OPINION: Nothing to Fear But Fear of Immigrants: America’s Worst Immigration Laws and What Current Politicians Can Learn from Them

by Elizabeth Brettschneider


Some of the unpleasant rhetoric surrounding the presidential campaign involves suggestions that the immigration laws should be changed seemingly based on fears and prejudices. While these debates bring me uneasiness, it certainly isn’t a unique occurrence in our country’s history that fear-based immigration laws are passed reflecting our country’s mores at the time. 

The Expatriation Act and Cable Act

I came upon one such immigration law from the early 20th century when discussing my own genealogy and family immigration history. The Cable Act, passed by Congress in 1922, finally granted married women independent citizenship rights. Before the Cable Act was passed, however, a series of unfavorable citizenship acts affecting women were the law of the land.

Perhaps in fear of a woman’s inability to hold her loyalty to the country in which she was born when she married a foreigner, the Expatriation Act revoked the citizenship of American women who married foreigners in 1907. After that act was passed, women had no independent citizenship rights—they were completely dependent on their husbands’ ability or desire to naturalize. Until I researched my own great-grandmother’s naturalization (despite her birth in the US), I had never heard of the Cable Act or the Expatriation Act in regards to women’s citizenship rights in the 20th century.

Chinese Exclusion Act

Perhaps a better-known shameful immigration law of the 19th century would be the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the 1880s an economic depression on the West Coast put many people out of work. Many chose to blame Chinese immigrants for their economic problems. They attacked Chinese businesses and drove entire Chinese communities out of towns across the West Coast. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed suspending the admission of Chinese laborers for ten years. This act was extended, with slight adjustments, for sixty years. As fear of immigrants from the East spread, the Immigration Act of 1917 denied entry to immigrants not only from China but from Eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Japanese Internment Camps

In 1922, when fear of the Japanese began to grow, the Supreme Court decided the case of Ozawa v. United States which declared Japanese ineligible for US citizenship. The case hinged on the definition of “white.” Congress made “free white persons” eligible for citizenship in 1790 but the Ozawa decision found that Japanese did not fit within the definition of “white.” The 1923 Supreme Court decision in the United States v. Bharat Singh Thind found that Asian Indians also did not qualify for citizenship as they were also not “white.” Because of that decision, many naturalized Americans of Indian descent who had already been granted US citizenship had that citizenship rescinded. 

The unequal treatment of Japanese in the US escalated even more when in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order sending tens of thousands of Japanese Americans (and some German and Italians) to internment camps. The order gave the military broad powers to ban any citizen from a fifty to sixty-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington State to California and extending inland into southern Arizona. The order authorized transporting these US citizens of Japanese descent to assembly centers set up and governed by the military in California, Arizona, Washington state, and Oregon. The US Supreme Court in Korematsu v. The United States justified this executive order by refusing to find it unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1976 when President Gerald Ford finally repealed Roosevelt’s executive order and proclaimed the Japanese relocation a “National Mistake.” Despite the repeal, our country still must carry the dishonor of our history in this instance.  

The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS)

While writing this post I had originally been thinking only about all the “historical” egregious immigration laws that our government has passed—primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it cannot be ignored that in more recent history our government initiated a discriminatory policy in a fear-based reaction to the events of September 11, 2001.

This policy was called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System or “NSEERS.” NSEERS initiated in 2002, established a national registry for temporary foreign visitors of certain nationalities. It required all males entering the US on nonimmigrant visas sixteen years old or older from twenty-five countries (principally Arab and Muslim-majority populations such as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Morocco) to register with immigration. Registration meant being fingerprinted, photographed, and formally questioned. Registration had to happen at every US entry, every US exit, and when requested at certain immigration offices. Failure to comply resulted in severe penalties including arrest and deportation.

Importantly, NSEERS resulted in zero convictions for terrorism despite the registration of 93,000 men and boys. NSEERS was repeatedly condemned by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and in April 2011, the Obama administration “de-listed” the twenty-five countries and announced that males from those countries would no longer have to comply with the program; however, NSEERS still exists and although currently dormant could be revived at any time as the regulations that created the program still stand. Much like the Supreme Court’s Korematsu decision cited above which upheld Japanese-American internment, NSEERS still remains on the books—a reminder that we don’t have to look too far back in American history for examples of fear-based discriminatory immigration policies. 

Fear-Based Changes Vs. Thoughtful Reform

Looking back at our country’s history can help illuminate our current discussions about immigration laws and fear-based changes verses thoughtful reform based on practical needs. Our lawmakers may want to look back at our discriminatory history before deciding to take a similar course of action. There are many people who may agree (myself included) that reforms to our immigration laws are needed. There are ways, however, to debate the issues and reform our laws without placing blame on immigrants for our country’s problems. There are ways to discuss the issues without using hate speech. It would behoove politicians to reflect on our country’s past to determine their future actions.