We've Always Played Politics With Immigration

[ Posted Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 – 19:07 UTC ]

We stand at the beginning of a grand debate on immigration. America goes through these grand debates every generation or so, and what remains constant is that both sides in the fight can be counted upon to accuse the other side of "playing politics" with the immigration issue. This has, indeed already begun.

Republicans are offering up a splendid display of doublethink on the issue, in order to be able to say: "Hah! We were right all along," no matter what happens. Republicans make two accusations, which are completely contradictory (which doesn't seem to bother them at all), that the whole thing is just a cynical political game: (1) Obama and the Democrats want to legalize 11 million people who will then immediately become reliable Democratic voters, and/or (2) Obama and the Democrats will somehow find a way to scuttle the deal because they really don't want to pass any law, they just want to use the issue to beat up Republicans, in election after election. As I mentioned, no matter what happens, they'll be able to fall back on one of these tropes. Democrats, however, are using the second of these (with slight modification) to explain their own wariness: Republicans just want to be able to say: "We tried something" during the next election, and they will find a way to scuttle the deal in the end while blaming Democrats for the legislative failure.

The media gladly goes along for this ride, because (as we all know) conflict sells. What's amusing to me, however, is that very little historical context will be presented in the entire debate. Which is a shame, because anyone who knows the slightest bit about the issue's history knows that America always plays politics with immigration, in one fashion or another. It's an inherently political issue, in fact, so it would indeed be impossible to completely divorce it from "political games."

Most, when thinking about the history of immigration, reflect on the twentieth century. Ellis Island. Braceros. Internment camps during World War II. That sort of thing. But the question of immigration was even uglier in the previous century, with political parties formed around being anti-Catholic (which was definitely a question of immigration -- who got let in -- at the time). However, to really prove the point that we've always played politics with immigration, the easiest thing to do is go all the way back to the dawn of our federal government, in the 1790s -- the first decade or so after the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The nascent political parties were the Federalists and the Antifederalists. The Federalists had a stronghold in New England, which was downright nativist in its views. Don't believe me? One Federalist wrote to Abigail Adams in 1798: "the grand cause of all our present difficulties may be traced... to so many hordes of Foreigners immigrating to America." That's pretty cut-and-dried nativism. Immigrants were undesirables for one reason or another, stated freshman House member Harrison Gray Otis, who hailed from Boston: "I feel every disposition to respect those honest and industrious people... who have become citizens... but I do not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquillity after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments." Federalists had other reasons for disapproving of immigrants as well: "The mass of foreigners, who have sought asylum in the United States, have been compelled to that measure by their poverty or their crimes."

The "culture" argument was strong, as well. Federalists railed against the Louisiana Purchase, in part because of the types of people who lived there (mostly of French or Spanish descent): "Why admit to a participation in the government aliens who were not parties to the compact -- who are ignorant of the nature of our institutions, and have no stake in the welfare of the country but what is recent and transitory?" There was a heavy regional attitude as well, as Josiah Quincy proclaimed: "The influences of emigrants prevail over those of the ancient natives... the voices of our Representatives will be drowned amid the discordant jargon of French, Spanish, German, and Irish delegates, chosen by slave owners, in a disproportionate ratio." Federalists believed that such immigrants would never manage what is today called "assimilation." Sound familiar?

Beyond New England "exceptionalism" (it's hard to call it anything else), the Federalists were fighting a political battle which should also sound familiar. The ranks of Thomas Jefferson's Antifederalists were being swelled by the influx of immigrants, because most found the (small-R) republican values of the Antifederalists more in tune with what they expected from America. Since, at the time, more immigrants meant more political power for the other side, Federalists began limiting immigration.

In 1790, an immigrant to the United States could become a full citizen after two years of living here. In 1795, this was upped to five years. But 1798 was when the issue truly exploded on the American political scene, for a number of reasons. By 1798, Federalists were pushing not only to require 14 years of residence to become a citizen, but they also wanted to bar all immigrants from serving in the federal government.

