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A History of US Immigration Bans

In the course of his controversial presidency, Donald Trump has issued two executive orders, the second a toned-down revision after the first was struck down by courts, that banned immigrants from seven (later revised to six) Muslim-majorities countries “afflicted by terrorism” for 90 days and halted the US Refugee Admission Program, claiming terrorists infiltrated the program, for 120 days. While these bans have been deemed unconstitutional for targeting Muslims, the US has a troubling history of barring or limiting of “undesirable” groups.

In American history, there were similar moments when nationalities were targeted. During the Yellow Peril, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned “skilled and unskilled labourers and Chinese employed in mining” and was renewed until the Magnuson Act of 1943. After fear over national security following WWI, President Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1917 that instituted Literacy Tests and the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” barring all Asians except Japanese and Fillipinos. Introduced in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and firmly established in the Immigration Act of 1924, a system of quotas based on US census populations of nationalities in 1910 privileged Northern and Western Europe over the rest of the world. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt placed a 27,000 annual quota on German Jewish refugees out of fear of Nazi spies among them, but less than a quarter of the quota was filled. In April 7, 1980, President Jimmy Carter banned Iranians from entering the country after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, one of the same nations targeted by Trump’s ban.

Whenever I read stories of families stuck in airports during the mass confusion immediately following the implementation of the ban, I could not help but think of my grandfather, Papa Ben, who passed away after the first ban and before the second. Benjamin Malamud was born on July 4, 1923 in Bucharest, Romania, en route to America. When he was just two months old, the family boarded a Greek steamship and landed in Ellis Island.

His parents were from a small shtetl (Jewish town) outside Kamianets-Podilskyi in the USSR, now a city in Ukraine. After World War, revolution, and civil war, the region was far from stable. In 1919-1920, Cossacks led General Altman Pettura returned from WWI and looted, raped, and murdered the Jewish shtetls of the region, including my grandfather’s family shtetl. After losing family to this pogrom, his parents fled to Romania, placing their hope in America.

My grandfather and his family immigrated to America a year before the Immigration Act of 1924 enshrined the quota system permanently in law, a system prejudiced against eastern Europeans like my grandfather. After World War II, they would have been considered refugees under the USRAP, developed in response to the staggering number of DPs and refugees, another program Trump seeks to suspend. His family was fleeing from a similar kind of religious, economic, and political turmoil that many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing today. As a nation composed of immigrants and refugees, I think it is our moral obligation to open our doors.

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