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How the GOP’s Hard Line Will Make America More Pro-Immigrant, Not Less

The United States cracked down on immigration once before. What happened? It helped Democrats and opened up lots of space for progressive organizing.

Trump at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019
Trump at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019

The current surge in migrants on the southern border is certainly hurting Joe Biden’s bid for a second term. Two-thirds of registered voters, according to a recent poll, would like the government to deport anyone who is in the country illegally. Another survey reveals that support for decreasing immigration overall has shot up since Biden moved into the White House. Donald Trump is no political fool: At his demand, Republicans in Congress are apparently on the verge of rejecting a bipartisan deal on securing the border because he fears losing his clear advantage on the issue.

However, a few years from now, a severe cutback on immigration, if the Republicans are ever in a position to pass one, could backfire politically on them in a way politicians in neither party anticipate: It could persuade most Americans that the smaller population of newcomers, legal or undocumented, who remain in the country pose far less of a danger to their security, their culture, and their jobs than they do now. And that could free Democrats, especially progressive ones, to build a strong coalition based on class affinities and less divided by ones of ethnicity and national origin.

That’s pretty much what happened a century ago when Congress enacted a law that essentially stopped immigration from most of the world. Motivated by fears of “degenerates” and violent radicals, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act imposed quotas on foreign nationals based on how many of a nation’s citizens were living in the U.S. in 1890, before large numbers had arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe. Under the law, fewer than 2,500 newcomers were allowed to emigrate from Russia, land of the Bolsheviks, and fewer than 4,000 from Italy,  considered a hotbed of anarchism and organized crime. Driven by fear of a “yellow peril,” lawmakers barred nearly all Asians. The Johnson-Reed Act imposed no limits within the Western hemisphere, the source of most migrants today. Big farmers across the West did not want to lose their access to Mexican laborers.

Republicans then controlled both houses of Congress as well as the presidency. But most lawmakers from both parties voted for the bill, lest they be attacked for aiming to replace the “Nordic” majority.

Some of the arguments made in the 1920s sound similar to the harshly nativist rhetoric that spews from Trump and his disciples today. “It has become necessary that the United States cease to function as an asylum,” declared Albert Johnson, the representative from Washington state who co-sponsored the law. “We ought to Americanize our factories and our vast material resources,” asserted a senator from South Carolina. Other congressmen claimed that Asian immigrants carried deadly diseases and that “criminal hordes” from Europe trafficked in illegal substances that were killing young Americans. Italian bootleggers were the villains during the era of Prohibition, much as Hispanic gangs allegedly pushing fentanyl are now.

But a funny thing happened on the way to preserving “Nordic” dominion over this blessed land. During the Great Depression, out of both necessity and desire, the U.S.-born children of immigrants from the restricted nations integrated themselves into American culture and institutions to a greater extent than their parents had. They spoke fluent English, flocked to Hollywood movies, and danced to swing bands. Those once slurred as members of inferior “races” also seemed far less of a threat to “old-stock” Americans during a time of economic calamity widely shared across ethnic lines.

Greater acceptance made it possible for the “degenerates” of a decade earlier—Slavs, Italians, and Jews, in particular—to become a vital part of the New Deal coalition that would dominate national politics until the late 1960s. As voters, they did much to lift Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats to power throughout most of the urban North and Midwest. As workers, they helped organize the industrial labor movement that surged from three to 15 million members during the 1930s and the Second World War.

A fine example of the progressive flavor of Americanization appeared in Out of This Furnace, an autobiographical novel from 1941 about steelworkers in Braddock, Pennsylvania—the town John Fetterman later served as mayor long after its economic heyday had passed. The hero portrayed by author Thomas Bell (born Belecjak) is a second-generation Slovak American factory hand and union enthusiast nicknamed Dobie. He speaks English without an accent, makes friends easily with co-workers from other ethnic groups, and believes that organizing unions is a patriotic duty. “I want certain things bad enough to fight for them, bad enough to die for them,” vows Dobie. “Patrick Henry, Junior—that’s me.”

Of course, the widespread opposition to immigration today is not the same as that which plagued the nation in the 1920s. Even many Hispanic citizens recoil at “chaos” on the border, and governments at all levels are unprepared to deal with a steady increase in illegal migrants. Still, the backlash does have a nativist component. Many Americans grumble that immigrants in their neighborhood or workplace don’t speak English, bring down wages, or join gangs that carry out violent crimes.

While the bipartisan attempt at an immigration deal looks like it’s dead for now, it would be wonderful if enough Republicans turned their back on Trump to vote for a sensible and truly comprehensive reform bill. Such a law would protect the Dreamers and give those already here illegally a long but feasible path to becoming citizens. It would also be smart policy to finance sustainable development and promote democratic rule in the Central and South American nations from which the greatest number of unauthorized migrants are coming. Politicians should also acknowledge that men and women who have managed to stay in the U.S. are working hard right now at one or more poorly paid jobs that help keep the economy humming.

But none of that will occur soon. So if federal lawmakers do embrace the repressive and restrictive Trumpian option, that might give Democrats and their union allies an opportunity they have not had in decades. With immigration removed, at least for a while, as a salient cause of popular division, it would allow Democrats to show convincingly, in words and policy, that they are the defenders of all working Americans, without having that message ensnarled in dense thickets of fear and bigotry. They could stress, as during the New Deal, that the true division in American society is between the corporate rich and the rest of us—not between “illegals” and “real” Americans.