Typical of last week's news when it came to immigration and the U.S. border was a Soviet-style "purge" of the Department of Homeland Security, or to cite another grimly appropriate word, as an unnamed official of the Department of Homeland Security did to a Washington Post reporter, a "decapitation." ("They are decapitating the entire department.") And here's the strange thing: at the very moment when president and hotelier Donald Trump put out a no-vacancy sign at that border, declaring the country officially "full" -- though it isn't faintly, not in terms of workers anyway -- he also hung out vacancy signs all over Washington.
Here's how the New York Times summed up the situation just at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): "The latest departures, along with previous vacancies, will leave the Department of Homeland Security without a permanent secretary, deputy secretary, two under-secretaries, Secret Service director, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, ICE director, general counsel, citizenship and immigration services director, inspector general, chief financial officer, chief privacy officer and, once [Kevin] McAleenan [the new acting head of the DHS] moves, Customs and Border Protection commissioner." And that list didn't even include acting deputy secretary Claire Grady, whose resignation came later.
In other words, think of it as a clean sweep for the president: the border is now officially broken, the border economy potentially endangered, the state apparatus for dealing with it has hung out a giant no-vacancy sign, and there's no border wall in sight. So a panicked president is batting .000 and thinking about calling in yet more troops to twiddle their thumbs there.
Once upon a time, a century ago, similar impulses were dealt with far more effectively, as TomDispatch regular Arnold Isaacs makes clear today, reminding us of what -- other than an out-of-control president -- the United States of 2019 and 1919 had in common. The comparison couldn't, in many ways, be grimmer or more telling. Tom
Looking Back at 1919
Immigration, Race, and Women's Rights, Then and Now
By Arnold R. Isaacs
Reading about immigration policy, religious and racial bigotry, and terrorism fears in America in 1919 offers an eerie sense of decades melting away and past and present blurring together.
The blend isn't exact. Bigotry was expressed much more explicitly a century ago, not in code as it usually is now. Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of racial segregation in the rest of the country were seen by most white Americans as the normal state of affairs. In the national debate on immigration, the most inflammatory rhetoric was largely aimed at immigrants from Asia, not Latin America or the Middle East; Slavs, southern Europeans, and Jews from Eastern Europe also faced widespread hostility. Religious prejudice was typically directed at Jews and Catholics, not Muslims. Yet despite those differences, many of the underlying attitudes and the tone of the immigration argument 100 years ago were strikingly similar to those that roil our society today.
I haven't read of anyone in 1919 saying "make America great again" or referring to unwanted immigrants' homelands as "shithole countries." But those exact ideas, if not precisely the same words, were commonly expressed a century ago. And some key words and phrases appeared then as now -- referring to immigration as an "invasion," for example, or disparaging immigrants as dirty, poor, and criminally inclined.
A pair of quotes illustrates the common thread, a widespread feeling in both eras that, after several decades of large-scale immigration, American identity itself was under threat.
In an article published in March 1919, the Immigration Restriction League, an influential anti-immigrant group, put it this way: "A preponderance of foreign elements destroys the most precious thing [a country] possesses -- its own soul." Fox News's Laura Ingraham delivered exactly the same warning when she claimed in an August 2018 broadcast that immigration had contributed to "massive demographic changes" in the U.S. population, and that "in some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn't exist anymore."
Facing a wave of criticism, Ingraham unconvincingly denied that she was referring to racial or ethnic groups, but it's impossible to find any other meaning in her words. The author of the Immigration Restriction League article was more straightforward, writing sentences like: "Races follow Gresham's law as to money; the poorer of two kinds in the same place tends to supplant the better" and "Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat."
Reforming Immigration Law, Then and Now
The 2019 calendar is full of dates that evoke similar echoes. May 19th, for example, will mark 100 years since the 66th Congress convened in Washington with Republicans newly in control of both houses, a shift that set the course for a drastic revision of immigration laws in the 1920s.
Under the new majority, the chairmanship of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization passed to Albert Johnson of Washington, a newspaper owner and fervent supporter of the anti-immigrant movement. In his new post, Johnson, who wrote in one editorial that "the greatest menace to the Republic today is the open door it affords to the ignorant hordes from Eastern and Southern Europe," set about creating a completely new immigration system. Under his plan, immigrants would be admitted on the basis of country-by-country quotas that heavily favored northern Europeans, while drastically reducing immigration from less favored European countries. (Asians were already banned under previous legislation.)
In spirit, Johnson's effort reflected exactly the same view conveyed in President Trump's recent declaration that "our country is full" and his shakeup of the Homeland Security department leadership in pursuit of new and potentially extreme immigration and border control policies.
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