Immigration Crackdowns Are Not Unusual In Trying Times Anti-immigration sentiments have a long history of being tied to times of hardship: diseases, economic downturns and war. U.S. immigration history professor Erika Lee speaks with NPR's Ailsa Chang.

Immigration Crackdowns Are Not Unusual In Trying Times

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In a late-night tweet earlier this week, President Trump said he was temporarily suspending immigration into the U.S. The reason - to protect American jobs from, quote, "the invisible enemy." The invisible enemy, of course, is the coronavirus. And his executive order will suspend green card applications for the next 60 days. To help put Trump's move into historical context, we're joined now by Erika Lee. She's a professor of immigration history at the University of Minnesota.


ERIKA LEE: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So I want to start with this fear that we have seen throughout history - this idea that immigrants bring disease into the U.S. Can you just give us a couple real quick examples of how this has played out in the past?

LEE: Sure. So immigrants have always been compared to an invisible enemy, like President Trump described, but also as carriers of disease. So in the 1790s, Germans were blamed for bringing yellow fever, which some politicians called the German flu at the time. But Irish were also blamed for bringing cholera in the 1930s and - 1830s as well. So immigrants have been targeted and scapegoated for some of the public health crises of the day in the past.

CHANG: And when you listen to President Trump's messaging now and in recent weeks about the coronavirus, is there anything that strikes you as a historian?

LEE: How common and how historical these examples are, how we've reached a point where the xenophobic playbook is just so easily brought into our contemporary discourse. Immigrants take away jobs. Immigrants bring disease. We have to protect the American worker against these dangerous immigrants. It's something that we've heard time and time again, whether it's in the early 20th century or in more recent years as well.

CHANG: You know, something that we've been hearing a lot over the course of the last couple months is, you know, memories of the 1918 flu pandemic. A lot of parallels are being drawn between then and now. And I'm wondering - were there efforts back then to crack down on immigration because of the flu pandemic?

LEE: So immigration was already effectively halted due to the war during World War I and the end of passenger steamship travel. But the U.S. still didn't try to limit immigration due to the pandemic. In fact, we still let in over 110,000 immigrants during 1918, and the Bureau of Immigration actually touted its kind treatment of sick immigrants. The other laws that are passed in 1918 in relationship to immigration actually made it easier for certain foreign-born persons to become naturalized and also facilitated their entry into the United States.

CHANG: Oh, so quite the opposite reaction.

LEE: Yes.

CHANG: So, you know, the U.S. passed a bunch of immigration restrictions in the 1920s. These are the years right after World War I. President Trump has called himself a wartime president. He's talked about the coronavirus, as we just said, as an invisible enemy. Do you see echoes now when it comes to immigration in terms of how Americans have thought about their role in the world, at least during times of war - anything familiar now?

LEE: During - yeah, during times of war but also during times of economic depression. I think the way in which the president is talking about immigration is relative to the economy, obviously, but also during times of crises. We know that during the Great Depression, for example, federal officials really used that economic downturn as a way to push for really stringent immigration and especially deportation policies - policies that ended up removing several hundred thousand - close to a million - Mexican and Mexican Americans from the United States, 60% who were actually U.S. citizen children.

CHANG: Wow - the idea being that we are trying to preserve U.S. jobs for Americans.

LEE: Absolutely. The rhetoric is actually eerily similar. The secretary of labor at that time actually called immigrants the foe within our doors. He talked about them taking away jobs from Americans. And he advocated, just like our president, for deep cuts in immigration. He wanted a 90% reduction on top of those already restrictive national origins quotas.

CHANG: And in just the short moment we have left, you know, President Trump has said this order will last 60 days. Do you think that any changes to immigration policy now could become long-lasting?

LEE: We know from the historical record that there are so many laws that were first put into place as quote-unquote "temporary measures" that ended up lasting for decades. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to be temporary.

CHANG: Right.

LEE: It ended up lasting for 61 years.

CHANG: Right. All right. Erika Lee is director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

Thank you very much.

LEE: Thank you so much.

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