It’s a frequent refrain that those who fail to learn from the past are inevitably destined to repeat it. A cursory glance through history offers recurring examples of minorities being scapegoated to suit the nationalistic desires of failed leaders and movements. President Trump’s executive orders banning entry of refugees and travelers from select Muslim-majority countries represent one recent example of this kind of dark isolationism. His actions run afoul of our history and represent fundamentally un-American values.
Jews in medieval Europe were regularly persecuted and found themselves as victims of mass violence. In 13th century England, King Henry III introduced policies that sought to impoverish the Jewish community through heavy taxation, to the benefit of the crown, and end their ability to commercially lend money. In 1253, Henry’s Statute of Jewry required Jews to wear special badges to segregate them. By 1290, Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, through which all Jews were expelled from England after government confiscation of their property. These medieval policies served as inspiration for the Nazi regime six centuries later. While an extreme example of how history can become our present, the point remains that if we are not vigilant, we are at risk of reliving the past.
More relevant to the president’s current policies are the debates over immigration and religion in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1850s, the American Party – or Know-Nothings – rose to prominence for their nationalistic opposition to immigration, specifically relating to Germans and Irish Catholics. These “nativists” were spurred by unfounded fears that these foreign-born Catholics were being sent by the pope to destabilize the federal government and undermine the economic security of American Protestants. The American Party’s leaders promoted policies to block participation of Catholics in government, restricted their immigration, and excluded them from participating in elections through various forms of violence and intimidation.
In 1855, Abraham Lincoln said of the Know-Nothings, “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”
Though the American Party wasn’t long for our history books, a virulent strain of their nativist sentiment lived on. In the 1880s and early 1900s, nativist support was galvanized around the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States. Many feared Chinese laborers, who initially came to work in the California gold mines and eventually the transcontinental railroad, would damage the economic security of white laborers and the racial integrity of the country.
In the 1920s, renewed concerns over racial homogeneity caused nativists to target Jews, Catholics, Asians, and southeastern Europeans with incredibly restrictive quotas on immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of foreign-born individuals entering American ports to 2 percent of the population from their home country already in the country at the time of the 1890 census. These new quotas led to a drop in overall immigration, effectively banned Asians from entering the United States, and wound up limiting the immigration of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany – including 900 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis who were denied entry and returned to Europe where it is estimated a quarter of them perished in the Holocaust.
By 1942, the decades of anti-immigrant sentiment, fear and political scapegoating would lead the U.S. government to sanction the relocation and internment of over 110,000 Japanese American citizens and immigrants in the name of national security.
These of course are just a few examples from history, but it’s easy to see similarities between the policies of the Know-Nothings and those of our current political debate. It’s not the focus on particular nationalities and religious beliefs that’s new; it’s the human beings they are targeting.
Every day the world is getting smaller. With that comes threats and challenges unique to this century. Republicans, like myself, see the world for what it is and recognize that the country which has proudly welcomed generations of huddled masses yearning to breathe free is also a ripe target for those seeking to do us harm.
While we must remain vigilant, the president’s ban extinguishes liberty’s light for those in the world who need America most. That includes thousands fleeing violence who hope to settle here and start new lives. These refugees, mostly women and children, are being terrorized. They’re not terrorists.
Dark moments in our past or present must be called out and rejected for what they are. Our country will be stronger and better served when our leaders learn from such dark moments rather than repeat them.
James C. Dozier is a principal with Civitas Public Affairs Group and a life-long Republican.