Washington (AFP) – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”: The words on the Statue of Liberty have beckoned comers to the “Nation of Immigrants” for more than a century.
But not with President Donald Trump at the gate.
Unlike any US leader in decades, Trump has attacked immigration, slashed legal arrivals, called to expel millions of non-citizens, and invited only wealthy and educated foreigners — with an evident preference for white Europeans.
On Thursday, Trump allegedly demanded to know why the US accepted people from “shithole” places like Haiti and Africa, and suggested the country should instead draw immigrants from Norway.
It’s a sharp turn for a country that defines itself by its open door and its “melting pot” culture.
– Immigrants were ‘threats’ –
But historians say US history is pockmarked by immigration backlashes and a constant ambivalence by well-established Americans over whether they want to continue being an immigrant country.
“When you look at the whole history of the United States, one of the most striking aspects of it is the ways in which the debate over immigration has been racialized,” said Julie Greene, a professor of history at the University of Maryland.
In 1790 the Naturalization Act aimed to keep blacks from becoming citizens; the Alien Act of 1798 targeted French; The Page Act of 1875 prohibited Asian labor migrants; and in 1924 a sweeping new immigration act took aim at southern and eastern Europeans, largely comprised of Catholics and Jews.
“There was tremendous anti-immigration sentiment throughout the 19th century. At different points in American history, different types of immigrants were considered threats to the United States,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian and professor at American University.
– Massive wave spurred backlash –
Before Trump, Warren Harding made anti-immigration the main plank in his successful 1920 presidential campaign.
Harding came to power after a 40-year boom in which about 22 million immigrants poured into the country, and Americans were worried that the latest wave of southern and eastern Europeans — largely Jews and Catholics — would introduce inferior “races” into the country and spearhead Bolshevism.
“Similar to Trump, he portrayed himself as an America-first president,” Lichtman said.
The country wrestled with smaller waves over the subsequent decades.
During the depression of the 1930s, there was a backlash against the influx of Mexicans that the…