so many people in the colonies and then in the United States at that point were foreign born. Supposedly, when you walked around at Colonial and early America, you heard a pretty wide range of accents, English accents, but people from different parts of the world. Supposedly the first Congress in 1789, about 10% of all members of the House were foreign born, and the Senate as well. In 2021, 3%, that held true.

So in early America, foreign born, meaning not born on American soil, was complicated because the country has a birth moment. So who are you talking about as people who are born on American land or who can or can’t be president? Interestingly, I get asked a lot, this is not surprising, Hamilton, he probably couldn’t have been president, right? He wanted to be, but he couldn’t have been. Well, no, because he was naturalized by that point. Plus, there was a clause in The Constitution, like an escape clause. If you were a citizen at the time that The Constitution went into play, then that didn’t apply.

And we should differentiate here. There were two levels of procedure involved when we were talking about immigrants. On the one hand, the federal government had authority over naturalization, people becoming citizens. But states regulated immigration as part of their policing power. So what that meant is that on a state by state basis, there were different requirements, potentially, for you to immigrate to those states.

And I have a wonderful grad student who at the moment is working on citizenship in early America, and what she’s partly interested in is the ways in which people were even shopping state to state to see where it might be easier for them to get in or not. And what people wanted ultimately was citizenship, but there were a lot of leaks and anomalies. It wasn’t a neat and tidy system at the time. And even as they’re sort of crying out for settlers of various sorts, for the same reasons that they wanted a president to be born on American soil, they were very, very wary of foreigners coming in, and in one way or another, plugging in with the European power and taking over.

Heather Cox Richardson:

But there is a different group of people that Congress is concerned about in 1790 and 1795. And I would love to hear you talk about those naturalization laws.

Joanne Freeman:

There’s actually an ongoing series of naturalization acts passed in Congress. They say a lot about what people were thinking at the moment about who should or shouldn’t be American.

So a very early naturalization act, the Naturalization Act of 1790, so the government’s been in existence under The Constitution for one year, says the following; “That any alien being a free white person who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” Very specific, a free white person.

There was another law that came along in 1795 that said, okay, maybe not two years, that they’ll have to have been under the jurisdiction of the United States for five years, adding a little bit more time. And also, in the original 1790 Act, there was a requirement that you needed to be of good character. In the 1795 Act, they added the fact that you needed to be not just of good character, but of good moral character.

With the increased amounts of time for people to be able to come citizens and with the tweaks to how people are describing who’s allowed in, you’re watching the new nation sort of winnow the entry in. And in this early period, largely it’s Federalists, it’s people who were on Hamilton’s side of the track who are really eager to cut down on the number of immigrants coming into the country because by the late 1790s, the assumption is immigrants are going to vote as Jeffersonian Republicans, and Federalists are particularly eager to not allow that to happen. So there’s an enormous partisan component added in to immigration in the late 1790s in the United States.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Well, I love that good moral character clearly points to the idea that if you think like Jefferson and the French revolutionaries, you must be immoral. You’ve talked about how that comes to the centerpiece of American politics in 1800, but I just love that the French are immoral, essentially.

Joanne Freeman:

It’s also like how do you define that? It seems to make things stricter, but in reality it just allows the people in charge to play fast and easy.

Heather Cox Richardson:

I want to go back to that Naturalization Act of 1790 because that caveat that you have to be a free white person to become a citizen is clearly designed at the importation of enslaved Africans. And that is a poison pill in, I think, all of the rest of American history. The reason I know about this is because after the 14th Amendment, the way that Western states get around putting in place the pieces of the 14th Amendment that defend the rights of individual citizens in states from discriminatory state legislation, is by relying on that Naturalization Act, by saying that unless you are free and white, you cannot be protected by the 14th Amendment. And of course, they take a look around them and say, “That gets rid of the Chinese, that gets rid of the Mexicans, and that gets rid of Indigenous Americans.”

And that is a poison pill, as I say, that’s going to affect American history until the present. So one of the things that jumps out about this clause, this free white immigrant can become an American citizen, is again, the American West, because in fact, in the period after the Civil War, and I think this is so important for people to realize, is that the Republican party believed that it was going to put individual farmers in Nebraska and in the American West, they had the Homestead Act with the idea that you were all going to have mom and pop farms across the west. But that never happened because the West was so desperate for water.

