A brief history of “sh*thole” countries: US immigration is a long tale of racism

Once again President Trump has made US immigration policy front page international news this past week with his remarks about not wanting immigrants from what he described as “shithole countries”. While the language is shocking, the sentiment is one that has held a long place historically in US immigration policy. The colors of skin, or countries may change with the times, but the US has never really been the open-armed “land of the free” it likes to claim to be.

The New York Historical Society recently put together a retrospective on immigration that highlighted personal stories and naturalization throughout the history of the United States. The exhibition traced the evolution of the procedures that allow a person to be naturalized as a citizen, along with who is eligible, throughout the country’s history.

The more things change: early immigration favoured the rich, whites, and protestants

Prior to the Constitution being drafted, Protestants were given preferential immigration  through religious requirements. For large sums of money, immigrants could tie their citizenship to particular colonies, or even become British Citizens. This was also the beginning of gaining citizenship through real estate, and industry development – which has evolved into what we know today as the international entrepreneur visa. The Naturalization Act of 1790 offered naturalization to free white people “of good moral character” who had lived in the United States for at least two years, and allowed white women to become citizens through their husbands (women were not allowed to become citizens in their own right at that time however).

A long history of picking and choosing who gets to be American

Over the next hundred years, the rules and regulations tightened and loosened depending on the rise and fall of anti-immigration sentiment, but by and large citizenship was denied to anyone not of European descent.

  • Blacks were finally given the right to become citizens with the  Naturalization Act of 1870 which was passed by President Ulysses S. Grant. This act extended the naturalization to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”
  • Two years after that, the Chinese Exclusion Act was put in place to stop immigration from China. It was the first immigration law of its kind put in place to exclude a particular ethnic group from becoming citizens.
  • It took almost another HUNDRED YEARS for that Chinese Exclusion act to finally be lifted in 1943.
  • Native Americans were only “granted citizenship” twenty years before that in 1924.
  • Immigrants from India and the Philippines were only granted citizenship through President Truman in 1946

The US “melting pot” is a modern idea, and is a byproduct of the civil rights movement

Prior to the 1960s, immigration to the US had strictly defined quotas based on race and ethnicity. The Immigration And Nationality Act ( INA) signed by President Johnson was described by legal scholar Gabriel Chinn, “… no less a civil rights triumph than is equal opportunity under law in the voting booth or in the workplace.” This act was designed to get rid of discrimination in our immigration process, by removing quota caps for non-European countries. This act ultimately paved the way for the diversity visa lottery program that was introduced in the Immigration Act of 1990.

When I look around in my neighborhood in New Jersey, I see all colors and ethnicities, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The youth soccer team that I coached included Indians, Latinos, Polish, Lithuanians, Israelis, among others, and by this I mean boys born to immigrant parents or those born abroad.

It’s easy to forget that the diversity we see around us is so new. But as you can clearly see, it was only in the 1900s that the United States really became the multicultural melting pot we like to think it is. While it is shocking to hear our president speak in such low terms about other countries, racism is not new to our immigration system. In anything, it’s our evolution towards diversity and equality that is the new idea. And like any new ideas it must be tested, and protected, and voted on if we want it to stay.



Written by: Harlan York

Immigration Attorney Harlan York is Former Chair, Immigration Section, NJ State Bar Association and Former Co-Chair, NY State Bar Association CFLS Immigration Committee. Mr. York appeared on National Television on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Primer Impacto on Univision, as well as Telemundo, NBC, and PBS. He was honored as First Ever Immigration Lawyer of The Year in NJ by Best Lawyers.

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