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What History Can Tell Us About the Fallout From Restricting Immigration

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In the days since the White House announced restrictive new travel and refugee resettlement regulations, stories of the Executive Order’s harm to individuals have poured in. However, the nation’s historical experience with restrictive immigration laws suggests that the adverse effects of this ban may well go deeper than that, as U.S. immigration policies are inextricably linked to American foreign relations.

American immigration policies have always resonated abroad in both predictable and unpredictable ways. When Congress instituted restrictive national origins quotas in 1921 and 1924 respectively, the diplomatic fallout reverberated around Europe and Asia. Enacted during a period of economic nationalism, nativism and diplomatic retreat, these laws inscribed a painful exclusionary addendum onto the Statue of Liberty. They also undermined American claims to moral leadership in the world and embittered a host of diplomatic relationships.

As a New York Times editorial observed following the introduction of quota restrictions in 1921, “the dikes raised in this country against the alien flow are bound to have a world-wide effect,” and they most certainly did.

As in the case of those migrants, refugees and permanent residents who were detained—and in some cases expelled—following Trump’s Executive Order, quota restrictions first affected individuals. When President Warren G. Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act on May 19, 1921, he immediately cast the fate of thousands into question. Designed to temporarily limit immigration from places like Poland, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia, that law formed the basis of permanent restrictions that endured with only minor modification until 1965.

Influenced by concerns about the racial “fitness” of Southern and Eastern Europeans, this legislation was also inspired by fears that so-called aliens would import poverty and disease, as well as hostile foreign ideas like anarchism, Bolshevism and Catholicism. Migrants, consulates and border agents were immediately plunged into uncertainty as soon as Harding signed quota restrictions into law. Having complied with existing regulations, thousands found themselves thrust outside the legal and administrative boundaries of the American immigration system. Hundreds abruptly fell out of legal status as they crossed the Atlantic on steamers bound for New York and Boston. Others reached Ellis Island before being told they were no longer legally entitled to admission.

In addition to distressing individual migrants, the introduction of quotas in 1921 affected American foreign relations in numerous unforeseen ways. The State Department received complaints from European governments about the discriminatory treatment of their nationals, and steamship companies from across Europe scrambled to find out whether they were liable for return trips and resettlement. American consulates expanded their reach at Mexican ports of entry in order to prevent fraud, and nativists in countries as far away as Australia began calling for increased restrictions of their own, to prevent Southern and Eastern Europeans from redirecting to those ports.

These scenes were repeated when President Calvin Coolidge signed the National Origins Act on May 24, 1924, which imposed permanent and even more severe quotas on people often referred to as “undesirables.” These tighter controls marooned thousands more at ports throughout Europe and Latin America, including some 10,000 Jewish refugees who languished in unfamiliar and often unfriendly countries for months despite being in possession of legally issued visas for entry to the United States. A new provision also stealthily banned immigration from Japan, adding that nation to the list of places in Asia from which immigration was already prohibited.

Having dramatically inflicted injury on individuals, the 1924 quota law then had calamitous consequences for American foreign relations more broadly.

For example, the Japanese government immediately protested the humiliating American proscription on immigration. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, the American ambassador in Tokyo (Cyrus Woods), the Japanese ambassador in Washington (Masanao Hanihara), and even President Coolidge opposed the enactment of Japanese exclusion, but public and congressional nativism triumphed over warnings about the possible diplomatic repercussions. When the Japanese exclusion clause went into effect it was followed by ambassadorial resignations, protests on the streets of Tokyo, boycotts of American goods and even suicides in Japan. This indignity is seen as a turning point in the growing estrangement of the U.S. and Japan, which culminated in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

In defending the Executive Order, Trump administration officials may turn to claims of sovereignty, as senior policy adviser Stephen Miller did during an interview on Fox & Friends on Monday, insisting that the United States has an “absolute sovereign right” to control immigration. Yet, even if the U.S. does have such a right, such appeals will not change the fact that exercising that right without caution can materially damage American interests and relationships abroad, just as it did during the United States’ prior dalliances with restriction. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have warned of the threat the Executive Order poses to ongoing counterterrorism efforts, and an extraordinary number of active State Department personnel have now joined them in making known their view that the policy will hurt American interests abroad.

As President Theodore Roosevelt observed in 1908 following an earlier bruising dispute over immigration from Japan, the United States is a nation of immigrants, and as such American immigration policies affect international relations more than they might for other countries.

“It is our undoubted right to say what people, what persons, shall come to this country to live, to work, to become citizens,” he wrote. “It is equally undoubtedly our duty that that right shall be exercised in a way that will be provocative of the least, and not of the most, friction with outsiders.”

Historians explain how the past informs the present

David C. Atkinson is assistant professor of history at Purdue University. He is the author of The Burden of White Supremacy: Containing Asian Migration in the British Empire and the United States, which explores the diplomatic tensions caused by immigration restriction in the early 20th century.

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