And what happened from the beginning of American agriculture in the West was that we had agribusinesses. And so from the 1870s onward, the American West and agribusiness is worked by migrant farmers. And those migrant farmers early on are Mexican or Mexican Americans, and very quickly become Japanese especially, and poor whites. So from the very beginning, the West is characterized by migrant labor.

So when we talk nowadays, for example, about the farm workers in the American West, and people seem to think that this is an issue that arose after 1965, it’s absolutely not the case, and they would openly go back and forth across the border, which is simply open to come and work in those fields.

But that idea that they are not welcome as American citizens, as they are not free and white, is going to coincide in the late 19th century with the rise of scientific racism, with the idea that some people really literally are better than others. And that in turn is going to coincide with a changing pattern of immigration coming not so much from the Western European nations any longer as from the Eastern European nations.

Joanne Freeman:

So between 1820 and 1924, about 37 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Beginning in the 1870s, the immigrants were more often Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Poles, and Jews from the Russian Empire. And the foreign born population of America at that point in 1920 reached 13.9 million, which at that moment was a record high.

Heather Cox Richardson:

One of the reasons I love the late 19th century is there’s so many new voices and so many new perspectives on what it means to be an American. And while there are these new voices and these new cultures and this new clothing and new folkways coming into America, there is a backlash against that as well. And one of the things that really jumps out at you when you look at the 19th century newspapers, the late 19th century newspapers, the degree to which white newspaper editors and authors identify incoming immigrants as truly aliens, meaning not just that they are not naturalized citizens, but they seem like they’re coming from Mars.

So this idea that somehow America was being corrupted by these people coming from Southern and Eastern Europe is going to do a couple of things. And one of those things is that it’s going to make America put in place, not its first comprehensive Immigration Act, but the first Immigration Act that significantly restricts all immigration, not just immigration of certain groups.

Joanne Freeman:

Although this legislation in and of itself is still going to be privileging some kinds of people over others.

So the Immigration Act of 1924 established an overall limit of 150,000 immigrants to the United States per year. And one of the distinctive things about the law was that it stipulated that the national quota for each nation of immigrants would be set at 2% of the number of people from that country already in the United States. So in other words, this law said country by country, the country that you’re coming here from, the number of people allowed will be 2% of the number of people from that country already in the United States.

So if you think about it, that ends up with certain countries where there are a lot of people in the United States, having bigger quotas. In particular, those quotas resulted in 70% of new immigration spots coming from just three countries; The United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. Countries like Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and other Eastern European countries basically were just sitting on waiting lists, because according to this formula, their quotas were exceedingly low.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Okay, so hang on to that just for a minute. Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Eastern Europe. It really fascinates me, nowadays, when you look at certain politicians who are insisting on stopping immigration, looking at their last names. Because many of their last names are last names that would’ve fallen under this, not a ban, but under the restrictions from these countries. Because those people, and I’m using that in air quotes, were unwelcome in America. It just always fascinates me that you could sit there with a last name like that and say, “We don’t want immigration in America.”

Joanne Freeman:

Interesting. I had never thought of it that way.

In the lead-up to the 1924 law, popular texts fuel the fire. This just always makes me feel like when I teach Thomas Jefferson’s notes on the state of Virginia, I wince, and I have to explain context for it because it’s ugly. Here, for example, is a bestselling text on eugenics immigration and the threats that Anglo-Saxon Americans faced, called the Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant. And it’s about the so-called decline of Anglo-Saxons. This is from Grant.

“We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the melting pot is allowed to boil without control, and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all ‘distinctions of race, creed, or color,’ the type of Native American of colonial descent…” Native American is not how he means it there. “… will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo.”

Those two probably would not have hit home with us in the same way that it might have then, but you get the point. Real Americans are going to be pushed into the background and we’re going to have all of these other kinds of people coming over and taking control, and Anglo-Saxon Americans are going to be endangered.

