CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — President Donald Trump’s approach to undocumented immigrants and migratory laborers follows the example of past presidents who relied on racial animus to scapegoat foreigners during times of cultural change, says a University of Illinois expert who studies immigration law and labor issues.
Foreigners have caused recurring anxiety for American workers, and those fears have been fomented by presidents from George Washington through Franklin Roosevelt who viewed immigration in racial terms, said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.
“However you feel about President Trump, many tend to think that his attitude toward foreigners is unique,” LeRoy said. “The truth is, his beliefs are not all that unique. Roughly a dozen presidents were motivated by racial animus and used their powers as chief executive to malign immigrants under the auspices of ‘protecting’ American workers. If you view President Trump’s approach to immigrants through a historical lens, it’s really a throwback to the pre-Cold War era.”
According to LeRoy, the history of presidential immigration powers divides into two periods: before and after Harry Truman, culminating in the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The longest period, running from the founding of the U.S. to the end of World War II, was largely marked by “restrictions and exclusions arising from racial bigotry directed at migratory laborers,” LeRoy said.
“You can cite examples going back to the era of our Founding Fathers, when President Jefferson used quiet diplomacy during his last year in office to enforce the Constitution’s fugitive slave provision by deporting free blacks to Sierra Leone,” he said. “President William McKinley cast foreigners as a public menace and issued the first executive order pertaining to immigration and labor conditions by barring Chinese workers from Hawaii. From the 1880s through the 1940s, presidents acted with Congress to restrict laborers from China, Japan and eventually all of Asia in order to severely limit the flow of poor, nonwhite European immigrants to the U.S.
“Immigrants have been blamed for lowering standards for American workers from the country’s inception. So what President Trump is doing now is nothing new. It’s part of our historical DNA.”
Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower set the tone for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policies by explicitly challenging racial bias and using their limited executive powers to move the nation toward a more pluralistic approach to immigration – “one that would befit the ideals of American democracy,” LeRoy said.
“The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 was a watershed event in this regard,” he said. “Thereafter, the nation embarked on an ambitious policy to promote immigration from all parts of the world. With the exception of Richard Nixon, every president since has embraced this sweeping legislation. In contrast to today, presidents have used executive orders and other administrative powers to permit entry to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by war, political upheaval and natural disasters. They used prosecutorial discretion to extend the stay of these temporary migrants and created a legal mechanism for their lawful employment.”
After the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed, presidents of both parties used their powers in the ensuing decades to pursue amnesty for migratory workers and create temporary legal status for their children, LeRoy said.
“Family unification was more important to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama than it is for Trump, who chooses to use his executive powers to deport large numbers of family members,” he said. “Indeed, the much-derided Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program of President Obama traces its authority back to President Reagan’s discretionary policy to allow minor children to remain in the U.S. with their parents.
“But President Trump offers a clear departure from that pluralistic vision. For now, that law remains a bulwark and explains why courts have for the most part been able to restrain Trump’s anachronistic impulses.”