By Stuart Anderson
Harvard University Professor Jill Lepore, author of This America: The Case for the Nation, begins her book with an ironic dedication: “In memory of my father, whose immigrant parents named him Amerigo in 1924, the year Congress passed a law banning immigrants like them.”
Classical liberalism guided the American Revolution and the ideas behind it. Classical liberalism is not the same as what one today may call “liberal” to denote left-of-center politics. Rather liberalism is the tradition of people like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Friedrich Hayek.
What is the difference between liberalism and nationalism? “Liberalism is the belief that people are good and should be free, and that people erect governments in order to guarantee that freedom,” writes Lepore. “Nations are collectives and liberalism concerns individuals . . . Liberalism embraced a set of aspirations about liberty and democracy believed to be universal. . . . But nationalism promotes attachment to a particular place, by insisting on national distinctions.”
Today’s debate over immigration would appear strange to America’s founders. “The United States was founded as an asylum and a refuge: a sanctuary. This was a form of patriotism,” notes Lepore. Thomas Paine called America “an asylum for mankind” and the signers of the Declaration of Independence excoriated the king for obstructing immigration and naturalization.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson viewed the United States as a place for refugees. “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” wrote Washington. While Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1817 that America offers “a sanctuary for those whom the misrule of Europe may compel to seek happiness in other climes.”
Jefferson added, “This refuge, once known, will produce reaction on the happiness even of those who remain there, by warning their taskmasters that when the evils of Egyptian oppression become heavier than those of the abandonment of country, another Canaan is open where their subjects will be recieved as brothers, and secured against like oppressions by a participation in the right of self-government.”
This vision of the founders contrasts with the Trump administration’s present-day efforts, in effect, to prohibit asylum, whether through its rules or Attorney General decisions that bar most asylum seekers, or by admitting few or no refugees on an annual basis. Supporters may argue Donald Trump doesn’t oppose asylum seekers or refugees but is devising policies with an eye toward reelection. Still, whether politics or philosophy are behind a presidential administration’s actions one must evaluate the policies at face value, since those affect real people and encourage supporters to craft arguments to defend the policies and convince others such actions are justified.
In 1869, abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass was asked whether he favored Asians being allowed to immigrate to America: “Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would,” said Douglass. “Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would . . . There are such things in the world as human rights . . . when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”
With some exceptions, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, federal immigration policy remained open throughout America’s history until the 1920s. “To restrict immigration, a practice associated with the rise of illiberal nationalism, is to regard foreigners who arrive from friendly nations as invading armies,” writes Lepore. “In the United States, founded as an asylum for the oppressed, this was a very hard turn. Creating a justification for it led to the embrace of eugenics; a newly focused anti-Semitism; and fear mongering about Catholicism and socialism as European imports.”
Congress wrote the “national origins” quotas that became law in 1924 to restrict the entry of Jews, Italians (Catholics), Greeks and East Europeans, particularly Poles and Russians. Advocates openly stated Congress should bar individuals from such countries from immigrating to America because their “races” were inferior. “The next year, in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, who had read the first German edition of The Passing of the Great Race [a popular U.S. eugenics book on immigration], applauded Americans’ efforts at restricting immigration by ‘simply excluding certain races from naturalization,’” notes Lepore.
Another four decades passed before America returned, in a modified fashion, to more open immigration policies. Historians believe a major consequence of the 1924 immigration law is the 6 million Jews who ended up perishing in the Holocaust had nowhere to escape to once America, an historic place of refuge, had closed its doors. Many of those lives could have been saved. “But as the historian Mae Ngai has pointed out, most liberals who fought for the 1965 Immigration Act no longer questioned the idea of immigration restriction itself; they merely changed the way the restriction work,” writes Lepore. “They treated the idea of immigration restriction as if it were a timeless American tradition, when in fact, like the national origins regime itself, it was only 40 years old.”
Lepore observes that people often confuse nationalism with patriotism. “There’s nothing wrong and all kinds of things right with loving the place where you live and the people you live with and wanting that place and those people to thrive,” writes Lepore. “But by the early decades of the 20th century, with the rise of fascism in Europe, nationalism had come to mean something different from patriotism, something fierce, something violent: less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and the hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial or religious majority.”
And here is the connection between nationalism and immigration, explains Jill Lepore: “Immigration policy is a topic for political debate; reasonable people disagree. But hating immigrants, as if they were lesser humans, is a form of nationalism that has nothing to do with patriotism.”
In the minds of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Ronald Reagan that people from other countries wanted to immigrate to America – and that our country welcomed them – was a source of pride and patriotism that defined the nation.