Heather Cox Richardson:

And this resonates in the American West, as I say, with the distinctions in those states between white Americans and people of color. And they join forces with the Southern Democrats who are, in this very period, working hard to distinguish between Black Americans and white Americans to say, “Wait a minute, this country is supposed to be a white country.” And it is no accident that we get not only the eugenics movement in America in the 1920s, but also the rise of the KKK, which is very powerful in the American North, primarily not against Black Americans so much is against immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants. The idea that America is supposed to be white, and therefore the KKK should enforce that.

And this is one of the reasons actually that we get Columbus Day. The idea of honoring Italians in American culture by honoring an early Italian to America came from this attempt to push back against the KKK in their determination to make America a white America.

The Western politicians actually called for the repeal of the 15th Amendment. They said that we need to stop protecting Black voting because it’s only a question of time until you turn around and say we’re supposed to let brown people vote too. And of course, we don’t want to do that. They literally actually call for the overturning of the 15th Amendment.

Joanne Freeman:

Well, one of the things we’re coming back to again and again and again is how in-your-face these restrictions are. It’s not as though people are hiding behind anything when they’re making these declarations. They’re pretty much out in the open saying this is about Anglo-Saxon Americans and other people who are either inferior to us, or there’s going to be too many of them.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Well, and I think it’s so important to remember when we talk about that, that for many people who were reared in America after the Civil Rights Movements, there was a sense that that wasn’t a good way to be an American, that you didn’t think exclusionary. And in this period, that is the period of the 1920s, it was, among many white Americans, considered to be a mark of good Americanism that you said we don’t want Black people, we don’t want brown people. That was a sign that you were doing what you should do, as opposed to the people who called for, as they said, mongrel races.

And again, one of the reasons I just mentioned this whole idea that many of the people saying this nowadays have last names that would’ve been excluded under this system, is that that definition of you’re a good American if you say it’s only us and nobody else, is really a political position much more than it is a reflection of reality. So the very people who would’ve been excluded in the 1920s or would’ve been the victims of the KKK in the North are now the ones, their children and grandchildren who are saying, “Wait, this country can’t have people of color in it.” And it’s like, dude, that was your grandparents.

Joanne Freeman:

Okay, wait, I’m very happy with dude in that sense. But this is another point which we haven’t focused on yet, and which is in a sense, an obvious one, particularly today. And that is, yes, this is about race. Yes, this is about the white race in the United States. It’s also about politics, partisan politics. I mean, that from the very beginning is true too, with Federalists being anti-immigration because the people coming in aren’t going to vote for them.

So the fact of the matter is race and partisanship are obviously in many ways bound together throughout the history of the nation, but that has a particular power and hold when you’re talking about immigration.

Heather Cox Richardson:

All right. So President Coolidge, who accepts the presidential nomination in 1924 said this. “Restricted immigration is not an offensive, but purely a defensive action. It is not adopted in criticism of others in the slightest degree, but solely for the purpose of protecting ourselves. We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.” Which is an interesting thought that people in other places pick up on.

Joanne Freeman:

That’s quite a phrase, “unless America be kept American.” On the one hand, it’s snappy. And on the other hand, what’s contained within that phrase is quite a lot about who counts and who should be here and who shouldn’t be here.

Now, along similar lines, future German dictator Adolph Hitler referenced that 1924 law from prison in writings that became part of his 1925 Mein Kampf. These are Hitler’s words.

“There is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception. This is of course not our exemplary German republic, but the American union in which an effort is being made to consider the dictates of reason to at least some extent. The American union categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races. Hitler approves.”

Heather Cox Richardson:

So what this did, the 1924 Immigration Act puts into place a new concept of what America should look like by accepting the proposition, and then reinforcing the proposition with pseudoscientific eugenics to say that some people literally are better than others, that the nature or nature’s God, taking language there from the Declaration of Independence, was wrong to say that all men are created equal, that in fact they are not. And some people are better than others. And of course, people like Adolph Hitler think that that’s ducky, that that’s just wonderful.

After World War II, when Americans had to grapple with what it meant for a nation to believe that some people were better than others with the horrors of the Holocaust, Americans reworked our immigration system. And the way in which we reworked it is instructive.

