The people's voice of reason

Discrimination's Diversity

One Hundred years ago, Congress passed, and President Calvin Coolidge signed a new immigration bill. While relatively uncontroversial in the United States - it had passed the Senate 69-9 and 308-62 in the House - the Act had a global impact.

Its genesis was a study completed by the Dillingham Commission, which was formed by President Theodore Roosevelt and tasked with studying and identifying which immigrants would contribute most to the social fabric of America.

The commission unfortunately embraced various theories combining racial superiority concepts of social Darwinism with eugenics, so, to no one’s surprise, the resulting profile of an ideal American immigrant looked remarkably like members of the committee.

The panel would review and ultimately adopt standards of suitability ranging from physical details like posture, head size and facial features to grades on literacy tests that focused more on aptitude for learning rather than ability to read or write.

Scientists and academics nationwide embraced these outward manifestations to divide the “desirable” immigrants from those more susceptible to crime, disease and incompetence, and applauded the commission’s findings incorporated in the Act which provided a basis for excluding certain immigrants.

Prior to passage of the federal law, immigration issues were handled at points of entry as typified by the Ellis Island experience in which huddled masses from faraway nations were processed and generally only turned back for obvious reasons like illness.

The new law required those seeking entry to America to first secure a travel visa, which was allotted on a quota system that severely limited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Because immigration from Asia was expressly prohibited, the law has been commonly known as the “Japanese Exclusion Act.”

Labor unions particularly supported the new law as it eliminated cheap immigrant labor and allowed for union workers to maintain their hegemony in providing workers for America’s expanding industry.

While limiting immigration on the basis of country of origin, the Act did not limit immigration from the Western Hemisphere, so those from Canada and Mexico were welcomed without the need for a visa, literacy test, or proper eugenic profile; Mexican laborers, however, were charged a $10 tax to enter the United States.

Sensing that the borders with our neighbors might be a source of problems, the Border Patrol was established to make sure that the prohibitions of the federal law were respected, and immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere could not sneak across.

Thus, the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Immigration Act is also the centennial of the US Border Patrol. Creating this federal agency later demonstrated that Congress was correct in assuming that immigrants from outside Latin America would attempt to use the southern border as an entry point to avoid the immigration limitations assessed at ports.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the law was the humiliating effect it had on Japan. America had previously limited immigration from China specifically, but Japan’s immigration was limited by an unwritten and covert “gentlemen’s agreement.” The 1924 immigration law removed any pretense that citizens of Japan were not wanted.

It is not a stretch to say that some of the seeds of anti-Americanism that would create open hostilities between the counties were contained in this Act. Prior to this time, Japan admired the young country of America and saw many benefits in becoming a trading partner and friend. The Japanese people even adopted aspects of American culture ranging from clothing to baseball.

Japan was a bona fide world power and had entered World War I as an ally, believing its interest more aligned with the United States and Great Britain. There was a strong sentiment in Japan to reform its government to be more like its Western allies, and its representatives attended the Versailles Conference to voice concern about the future of the world.

Specifically, Japan advocated for loosening restrictions on immigration to ban discrimination based on race and religion, which was a quite progressive view for 1919. Unfortunately, President Wilson worked to make sure these proposals were not incorporated into the final agreement to form the League of Nations.

But even so, Japan’s pride at having a place at the conference and the honor of having its diplomats respected as part of the League of Nations boosted national morale. In imitation of its new allies, Japan created a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected parliament. In short, Japan had achieved world-wide recognition as a geo-political leader and actor on the world stage following World War I.

After the immigration law was enacted Japanese-American relations soured. Within the short time it took for news to reach Japan of the Act’s limitations, a young citizen of Japan set himself on fire in front of the US Embassy in Tokyo, tariffs on American businesses and industries doubled, and Japanese embassies in America and other countries lodged protests as some ambassadors resigned.

No one in Japan could understand why they would be singled out. They needed no sophisticated interpreter to explain the Act; for all the pretexts and explanations, nothing could escape the simple fact that the immigration law deemed Japan as an unworthy, second-class country.

Try as some Americans might, there was no way to sugarcoat in diplomatic terms that the Act was demeaning and promoted the inferiority of Asian culture in general and Japan in particular. The earlier honors of equality and recognition as an ally were diminished, if not forgotten.

And among those in Japan who resisted changes to constitutional government and the embrace of American culture, the Act allowed them to question the shift toward democracy. Recalcitrant Japanese nobility used the Act to show American deceit and provided a basis to urge a rejection of American culture, economy and institutions.

Instead of incorporating Japan into its sphere of influence, the Act alienated Japan from the United States and was one step of many that lead to confrontation and ultimately, a second world war.

Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at jws@willsellers.com

 

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