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Almost exactly one year ago, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely and blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for ninety days. The “Muslim ban,” as it quickly became known, roused the resistance immediately.
Lawyers, organizers, and protesters congregated at international airports around the country, overwhelming airport security with signs that declared, “Immigrants Welcome.” Protesters invoked Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as symbols of the country’s promise around migration. A line from “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s sonnet that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty, was frequently quoted on posters: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Trump’s ban is not an aberration but a continuation of more than two centuries of restrictive immigration policies.
But much of this language—our country’s inclusion narrative—is predicated on myth-making. Indeed, if we look to history, we begin to see Trump’s ban not as an aberration but as a continuation of more than two centuries of restrictive immigration policies and several decades of specifically surveilling Arab, African, and Muslim migration.
In December of 1942, for example, a Detroit resident and Yemen native, Ahmed Hassan, petitioned a court for U.S. citizenship. District Court Judge Arthur J. Tuttle’s decision began by acknowledging Hassan’s “origins” from Yemen and the “Arabian Peninsula.” This fact, he elaborated, was significant to Hassan’s petition because, “Apart from the dark skin of the Arabs, it is well known that they are a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominately Christian peoples of Europe.”
Ultimately Tuttle denied Hassan’s petition on the grounds that, “It cannot be expected that as a class they would readily intermarry with our population and be assimilated into our civilization.” In the concluding paragraphs of the decision, he pointed to a legal precedent for citizenship established in 1790:
The court must answer . . . whether the members of the group as a whole are white persons as Congress understood the term in 1790 when it first enacted the statute. In deciding this . . . the test is not how the group in question would be classified by ethnologists who have made a study of racial origins, but, rather, what groups of peoples then living in 1790 with characteristics then existing were intended by Congress to be classified as "white persons." Applying these principles the court finds that petitioner is an Arab and that Arabs are not white persons within the meaning of the act.
In other words, U.S. citizenship for Hassan and others like him was predicated upon proving a proximity to whiteness as it was legally constituted in 1790.
We cannot understand Trump’s Muslim ban without this history. Viewed this way, his is simply the latest in a long line of restrictive immigration policies, policies that are steeped in centuries of racism. It is necessary to be honest about this history to dismantle not just the ban, but a racialized system that allows restrictive immigration to consistently re-emerge at different moments in U.S. history.
Hassan was denied citizenship in part because he was ‘a part of the Mohammedan world.’
It is also important to acknowledge the U.S. policy of “bomb and ban,” or rather, the U.S. inclination to meddle in the Middle East and South Asia that has resulted in war, systemic poverty, and the destabilization of nations. Indeed, throughout the twenty-first century, the United States has been involved in either sanctioning or bombing most Muslim countries.
When we redefine the historical parameters around Trump’s ban and try to see it as part of a history of restrictive immigration, U.S. foreign policy, and a response to nativism, “Immigrants Welcome” transforms to “Immigrants Welcome*,” in which the asterisk denotes not only the limitations on who is welcomed in the United States but also the hard fought struggles to expand U.S. citizenship to be truly inclusive.
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The Naturalization Act of 1790, passed three years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granted citizenship exclusively to “free white persons . . . of good character.” But even before the United States was a formal country, efforts to define and limit who deserved American freedom began.
The colonies, for example, enacted laws that specifically excluded enslaved Africans from manumission, and it is worth noting how closely related the racial and religious reasonings were. Virginia’s 1682 “Christian Parentage (Virginia Slave Act)” explicitly targeted “negroes, moores, mollatoes and others borne of and in heathenish, idollatrous, pagan and mahometan [followers of Muhammad] parentage” in repealing a 1670 manumission law.
“Aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” weren’t granted citizenship until 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. Black Americans were still subjected to the horrors of Jim Crow laws for another century, and non-white, non-Christian immigrants were likewise treated as second-class citizens.
From 1972 up to the present, almost every presidential administration has imposed a program, plan, operation, or law targeting Arab, African, and Muslim populations.
The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, for example, were passed after a wave of Chinese migration caused “Yellow Peril” among white civil society. Chinese laborers working in gold mines, agriculture, garment factories, and the railroad caused “economic anxieties” around labor and wage competition, and rampant xenophobia quickly turned into violent massacres and lynchings of Chinese workers.
The Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration from China for a ten-year period and prohibited naturalization. Through successive acts, the ten-year ban was expanded to other Asian countries, and the Immigration Act of 1917 put an end to Asian immigration entirely by creating the infamous “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which included most of East, South and Southeast Asia, and Central Asia.
As people from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean migrated to the United States through the twentieth century in response to devastating famines in their home countries, a more general anti-immigrant sentiment fomented. Nativists in this period responded to Ellis Island immigration by passing not only racist protocols for legal assessment of national citizenship fitness, but also by passing legislation that dramatically reduced the influx of non-Northwest European migration into the states.
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act. Often called the “National Origins Act,” it set up quotas based on “national origins” that drastically curtailed immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern and Southern Europe while prioritizing immigration from Northwest Europe.
Following this, 86 percent of those admitted to the United States came from Northern European countries. Even the U.S. government’s historical commentary on this bill acknowledges the nativist intentions that propelled it: “In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.”