Joanne Freeman:

So the Hart–Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 broke away from that country by country quota system that we mentioned a few minutes ago, which had been renewed with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which had allowed a little bit of Asian immigration.

But the 1965 Act instead established hemispheric caps for immigration visas, 170,000 annual visas in the Eastern Hemisphere, allowing no more than 20,000 from each individual country, and 120,000 visas in the Western Hemisphere. And the act also specified priorities as to the kinds of immigrants who should be let into the nation, who should be applying for visas, allowed to apply for visas.

So in descending order, priority would’ve been granted to unmarried children of US citizens, spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents, professional scientists and artists of exceptional capability, married children and their spouses and children of US citizens, siblings and their spouses and children of US citizens, workers and occupations with labor shortages, and finally, political refugees.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Okay, so there’s something really interesting Hart-Celler, and that is by imposing these hemispheric limits the way they did, is they set up many of the problems that we have now. So for example, in 1965, this Hart-Celler Act caps the immigration from Latin America for the first time in American history. As I say, that border had been open. People just came during the season, and they went back to Mexico when it wasn’t harvest season for the most part. There’s some limits to that. But with Hart-Celler, the cap on Latin American immigration was 20,000 people.

Now, the problem was that even in 1965, the United States was using about 50,000 migrant workers every year. So they continue to come because they still have jobs, they still have employers who need them, but now they’re illegal.

So this creates a problem after 1965, where by the mid 1980s, there are about 2.3 million Mexicans who are living in America illegally. And Congress tries to fix the problem by offering amnesty for all of them and by cracking down on the employers who continue to hire undocumented workers. But what happens then is that it’s a temporary attempt to fix it, but the new law militarizes the border.

So now, instead of undocumented migrants coming in and then leaving at the end of the season and continuing the migration, now the migrants don’t want to go back across the border because it’s militarized, and they don’t know if they’re going to be able to come back in.

So Hart-Celler, while it was intended to stop this quota system, and there were a lot of people who thought it was a really good thing to stop the quota system, ends up creating this border problem that America had really not had before. So it does that, and then it also does something that, speaking of race, I find absolutely fascinating.

So the idea of getting rid of the quota-based system was in fact to try and make American immigration much more even-handed. We wanted the immigrants who wanted to come, but that would’ve created sort of an open season on what people from what continents got to come to America. So as they are arguing about the overturning of the quota system, which a lot of racist American congressmen, primarily from the American South, but also from the American West, quite liked, one of them, a Democratic senator from North Carolina that some people might have heard of, a senator named Sam Irvin, who later is going to oversee the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 says, “Wait a minute, we don’t want this to be open.” He says, “The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people from France.” Apparently he had not been reading his early immigration history. “The people of Germany and the people of Holland. With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.”

Now, aside from all the ways in which we could get into the importance of involuntary African migrants contributions to the United States, this speaks to the moment in which they’re talking about this in 1965. So what they do is another conservative Democrat, Ohio representative Michael Fagan, who headed the House Immigration Subcommittee, added in this western hemispheric quota to discourage Latin American immigration that I just talked about. But he also said that family members of US citizens should be exempt from the quotas. And what he’s hoping and what he’s expecting is that the people who are native born here in America who were descended from the English or the Irish or the Germans or the Dutch, wherever Irwin grabbed that, they’re going to invite their family members over. But of course, in the post World War II years, those people aren’t migrating to America. The people who are migrating to America are from Asia and Africa.

Joanne Freeman:

It’s worth noting that the logic behind what you just said, Heather, that they assume that the people coming will be much like the people that are already in the United States, and thus immigration will be creating a little mini additional America, that in some way or another, everything will stay the way it should be because the people coming will be like the people already here.

Heather Cox Richardson:

So I just love that moment where they say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This idea of doing it even-handed, no, it’s not going to work. We need to give white guys a big leg up.”

