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Immigration: Perspectives of Past Presidents


Friday, February 20, 2015

This month we celebrate the birthdays of the country’s two, arguably, most influential presidents. At a time when our current president is at odds with Congress over immigration reform, it may be interesting to take a historical look at the stances Washington and Lincoln took on immigration.
 
In the year after Washington took office for the first time, he signed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which – especially in light of the words written in the Declaration of Independence just 14 years earlier – was an incredibly racist, sexist and jingoistic law. Under the law, only “free white persons” possessing “good moral character” could apply for citizenship. Asians, Africans, and other non-whites, including Native Americans, were explicitly excluded from citizenship by the Act, along with, in certain circumstances, women. At the time, all lawmakers in the new country were white men of, largely, British descent.
 
Although U.S. immigration policy was revised several times over the ensuing seven decades, it was not until the Lincoln administration that immigration got its first “reform.”  On July 4, 1864, as the Civil War raged on, Lincoln signed into law the Act to Encourage Immigration. The law, which overtly acknowledged the economic importance of immigration, established the first Immigration Bureau. The Bureau was tasked with increasing immigration to ensure that U.S. industry had a sufficient supply of workers to meet the increased production needs caused by wartime.
 
“I regard our immigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams,” Lincoln said during a Congressional address in 1863, “who are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war, and its wastes of national strength and health.”
 
Less overtly, Lincoln may have recognized the need for an additional, legitimate workforce to supplant slavery in the post-War years.
 
Now, 225 years after Washington first took office, we are, yet again struggling with immigration. While the “good moral character” requirement of Washington’s immigration policies is still a prerequisite for both permanent residence and naturalization, the economic importance of immigration that Lincoln recognized is undeniable. It was Lincoln, in fact, who, ultimately, made it possible for the Black son of an immigrant to become President and take a stance on immigration, himself. Which is a lot more than the white-male majority Congress – a make-up that no longer reflects the American populace – has managed to do in the last three decades.

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