America’s Immigration Crisis in Historical Perspective

With immigration at the center of current American political debates, it is worth revisiting the deeper history underlying the current crisis. The mass movement of people into the U.S. was a fundamental component in the founding of the modern nation, with waves of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere rapidly displacing – and in many cases decimating – indigenous populations. Although individual reasons for migrating varied enormously, most were guided by the desire to seek out new opportunities. Most migrants hoped to seek out economic opportunities, flee religious persecution back home, or otherwise improve their lives and the lives of their families. At a time when America was experiencing mass economic and industrial growth, immigration was the logical conclusion and it is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. as a modern nation-state was founded by immigrants.

Although there were policies in place to regulate and monitor the movement of people into the U.S., the policies differed widely from the immigration policies we know today. The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the first-ever guidelines for obtaining citizenship in America. However, the definition of citizenship was rather limited. It allowed for people to apply for citizenship if they were a free white person and had resided in the U.S. for at least two years. Following the Naturalization Act was the Fourteenth Amendment  passed in 1868. The amendment was adopted to guarantee “equal protection of the laws” for black Americans. However, the terms outlined in the Amendment were limited and black people in the U.S. continued, and still do to this day, to face systematic discrimination based solely on the color of their skin.

“Equal protection” under the laws is something that has not yet been truly achieved in U.S. society. 

In 1948, immigration policies in the U.S. began to shift as a result of a changing international context. Following the utter destruction of World War Two, the number of European refugees fleeing their homes began to rise. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 was enacted by Congress to address the seven million people that were fleeing persecution in Europe. The migrants were permitted to bring their families with them to the U.S. as long as they were considered “good citizens” and would pledge to stay out of jail. Bringing together the multiple laws that governed immigration into the U.S. at the time, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 marked a drastic shift of immigration policies. The Act was meant to exclude certain migrants by focusing primarily on immigrants determined to be unlawful and immoral. In reality, the act limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted, as well as establishing a precedent for skilled workers and increasing entry screening procedures. On the contrary, 1965 marked a step towards a more open immigration policy. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 stated that any immigrant who arrives in the U.S. is eligible to apply for asylum. 

As the years went on, the immigration process in the U.S. has become more comprehensive, and stricter regulations have been established to address the ongoing movement of peoples. Although global refugee flows have escalated in recent years – due to issues including but not limited to climate change, government corruption, and civil wars – the majority of national borders have become firmer. In 1986, for example, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)was established. The IRCA legalized undocumented migrants residing in the U.S. in an unlawful manner and enacted sanctions that banned employers from hiring migrants known to be illegally working in America. The goal was to isolate migrants so that they had no other choice but to return to their home country. The assumption was that if they were unable to make a living in the U.S., they would not be able to continue living there. 

Since 1986, countless new VISA laws have been put in place, condemning migrants for staying in the country past their VISA expiry date. The most prominent show of an anti-immigrant attitude came in 2006, when the U.S. government authorized the construction of a border fence along 700 miles of the US-Mexico border, known as the Fence Act of 2006. It was signed by President George W. Bush and received relatively bipartisan support from Congress.

The Bush administration upheld the bill as an “important step forward in our nation’s efforts to control our borders and reform our immigration system.”

Yet, in reality, the border acted as a physical barrier separating migrants from their loved ones. 

Even under Barack Obamas’ progressive administration, strong immigration measures remained in place. The former Democratic administration deported approximately three million people. Ten years after the American anti-immigrant came to a perceived climax with the Fence Act came the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, anti-immigration being a key motto of his presidency. Racist and anti-immigrant sentiments proved to be crucial detriments of the ‘Trump Vote.’ The broad reason the Trump administration is continuing to follow anti-immigrant policies is economic nationalism.  There is a common misconception in the U.S. that immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans. Trump’s “America First” campaign is designed to leverage this misconception by claiming to protect American workers and industries. The Trump administration’s immigration policies include but are not limited to completing a U.S.-Mexico border wall, deporting immigrants who arrived in America as children, restricting travel and work visas, increasing screening for refugees, and limiting the number of legal immigrants. Trump is following that populist notion that immigrants are a threat to a country’s national identity. Rather than seeing immigrants as an asset to the U.S. and a triumph in diversity and unification, Trump perceives immigrants as “others.” 

On October 31st, 2018, the Trump administration directed 5,000 active duty and National Guard troops to the Mexican border, with the goal of stopping a migrant caravan of asylum seekers from crossing the border. The migrant caravan was created in order to protect migrants from human traffickers and gangs during their arduous journey from Central American countries of origin. Following the deployment of troops, Trump tweeted, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Perhaps the most disheartening and jarring immigration policy the Trump administration has enacted began when Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) began separating immigrant children from their parents. Concerning his separation policy, “Trump declared,

“When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away.”

Under this policy, the Trump administration separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Due to mounting political outcry and protest, in June 2018 President Trump signed an executive order to end family separation. However, he also said he would keep his zero tolerance” regulations. The fate of the children already in state custody remains unclear. 

The third week of July 2019 was once again marked by ICE raids against migrants. More than 2,000 migrants illegally residing in the U.S. were targeted in what the Trump administration referred to as Operation Border Resolve. From May 13 through July 11, ICE arrested 899 adults who had received final deportation orders. The Trump administration ordered ICE to deport 256,086 immigrants in the 2018 fiscal year alone. For Trump, it seems ‘making America great again’ leaves little space for newcomers.

The Trump administration has recently finalized a plan that would allow them to sidestep immigration courts and deport undocumented immigrants who are not able to prove they have been residing in the U.S. for two consecutive years. Omar Jadwat, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project said in a written statement that

“Under this unlawful plan, immigrants who have lived here for years would be deported with less due process than people get in traffic courts.”

Detained immigrants are currently being held in detention centers around the U.S., with high numbers in California and Texas. Conditions of these detention centers have been under fire in recent news, due to reports of overcrowding and lack of proper supplies and facilities. Court documents from asylum seekers in the detention centers highlight the dire conditions, citing inadequate food and water, freezing temperatures, and a lack of proper bedding. What is going on in the U.S. is not only an immigration crisis but a crisis of humanity. The Trump administration is ignoring the simple fact that migrants entering the U.S. are doing so for their safety and for the safety of their families. They are leaving their homes in search of a safer, better life. Migrants flee for countless reasons: war, hunger, extreme poverty, climate change, natural disasters, or the desire for better social and educational opportunities. 

Under international law, refugees and asylum seekers must be protected. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention protects refugees from being returned to countries where they risk persecution. The 1990 Migrant Workers Convention protects migrants and their families. The danger is that the U.S., one of the most powerful and influential nations in the world, is not following international law. Migrants deserve and are rightfully owed, protection from deportation and detention. Immigration has been a facet of U.S. society since the origins of the modern state – this tradition must be embraced rather than violently condemned. 


Featured Image: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Officer arrests a suspected undocumented migrant residing in the U.S. (2014) via Wikimedia Commons.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Emma Tallon

About Emma Tallon

Emma Tallon is currently entering into her fourth year at the University of Toronto, St. George, with a degree majoring Political Science and minoring in History and English Literature. She is passionate about bringing awareness to humanitarian and environmental issues in order to incite debate and discussion on how to resolve the issues. She is the incoming Vice-President of Amnesty International’s chapter at the University of Toronto for the 2019-2020 academic year.