This was personal. It was, in fact, directed against a man named Albert Gallatin, who had been born in Switzerland. Gallatin was, at the time, what we would call the House Majority Leader for the Antifederalists. If the proposed law passed, it would force him out of government altogether. Neat way of getting rid of a political opponent, eh? Gallatin later went on to become America's longest-serving Treasury Secretary of all time. Today, such a law would be seen as unconstitutional, but this was before Marbury v. Madison was decided, where the Supreme Court decided it had the power to strike down such laws -- so no judicial remedy would have been possible.

The real reason the fur was flying over immigration in the late 1790s, though, was that America was perilously close to fighting a war with France. This became known as the "Quasi War" -- what we'd today perhaps call "limited warfare." Feelings against the French ran high, as this was just after the French Revolution had descended into a "reign of terror." Fears our own governmental experiment would follow the same course were not entirely unjustified, due to the newness of our federal system.

Congress held fierce debates over what to do with "aliens." America is always at her worst, constitutionally and morally, when we are fearing war. 1798 was no different, in fact it was the first of many such reactionary periods. Proposals abounded in Congress. All aliens from countries at war with America, upon the proclamation of the president, could be immediately deported. Further provisions gave the president the power to determine who was a threatening alien fit for deportation, on his own. No judicial review was possible. One Federalist explained: "punishment ought not to depend upon the slow operations of a trial" -- the president's say-so was good enough. Even the foreign-born Alexander Hamilton (a founder of the Federalist philosophy) agreed: "the mass ought to be obliged to leave the Country."

A national registration system for aliens was also proposed, with the first of what would become "green cards." Aliens weren't the only ones targeted, though -- citizens who were going to permit an alien to even cross the threshold of their houses had to first give written notice to a federal judge, in an attempt to penalize "harboring an alien."

What came out of this fight were the "Alien and Sedition Acts." The "sedition" part of it was aimed at anyone espousing anti-government opinions. This was also personal, and targeted Antifederalist newspaper editors -- many of them aliens, themselves. In particular, it targeted the loudest voice among the Antifederalist editors, Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Philadelphia Aurora (Ben Franklin's grandson). Any person who said, wrote, published, or otherwise printed any opinions disrespectful of the party in power could be tried in federal court for such "crimes." Antifederalist editors were rounded up and given steep fines or chucked in jail.

While the impetus for passing the Alien and Sedition Acts was the looming threat of war, the Federalists quite obviously overreached in playing the political game. Not only did they cement their anti-immigrant stance with the public, they tried to crush the opposing political party by whatever means they could think up.

What happened was a backlash. Thomas Jefferson and his Antifederalists swept into power two years later (in the election of 1800), and the Federalists began a political decline which ended with the complete death of their party in the 1810s. Granted, what really killed off Federalism was their opposition to the War of 1812, but their anti-immigrant stance certainly didn't help them with the changing demographics of their time.

Raging debates over immigration in the political arena are nothing new. Political parties have eyed the immigration question through a very partisan lens ("Will this help or hurt my party?") since the beginning of American political parties. The issues raised are not exactly new, and even the positions taken are far from original. Harrison Gray Otis even admitted what the Federalists were truly scared of: "If some means are not adopted to prevent the indiscriminate admission of wild Irishmen & others to the right of suffrage, there will soon be an end to liberty and property." Suffrage, of course, is the right to vote. Back then, as now, immigration was seen by some as a thing to be feared and a burden on the country. The targeted groups change over time (not many rail against letting the "wild Irish" in these days...), but the sentiments do not. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this feeling also comes from Otis, who wrote a fellow Federalist to warn that the Antifederalists were bent on short-changing existing citizens by giving "foreigners our loaves and fishes."

Some things never change.


[Notes: I use "Antifederalists" where many historians use "Democratic-Republicans," because this double-barrelled label was only very rarely used back then. Jefferson's party normally called themselves "Republicans," but this gets confusing as there is no link to the modern Republican Party at all. All quotes were taken from two sources: James M. Banner Jr., To The Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) pp.89-99; and William J. Watkins Jr., Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.27-42.]

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “We've Always Played Politics With Immigration”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Political parties have eyed the immigration question through a very partisan lens ("Will this help or hurt my party?") since the beginning of American political parties.

    And therein lies *my* entire beef against BOTH Political Partys..