This period of nativist anxieties also saw aggressive federal efforts to detain and deport those immigrants from East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East who were present in the United States. In 1942, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of 110,000-120,000 Japanese Americans.
The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 is often celebrated for repealing national origins quotas, but it did so while restricting Central and South American immigration for the first time ever. This was also not the end of the state’s management of Arab, African and Muslim communities. From 1972 up to the present, almost every presidential administration has imposed a program, plan, operation, or law targeting Arab, African, and Muslim populations.
From 1972–75, for example, Richard Nixon’s administration secretly enforced a racial profiling program of Arab nationals and Arab Americans called “Operation Boulder.” This program screened visas of Arabs traveling to the United States, interrogated Arab American college students, and launched a mass surveillance program on Arab Americans that included spying and wire-tapping.
Then, in response to the Iranian hostage crisis from November 4, 1979–January 20, 1981, Jimmy Carter’s administration cancelled U.S.-Iranian visas as part of a sanctions package.
Just this week, a leaked DHS report called for the continuous tracking of Sunni Muslim immigrants who were deemed ‘at-risk.’
For its part, the Reagan administration introduced an “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables Contingency Plan” in 1987 as part of the U.S. government’s campaign to deport 8 Palestinians and a Kenyan (known as the “LA 8”) for holding political views critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The plan called for rounding up legal permanent residents with national origins in Libya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco, with detention in rural Louisiana and the intention of an eventual mass deportation.
By the time of the first Gulf War, under George H. W. Bush’s administration, the reports of FBI harassment of Arab-American populations were so bad that they inspired the formation of a coalition of civil rights organizations that included the ACLU, the Japanese-American Citizens League, Washington Area Jews for Palestinian Peace, and the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The coalition felt it necessary to counter “the possibility that Arab-Americans might one day be interned in camps similar to those that held Japanese-American in WWII.”
In 1996, Bill Clinton’s administration instituted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which created a new court specifically for government cases to deport “aliens” accused of terrorism based on “secret evidence” that would remain classified to the accused and their lawyers. This act expanded to include deportation of lawful residents in immigration proceedings. Almost every single secret evidence case involved Muslims or Arabs.
While running for president in 2000, George W. Bush garnered Arab and Muslim American political support by vowing to rescind the use of secret evidence in immigration cases. But this promise, as history demonstrates, was short-lived.
Unlearning the basic principles, fantasies, and mythologies we are taught about the history of U.S. immigration requires a lot of heavy-lifting and honest confrontation.
Months after 9/11, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was passed, which created a “special registry” for male non-citizen visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria. Over the years, that list grew to include a total of 24 Muslim majority countries as well as North Korea.
Bush’s administration also oversaw the FBI’s specific targeting of predominantly African, Arab, and South Asian populations for interviews, the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and international “black sites,” No-Fly lists, and sustained police surveillance of Muslim communities in cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
The NSEERS program continued for most of Barack Obama’s presidency. Although it was indefinitely suspended in 2011, it was only fully dismantled in late 2016 when Congress was forced to admit that the program had been a failure in addressing terrorism. Obama also went back on his promise of closing Guantanamo, and under his presidency, Congress passed the Visa-Waiver Restriction Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevent Act. The act restricted travel to the United States for people with national origins in Syria and Iraq, and later in Iran, Sudan Libya, Somalia and Yemen, despite their having visas to the United States.
Do those countries sound familiar? The first version of Trump’s Muslim ban did not name specific countries other than Syria, but instead referred directly to “countries of particular concern” determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, and Director of National Intelligence. The next version, however, specifically pointed to the countries listed in the Visa-Waiver Restriction Program Act.
And most recently, a leaked Department of Homeland Security draft report called for continuous tracking of Sunni Muslim immigrants who were deemed “at-risk.” As Foreign Policy reported Monday, the document suggested that immigrants to the United States should be tracked on a “long-term basis," and that Sunni Muslim residents—especially young men from “the Middle East, South Asia or Africa”—could be “vulnerable to terrorist narratives."
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It is worth asking whether popular resistance to the Obama-era program could have minimized the state’s power to determine acceptable populations without congressional or civilian oversight. And whether the Trump administration could have even drafted a Muslim ban without such historical precedents.
Only with a new narrative can we begin to organize a resistance that takes us beyond “Immigrants Welcome.”
They are difficult questions to answer because this is a difficult history to teach, even to college students and well-meaning protesters. Unlearning the basic principles, fantasies, and mythologies we are taught about the history of U.S. immigration (to say nothing of the transatlantic slave-trade as part of forced migration and genocide) requires a lot of heavy-lifting and honest confrontation.
But we must come to understand that this fight is not merely about countering the right-wing xenophobia at the heart of the Trump administration. Rather, it is about resisting the historical narrative of the United States as a place for “free white persons . . . of good character,” and redefining the United States not just as a place, but as a constantly evolving concept.
Only with this new narrative can we begin to organize a resistance that takes us beyond “Immigrants Welcome.”
Maytha Alhassen, is journalist, poet, and Senior Fellow at Pop Culture Collaborative in Muslim, Arab, South Asian (MASA) narratives and recently received her Ph.D. in American Studies & Ethnicity.
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