Trump's Refugee and Immigration Ban Recalls Past Exclusionary Laws

Policy recalls previous U.S. immigration restrictions.

ByABC News
January 28, 2017, 12:35 PM

— -- President Donald Trump's executive order placing temporary bans on entry into the country of any refugees and all people from seven Muslim-majority countries recalls past immigration restrictions in the United States.

"It hearkens back to a time where the U.S. viewed immigration strictly through a national origins lens," said Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

The executive order signed Friday immediately suspends immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa -- Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and Libya -- for 90 days, ends for 120 days the entry of any refugees into the U.S., and indefinitely suspends the entry of Syrian refugees.

The announcement partly fulfills a campaign pledge to restrict immigration and refugee resettlement from Muslim-majority nations but falls short of the full-scale “Muslim ban” that Trump first called for in December 2015, though he repeatedly changed his position on how immigration policies relating to Muslims and residents of largely Muslim countries should be approached throughout the campaign.

Speaking with ABC News' David Muir on Wednesday, Trump previewed the ban, saying it concerned "countries that have tremendous terror."

While Trump’s executive action marks a significant shift in decades of U.S. immigration policies, it isn't the first time the U.S. has restricted immigration from specific countries.

Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute pointed to three past instances -- the banning of Chinese immigration in the 1880s, national origin immigration quotas and restrictions in the 1920s, and a brief 1980 halt of new visas for Iranian immigrants.

Chinese Exclusion

Riding a wave of anti-Chinese prejudice in the U.S. after the large influx of Chinese immigrants in the preceding decades, President Chester A. Arthur in 1882 signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped Chinese immigration for 10 years, as documented by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The ban also prevented Chinese persons from becoming U.S. citizens, and the exclusion was subsequently extended permanently through later legislation.

Over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed the 1917 Immigration Act amid social outcry over national security during World War I. According to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, the legislation extended to barring most Asian nation immigration overall, with the exception of Japan, which was protected by a prior bilateral diplomatic agreement, and the Philippines, then a U.S. colony.

The act was officially repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943, in the context of the U.S. alliance with China against Japan during World War II. Still, actual Chinese immigration to the U.S. remained capped at 105 persons a year until 1965.

National Origins Formula

For the first time in the 1920s -- through the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act -- the U.S. further restricted immigration by establishing a wide-scale quota system based on national origins. According to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, in addition to putting a blanket ban on immigration from Asian countries, now including Japan in the case of the Johnson-Reed Act, the national origins immigration policies also had the effect of reducing immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center about 20th century U.S. immigration, the impact of the system was intended to "try to restore earlier immigration patterns by capping total annual immigration and imposing numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored northern and western European countries."

The U.S. immigration system remained based on the national origin of would-be immigrants until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

“It was designed for racist reasons," said Steve Legomsky, professor of law at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, referring to the national origins system as well as the prior exclusion of Asian immigrants. “Today, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the immigration ban [proposed by Trump]. I think it’s more a fear of terrorism and a concern for national security."

Legomsky, who was also formerly the chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, added that "the impulses are different [now], but the effect is the same."

Jimmy Carter Restricts Iranian Immigration

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, in which Iran held 52 American diplomats for 444 days, President Jimmy Carter placed retaliatory sanctions on Iran.

During an April 7, 1980, press conference, Carter instructed his administration to "invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States, effective today,” according to a transcript of the event kept by the American Presidency Project.

As the temporary ban was a diplomatic maneuver related to resolving the crisis, Iranian immigration to the U.S. later resumed after the hostage situation ended.

While the Iranian ban bears some resemblance to the new Trump action, Legomsky noted that Carter's action was specific to a single crisis with an adversarial government.

"This is a retaliation against some nationals as opposed to a government," he said of Trump's order.

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