    And Democrats are as bad as Republicans in this regard...

    The agenda of the Party is considered first and how it affects the country is a far and distant second...

    Which is why I believe that adherence to ANY Party is bad for those who love their country..

    Awesome history lesson, CW...

    As I am wont to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same..


  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    I associate "Democratic Republicans" with the Era of Good Feeling, as contrasted with the "National Republicans" who were forerunners of the Whigs. "Antifederalist" seems like a better term than "Democratic-Republican", but I think I'd rather have had you bite the bullet and say "Republicans (no relation to the modern party by the same name)" in the body of the article.

  3. [3] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Well, compliments on how deftly you interweave Past & Current. You make it clear how easy (even cheap) it is to blame some OTHERS for difficulties, rather than settling down to the hard work of finding workable compromises on a given issues. What a thrill to say THEY are the source of our problems, feeling smug and righteous while avoiding the work, self-stretching, and willingness to admit THEY may have a point. I suspect we really need an anthropologist as much as a historian to delve into this eternal temptation. nicely done.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    The "Era of Good Feelings" was actually the period of one-party rule, from the end of the War of 1812 to the election of 1824, roughly. There were a few last-gasp death throes of the Federalists during this period, but they weren't a national influence.

    The "Democratic-Republicans" label was glommed onto in the last 50 years or so by historians, mostly because it doesn't refer to either modern American party specifically.

    The real "Antifederalists" or "Anti-Federalists" (take your choice) were the ones who fought against the US Constitution, and who also were responsible for the Bill of Rights. To be strictly accurate, they kind of ended after the BoR was ratified.

    The first party split took place between Hamilton (and others) and Jefferson, in Washington's Cabinet. Hamilton's faction were Federalists, but nobody could really agree what Jefferson's faction should be called. "Jeffersonians" is probably the most accurate, at least up to the War of 1812. They called themselves, more often than not, "republicans" (with a small R, which wasn't making a statement back then, federalists used a small F, too). "Democrats" were still a thing to be feared by many (they called it "mob rule" -- this was when the property requirements were still in place in many states), so the label wasn't often used (except as a slur). "Antifederalists" was indeed used throughout the 1790s, but faded once Jefferson was elected.

    One newspaper editor even went whole hog and called them "Antifederalist-Republican-Democrats" if memory serves correctly.

    Anyway, just as a matter of personal preference, I use "Antifederalist" up to the "Era of Good Feelings," and then afterwards it becomes personal again and you were either a "Jackson man" or a [J.Q.] "Adams man."

    "Democrat" (for Jackson) and "Whig" (for anti-Jacksons, including National Republicans and Anti-Masons, who had banded together) didn't appear until about 1832-1834.


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Hawk Owl -

    The "THEY" changes over time, but the argument is almost always the same, you're right...


  6. [6] 
    dsws wrote:

    The "Era of Good Feelings" was actually the period of one-party rule, from the end of the War of 1812 to the election of 1824, roughly.

    Yes, that's when I associate the term with: the time when we were "all republicans"*, so there was a need for descriptions to say what kind of republicans we were. Those who favored Henry Clay's internal improvements (and the interests of the Eastern money aristocracy) were "national"; those who favored Jackson's demagoguery (and the interests of the Southern landed aristocracy) were "democratic".

    *(even though the quote is from 1801, when we weren't yet)

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Oh, bonus points for obliquely referencing Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address! "We are all Federalists... we are all Republicans..."

    Well done!

    But the internal improvements thing wasn't as cut-and-dried a partisan issue. Jefferson actually supported the idea of the National Road (the first giant federal infrastructure project), as he felt it would aid "citizen farmers" to get their produce to market, and thus help his whole "small government" idealism. And the first proponent of sweeping internal improvements, long before Clay came up with the "American system" was none other than Albert Gallatin.

    Man, I've been buried in American history books for too long... it's starting to show...



  8. [8] 
    dsws wrote:

    I haven't, really. A couple sets of Teaching Company CDs, occasional googling, and so on, but no real study. And if I try to keep this conversation up any longer, that will start to show.

    It's kind of interesting, how there's such a difference between actually knowing something and just knowing enough to be able to look it up.

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."



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