And so they create within the laws a way to privilege white Western migrants that completely backfires on them. It completely backfires. And the comparison that always strikes me on this is when American lawmakers put so many unequal laws in place with regard to indigenous Americans in order to make sure that they didn’t have the same equal rights as native born white Americans, and all of that they were completely happy with until the Indian Gaming Act turned all of those disadvantages into advantages. And all of a sudden, all these lawmakers are like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. No, you have to be equal with the rest of us.” And I sort of feel like it’s the hand coming out of the ground at the end of the movie, Carrie being like…

Joanne Freeman:

Oh yeah?

Heather Cox Richardson:

This is why you need to keep the laws in a democracy even-handed, because you might like them a lot when they’re screwing over your enemies, but once you have admitted the principle that some people can be considered unequal, it is only a question of time until you are on the losing end of that equation.

Joanne Freeman:

And what’s striking about these series of moments and the ways in which people try to restrict or restrain or limit something, and then the end result is the opposite of what they want, is you’re seeing people trying to control a human process with very real people, with very real demands, with their families in one place or another, worried about whether they can get work or not. You have legislation sort of beaming down from above. And then you have the very real world of very real people figuring out where they want to go and how they can go there and what it means to them.

So again and again and again, the legislation was passed by people thinking, “Well, this will get it in line. This will keep the wrong people out.” And in one way or another, people on the ground are like, “Yeah, well, whatever. This is actually what we want. And there has to be another flip flop in the future.”

It’s a reminder about how, although the word immigration sort of calls forth images of legislation, quotas, all of the things that we’ve been talking about, it’s about people. That’s what it’s about. It’s about human beings with needs, sometimes fears from the countries that they come from, demands on what they feel that they want, ways in which they are going to need help at the beginning when they’re first coming here, or all the ways in which human beings are trying to create a life for themselves that can’t be captured in the word or the idea immigration. And it’s easy to forget that when we’re so focused looking down from above.

Heather Cox Richardson:

And this moment is so important because if you go back to the migrants that got dumped in Martha’s Vineyard, they are wrapped up in this whole discussion from the 1960s forward and from the 1986 law forward of undocumented or illegal, as their opponents call them, immigrants who come to America for work, especially the Mexican migrants, from our very long history.

But in fact, they are not Mexican, and they’re coming under a very different set of impulses that looks much more like those from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. The migrants that got dumped in Martha’s Vineyard are from Venezuela. But beginning around 2014, the extraordinary levels of violence in places like El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras mean that people are being forced out of their lands out of fear of the gangs and out of fear for their lives and their safety.

And so the fact that today’s migrants are being wrapped up in our long history of who is welcome here and who is not, and who can come legally and who cannot, and how those laws are established, is a really important distinction to make because the lumping of everybody in this moment…

Joanne Freeman:

Illegal immigrants.

Heather Cox Richardson:

Yes, is completely a historical. And it’s a real disservice not only to world history, but also to our own. And again, it’s why I keep harping on the idea that people whose grandparents would not have been welcome in America are now declaring today’s migrants unwelcome in America when they were both fleeing not only lack of economic opportunity, but literally pogroms that threatened their lives and safety.

There was a reason that Emma Lazarus’s poem was about America being a beacon of not just economic opportunity, but freedom and democracy. And that is also tied into this moment in a way that perhaps we need to be more cognizant of.

Joanne Freeman:

And here’s the thing about thinking about immigration, illegality, sort of binding that together in one big bundle and ignoring all of the complications and human components and ways in which there’s a lot more to it.

Think about the story that you told earlier, Heather, about people from Latin America crossing over when the border was open into the United States, working in the fields and then going back, and that was perfectly legal. And then the laws change and it’s no longer legal.

I point that out because rather than people seeing there are always foreigners trying to come into this country and they’re illegal and we shouldn’t have them, there’s a story about people who were already doing this in an acceptable manner, had jobs, had lives. And then the law changed and their status changed. I bring that up only because the history of immigration complicates partly what the United States is trying to do as a nation and the ways in which that backfires.

And also, when you’re thinking about immigration, you need to stop equating immigrant with illegal, and instead think about people coming to this nation, in what ways are they coming, what does it mean, and what policies should we put in place that are fair and just, and will allow people who go through the policies of citizenship to be welcomed into this country?