Political Animal

Blog

February 05, 2013 4:52 PM This Day In History

By Ed Kilgore

There are two items of American political history that jump out at you when checking out “This Day in History.”

The first was the veto override in 1917 whereby Congress imposed a major immigration act on Woodrow Wilson. According to the Encyclopedia of Immigration:

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed “undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

More specifically, this act “barred most immigration from Asia:”

Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Wow. And this was only the beginning of race-and-ethnicity-conscious immigration policies that peaked in the 1920s.

Twenty years later on this day in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his proposal to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court with as many as six additional Justices (one for each sitting Justice over the age of 70). The defeat of this plan is often viewed as Roosevelt’s greatest political setback. Yet it actually produced the desired result of ending Court obstruction of New Deal legislation, via the “switch in time that saved nine,” a reversal of positions by Justice Owen Roberts (which in part due to the coincidence of surnames, was often described as the same motive for Chief Justice John Roberts’ alleged “switch” on Obamacare).

The awful legacy of U.S. immigration policies should be thoughtfully considered during the current discussion of comprehensive immigration reform. And President Obama should continue to reflect on the power of strategic executive audacity when his agenda is obstructed by the abuse of institutional barriers.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • David T on February 05, 2013 5:19 PM:

    "Yet it actually produced the desired result of ending Court obstruction of New Deal legislation, via the “switch in time that saved nine,” a reversal of positions by Justice Owen Roberts (which in part due to the coincidence of surnames, was often described as the same motive for Chief Justice John Roberts’ alleged “switch” on Obamacare)."

    This is very questionable. Owen Roberts had already announced in chambers that he was going to vote to uphold the New York minimum wage law *before* FDR announced his court-packing plan. (Admittedly, the anticipation that FDR *might* propose something like this *might* have motivated Roberts, but there is no proof.)

    One interesting detail about the court-packing plan: It was probably responsiblle for LBJ winning election to Congress, as I explain at http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/8b3045ae1141a6ad

  • Altoid on February 05, 2013 6:10 PM:

    Re immigration, here's something further that may be worth thinking about. Between 1924 and 1965 our policies really restricted immigration not only from Asia, but also from Italy, the Mediterranean, and eastern Europe generally. The 1924 cutoff meant that in immigrant communities there was a last immigrant generation rather than a continuing inflow, which had been our normal pattern up to that point.

    But our idea of what should happen with immigrants comes almost exclusively from that period between about WWII and 1965. (Their numbers were so huge from about 1880, plus other factors were at play.) So we tend to think there just shouldn't be any actually *ethnic* neighborhoods outside of dying enclaves in big cities. That's supposed to be normal-- the immigrants themselves become less visible over time as their kids and grandkids Americanize.

    What we had before 1924 and since 1965, though, is different-- continuing influxes of people who tend to live in identifiable areas, and because new migrants keep coming in, the immigrant groups' perceived alienness is continually being renewed and remains tied to specific places.

    What's actually happening, of course, is that the kids and grandkids are Americanizing and moving away from the immigrant area; recent studies show that the pattern is the same among Spanish-speaking migrants whatever their legal status as it was among Russian immigrants 120 years ago. But the persistence of identifiable ethnic areas masks this, and makes a lot of people feel threatened.

    Immigrants have also been going new places, like the small-town Midwest and especially the South (and not just TX and FL but AL, MS, and GA), which has magnified the sense of threat and is one big reason, I think, why the gop has been so energized on this issue.

    We've had anti-immigrant hysteria whenever their proportion in the population gets much over about 10-12%, iirc. It was really rife, and at least as political, before the Civil War.

    BTW, did you know that there was actually a Supreme Court case to decide whether Armenians were Asians or Aryans?

  • sjw on February 05, 2013 7:31 PM:

    "strategic executive audacity": is Obama up to it? I'd love to think it's true, but I admit that my doubts overwhelm my hopes. Instead, I expect there will be more "leading -- if one can call it that -- from behind."

  • emjayay on February 05, 2013 8:16 PM:

    Altoid: Thanks. Interesting post about some factors in the perception of immigration I haven't seen discussed before. Please come back.

    In the mid 1800's the existing people here were freaked about culturally different people (Irish) coming in who were also perceived as less educated. Obviously rather similar to Mexican immigration today. Being Roman Catholic and medieval and praying in a wierd language no doubt helped also. But of course all that turned out eventually to not count much because the Irish weren't really all that different and eventually all wanted to join the mainstream culture and besides they didn't understand that language anyway.

    The phenomenom of Islamic immigrants today is perhaps more like what everyone thought the Irish were about back then, without the drinking. A sort of medieval (pre-medieval?) culture that is so very tightly wrapped up in a religion which in their case isn't merely an older manisfestation of the predominant religion and includes making women wear costumes indicating their vastly less than second class status may give it a lot more staying power. And a culture that for example similarly hates gay people and in part at least thinks stoning people to death and cutting off their hands or whatever is an acceptable part of modern life. One which in my opinion isn't generally in those ways going to do the predominant culture any favors. France and the Netherlands are running a big experiment in this regard.

    In places around NYC there are a lot of Hasidic/Ultra Orthodox Jews that are even perhaps more self-replicating and retarded and insular. Culturally they are very broadly speaking a different version of the same olde Middle Eastern stuff. And unfortunately part of the deal is having as many kids as possible.

    On the other hand the recent large Chinese/Asian immigration is a lot like a lot of previous groups. To grossly generalise again if they are not well educated themselves, they want their kids to be. They bring a lot of positive cultural stuff with them, and in my experience want to be Americans while retaining parts of their traditions. In my experience most Asian American high school kids are more midwestern than midwesterners. Also the little kids are totally adorable.

  • Tyro on February 05, 2013 11:21 PM:

    The awful legacy of U.S. immigration policies should be thoughtfully considered during the current discussion of comprehensive immigration reform.

    This does not follow. The purpose of our immigration policy is not to make up for past injustices from almost 100 years ago. Rather, it's to do what's best for the country now.

  • emjayay on February 06, 2013 6:55 PM:

    Doesn't anyone here read yesterday's posts? What I wrote was what I think and not intended to be just provacative, but c'mon guys, call me out. Straighten me out on my thinking. It's what comments are for.

    Hmmmm, was it all too boring or obvious or stupid to elicit a comment or two?