Among many other lunacies from last night's tea party debate, Michele Bachmann uttered this: The immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid-1960s when liberal members of Congress changed the
September 13, 2011

Among many other lunacies from last night's tea party debate, Michele Bachmann uttered this:

The immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid-1960s when liberal members of Congress changed the immigration laws. What works is to have people come into the United States with a little bit of money in their pocket, legally, with sponsors so that if anything happens to them they don’t fall back on the taxpayers to take care of them.

Ian Milhiser at ThinkProgress explains:

In 1924, Congress passed a package of immigration laws — including the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act — establishing a quota system giving preferential treatment to European immigrants. Under these laws, the number of immigrants who could be admitted from a given country was capped at a percentage of the number of people from that nation who were living in the United States in 1890. Because Americans were overwhelming of European descent in 1890, the practical effect of these laws was an enormous thumb on the scale encouraging white immigration.

These quotas were eliminated by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, an act which is widely credited for opening up our nation to new Americans of Asian and Central and South American descent.

As Milhiser explains, these laws were notorious for singling out Japanese immigrants -- and all other Asians as well -- for exclusion from immigration, which had the effect of reinforcing existing laws that prohibited Asians from even becoming naturalized citizens:

It’s worth noting that the 1924 laws that Bachmann believes to have worked so very well singled out certain people for particularly harsh treatment. As immigration scholar Roger Daniels explains:

1924 law also barred “aliens ineligible to citizenship” – reflecting the fact that American law had, since 1870, permitted only “white persons” and those “of African descent” to become naturalized citizens. The purpose of this specific clause was to keep out Japanese, as other Asians had been barred already.

The prohibition against naturalization embedded in these laws was slowly eradicated by the effects of World War II. Chinese -- who had been prohibited from emigration to the U.S. since 1884 -- were permitted to become naturalized American citizens in 1944 as a result of China's alliance with the U.S. Meanwhile, Japanese immigrants were finally permitted to become naturalized American citizens with passage in 1952 of the McCarran-Walter Act. But the race-based system of quotas persisted, and Asian immigration remained at a trickle as a result during those years.

This is the system that Bachmann thinks is just hunky-dory. Which is even more appalling when you consider its origins.

As I explained in my book Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community, the 1924 Immigration Act was passed at the height of racist anti-Japanese xenophobia, the culmination of a long campaign to exclude Asian immigrants of all stripes. It began on the local level in Pacific Coast states like Washington and California, and eventually became a national phenomenon -- one that had powerful consequences 17 years later:

Politicians like Albert Johnson [a congressman from Hoquiam, Washington] in particular were prone to picking up the anti-Japanese cause, since the agitating factions represented several key voting blocs, while the Japanese themselves were excluded from voting and thus had no political clout whatsoever. Various officeholders, especially rural legislators, found that attacking the Japanese threat, and piously talking about saving American civilization, went over well with the voters. But even on a statewide level, the issue received prominent play; Governor Hart, a Republican, campaigned for his ultimately successful re-election on a promise to outlaw the leasing of any property by the Issei, while one of his GOP primary opponents, John Stringer, took it a step further: “It is our duty to take every acre of land on Puget Sound away from the Japs and place it in the hands of our ex-soldiers.”

The Japanese and their few allies, which included the produce and agricultural associations that helped distribute their goods, were poorly organized compared to their opponents. They offered token protest of the proposed laws, but found themselves out-manned. When the legislature convened early in 1921, a flood of anti-Japanese bills awaited. The first proposal would have made it mandatory to post American citizens as guards at any Japanese-owned hotel. Another called for an official investigation of the Japanese immigrants. A third prohibited any “aliens and disloyal persons” from teaching in any public or private schools. All these faltered in the legislative process. But the fourth and centerpiece bill—a land law that forbade ownership of land by all “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” and making it a criminal offense to sell or lease land to any such alien—flew through both houses nearly unimpeded, passing the House 71-19 and the Senate 36-2. Governor Hart, freshly re-elected, signed the bill in short order.

Flush with political victory, Miller Freeman [leader of the anti-Japanese campaign in Washington] had the final say on the matter. In an article addressed to the Japanese community, he minced no words: “The people of this country never invited you here. You came into this country of your own responsibility, large numbers after our citizens supposed that Japanese immigration had been suppressed. You came notwithstanding you knew you were not welcome. You have created an abnormal situation in our midst for which you are to blame.”

The storm of venom against Japanese immigrants kept raining down for the next three years, often with an official imprimatur. New Mexico passed an alien land law in 1922, and Oregon, Montana, and Idaho all followed suit in 1923. Washington’s legislature tightened its own alien land law in 1923 by empowering the attorney general to seize the property of anyone who leased or sold to ineligible aliens.

The United States Supreme Court weighed in as well. Its 1922 ruling in Ozawa v. United States officially sanctioned the exclusion of all Asian races. A Japanese immigrant named Takao Ozawa—arguing that he had been almost entirely raised and educated in the United States, was a product of its universities, and was a Christian who spoke English in his home—sought to overturn a district court ruling that denied him the right to seek citizenship. And though the court agreed that he was “well qualified by character and education for citizenship,” it denied his appeal on the grounds that immigration laws limited naturalization to “free white persons and aliens of African nativity.” Then, in 1923, the court upheld the constitutionality of Washington’s alien land law with its Terrace v. Thompson ruling (in a case involving a King County landowner named Terrace who openly declared his wish to lease his land to an Issei farmer, and sued the state's attorney general over efforts to enforce the alien land law) which found that an alien ineligible for citizenship did not enjoy equal protection under the law.

The final blow came in 1924, when Albert Johnson, using his offices as chair of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, introduced a bill that would limit immigration to a 2 percent quota for each nationality, but further prohibiting the admission of any “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” The bill easily passed the House, but once in the Senate, the provisions were altered to allow for a Japanese quota as well. However, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts then stood up in the Senate and denounced a letter from the Japanese ambassador—which had warned of “grave consequences” for relations between the two nations if the measure were to pass—as a “veiled threat” against the United States. Lodge led a stampede of support for the House version of the bill, and the era of the Gentlemen’s Agreement was over. Signed shortly afterward by President Calvin Coolidge, complete Japanese exclusion was now the law. Officially called the Immigration Act of 1924, it became known popularly as the Asian Exclusion Act. (Its final clause: “The terms ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ do not include a wife husband by reason of a proxy or picture marriage.”)

Taken in isolation, these little acts of racial mean spiritedness may have seemed of little moment. But in fact they had consequences that eventually exploded into the history books. In Japan, the public had been closely watching the passage of the alien land laws with mounting outrage. And when news of the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act was announced, mass riots broke out in Tokyo and other cities. As Pearl Buck would later observe, the then-nascent movement for American-style democracy, which had been slowly gaining momentum in Japan, was effectively wiped out overnight. The military authoritarians who would control the nation for the next 20 years gained complete political mastery, and one of the cornerstones of their rule was a bellicose anti-Americanism that would finally reach fruition in late 1941.

Moreover, the groundwork laid by the success of the nativist campaign led to one of the nation's great historical atrocities -- namely, the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.

And we all remember how Michele Bachmann deplored that episode -- when it suited her own fearmongering purposes. Guess it's another story when it comes to immigration, eh?

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