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Criminalizing Immigration: An American History


Great ProPublica piece on the very fine racists of the past who created the law criminalizing unlawful entry by immigrants that Trump and his thugs are weaponizing today.

Two men spearheaded the effort that would lead Congress to criminalize unlawful entry into the United States. They were motivated by eugenics and white supremacy.

The first was James Davis, who was Secretary of Labor from 1921 to 1930. A Republican originally appointed by President Warren Harding, Davis was himself an immigrant from Wales who went by “Puddler Jim,” a reference to his job as a youthful worker in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania. At the time, the Department of Labor oversaw immigration, and Davis had grown disturbed by what he’d seen.

Davis was a committed eugenicist, and he believed principles of eugenics should guide immigration policy, according to The Bully Pulpit and the Melting Pot by the historian Hans Vought. It was necessary to draw a distinction, Davis had written in 1923, between “bad stock and good stock, weak blood and strong blood, sound heredity and sickly human stuff.”

In November 1927, Davis proposed a set of immigration reforms in the pages of The New York Times. Among his goals: “the definite lessening and possibly, in time, the complete checking of the degenerate and the bearer of degenerates.” One “phase of the immigration problem,” Davis wrote, was the “surreptitious entry of aliens” into the United States in numbers that “cannot even be approximately estimated.”

Deportation alone wasn’t enough to deter illegal immigration, Davis wrote. There was nothing disincentivizing the migrant from turning around and trying again. “Endeavoring to stop this law violation” by deportation only, he wrote, “is like trying to prevent burglary with a penalty no severer than opening the front door of the burglarized residence, should the burglar be found within, escorting him to it, and saying ‘You have no right here; see that you don’t come in again.’”

An immigrant who enters the country unlawfully, he concluded, “should be treated as a law violator and punished effectively.”

To bring his vision to fruition, Davis teamed up with a senator from South Carolina. Coleman Livingston Blease, a Democrat, was “a proud and unreconstructed white supremacist,” UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernández wrote in her 2017 book City of Inmates.

Migrants from Mexico were one group whose numbers the increasingly powerful nativist elements in Congress hadn’t managed to restrict. Mexican workers were key to the booming economy of the southwest. Regional employers, particularly in the agricultural sector, had successfully lobbied Congress to block any bill that would choke off their primary source of inexpensive labor. As a result, migration from Mexico soared, with many Mexicans making illegal border crossings to avoid the cost and inconvenience of customs stations.

Blease saw in Davis’s proposal for criminal penalties a way to advance his vision of a white America, and he believed it would bridge the gap between the nativists clamoring for quotas and southwestern congressmen resisting them. Large-scale farmers didn’t mind criminal penalties, Hernández writes, so long as the law was enforced once the harvest was over.

The legislation wasn’t without its opponents, as the UCLA law professor Ingrid Eagly documented in a 2010 study of immigration prosecutions. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill. The ACLU felt it was unfair and unlikely to deter migration. An immigrant “may be quite ignorant of this law before he starts on his journey,” the group told Congress.

Despite the ACLU’s objections, a Republican-controlled Congress passed Davis and Blease’s bill in 1929. A Republican president, Herbert Hoover, signed it into law.

The law made it a crime to enter the United States unlawfully and, in so doing, “created the criminalization of the border,” Eagly said.

The statute was swiftly put to use. Between July 1929 and June 1930, according to a Department of Labor report, prosecutors brought more than 6,000 unlawful entry cases. “It is believed that it will prove an effective deterrent,” the report’s author wrote. (In his recent memo, Sessions made similar claims about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.)

Learning about the heroes of Stephen Miller and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is always enlightening, if depressing. Can’t wait for the return of eugenics into public policy. I assume the words “race suicide” will be in the Republican platform in 2020.

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