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"It Takes Two to Tango": The Fascinating Interplay Between US Immigration Policy and National Security

May 10, 2017

Today more than ever, immigration is at the forefront of America’s collective political consciousness. Few have as deep of an understanding of the factors that play into this contentious topic than Michael LeMay, a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at California State University at San Bernardino, who received his PhD from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 1971. This February, faculty and graduate students from the Department of Political Science gathered for a talk by LeMay. His lecture explored how the national security needs of the United States have shaped American immigration policy and attitudes towards immigration throughout history, from the Revolutionary War to the changes already developing under President Trump today.

During his talk, LeMay delved into the relationship between the United States’ national security concerns and its immigration policies. In describing the link, LeMay invoked the idiom “it takes two to tango.” “You can’t understand policy in one area without understanding the other area.” LeMay argues that the history in U.S. immigration policy truly begins in 1820, after the young nation’s first immigration law was passed. As he sees it, the history of the U.S. from then until now can be divided into five “cycles” of immigration policy, each accompanied by distinct circumstances and political factors.

After the Revolutionary War, leaders like George Washington favored an immigration policy that was unusually open for its time: “We welcome all who want to be like Americans,” he is famously quoted as saying. LeMay noted the significance of immigrants like Polish military leader Tadeusz Kościuszko, who came to be seen as a war hero for his service during the Revolutionary War. LeMay returned to this theme several times throughout his presentation, exploring the impact that foreign-born war heroes had on the American public’s perception of immigrants throughout history, by highlighting famous examples like the Civil War’s “Fighting Irish” brigade.

During what LeMay calls the “Open Door” era, spanning from 1820-1880, it was in the interest of the U.S. to fill its frontier with people in order to build strength against neighboring competitors such as French and Spanish colonists, as well as Native American populations. As the nation spread westward with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s, there was a demand for immigrants as a means to “fill up” the relatively undeveloped areas now called the midwest for national security purposes. According to Lemay, this need for immigrants, combined with the contributions of immigrant soldiers to the Union’s victory in the Civil War, led to the elimination of most anti-Irish and anti-German sentiment in the U.S.

The next era that LeMay described was the “Door Ajar” era from 1880 to 1920, which was marked by fears that the new wave of lower-class immigrants would bring negative economic effects and pandemic diseases. To highlight these fears, LeMay showed the audience a picture of the “decontamination tubes” in which the luggage of immigrants was held in upon their arrival. Despite these pervasive concerns, immigrants served an integral role in World War I—almost 18% of all U.S. soldiers were foreign-born immigrants.

According to LeMay, as America moved into the 1920s, the government was “no longer desperate for labor or people to fill the land.”  This period, spanning until 1950, is referred to by LeMay as the “Pet-Door” era, and it was during this time that measures like National Origin Quotas were introduced that stipulated how many immigrants would be allowed from each country. LeMay drew parallels between “Freedom Fighter” refugees seeking to escape political turmoil in Hungary, and today’s refugee crisis taking place in Syria. Moving on to the latter half of the 20th century, LeMay described the huge influx of immigrants from South America, Mexico, and Asia. He also touched on the Reagan administration’s attempt to curb economic effects of undocumented immigration by sanctioning companies that employed illegal immigrants. One of the unintended consequences of this policy was what LeMay described as a “boom in counterfeit documents” used by immigrants crossing the border into the U.S. from Mexico.

LeMay thinks of the current era of immigration to the U.S. as a “Storm Door” era, characterized by the restrictionist policies put in place during the tense climate of post-9/11 America. Despite heightened security, undocumented immigration has sharply increased, and the spread of immigrants has moved from concentration in a few “gateway states” to having significant populations in most parts of the country. Bringing the audience to today, LeMay addressed some of the policy changes already in progress under President Trump’s administration. The new president campaigned on the promise of extending the border fence between Mexico and the U.S., and issued a controversial executive order earlier this year that aims to restrict immigration from several countries on the grounds of national security. Before wrapping up his talk, LeMay left the audience with a cautionary word about the potential effects that mass deportation of undocumented immigrants could have, saying that “deporting millions of illegal immigrants could increase the cost of services and goods, damage the economy of ‘gateway states,’ and severely deplete the labor force.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.