Immigration Cruelty Didn’t Start With Trump. Will It End Under Biden?Roundup
tags: immigration, deportation, ICE, INS, undocumented immigrants
Elliott Young is professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and the author of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System.
Immigrants and their advocates breathed a sigh of relief when President Trump lost his bid for reelection, but a return to Obama-era immigration policies should not be cause for celebration. Many of Trump’s harshest changes to immigration rules, more than 400 by one count, can be undone by executive order, but a historical perspective shows that anti-immigrant rhetoric, restrictionist policies and locking up immigrants did not begin with Trump.
Without addressing the root of Trump’s immigration cruelty — more than a century of criminalizing people who migrate — it is unlikely to end with Joe Biden’s presidency.
Criminalizing immigrants in the United States and locking them up indefinitely pending deportation began in the late 1880s after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This first federal immigration law jump-started the building of an enforcement machinery, but it was an underfunded and improvised jalopy at first. In the Pacific Northwest, White mobs, unsatisfied with the lack of federal action, worked to purge the area of Chinese migrants, creating an atmosphere of racist violence that cast people who were Chinese as unwelcome. At the same time, judges were charging Chinese with being in the country unlawfully. They sent Chinese migrants to McNeil Island Penitentiary, a remote prison in what is now Washington state.
Not only were these Chinese immigrants held indefinitely pending deportation; they were also sentenced to six months of hard labor even though they had not been granted a criminal trial or provided with attorneys as required by the Constitution. In its 1896 Wong Wing decision, the Supreme Court resolved this contradiction by declaring that detaining an immigrant pending deportation was “not imprisonment in a legal sense” and therefore was not subject to the protections afforded to someone accused of a crime.
Even as an increasing number of foreigners were being locked up in immigration detention centers at the beginning of the 20th century, a much larger number were being incarcerated in mental health hospitals. One Census Bureau study in 1906 found that one-third of all patients in “insane hospitals” in the United States were immigrants at a time when the foreign-born represented only 20 percent of the population. Progressive Era ideas about the fitness and rehabilitation of those with mental illness, along with the rise of psychiatry, led to the dramatic expansion of asylums. Immigrants considered “mental defectives” and “feebleminded” or exhibiting strange behaviors, according to the views of ethnocentric doctors and immigration officers, were declared “insane” and locked away in these institutions.
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