President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders have throttled the topic of immigration from a hot-button political issue to a scalding caldron of social division. The original order, signed by trump on January 27, sought to ban travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, and would have barred refugees from any country from entering the U.S. for 120 days. Meanwhile, refugees hailing from war-torn Syria would be barred indefinitely. The seven countries included in the ban were: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Trump defended the ban as necessary because of concerns relating to Islam and terrorism. While the order specifically mentioned the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the State Department’s failure to prevent the hijackers from getting into the country, Trump’s travel ban ironically did not include any of the countries involved in that attack.
Following hastily implemented enforcement protocols, which led to widespread chaos at airports around the country, Trump’s ban was challenged by multiple states, and on February 3, a federal judge blocked the order.
On March 6, Trump signed a revised order with slightly relaxed restrictions. While the Justice Department has asked the courts to delay litigation on the previous order (the courts have refused), the new order has removed blanket restrictions affecting Iraqi citizens.
While uncertainty about the future of foreign travel is unsettling for many immigrants and their families, and the rhetoric surrounding Trump’s policies are deeply concerning, it’s easy to forget that this isn’t the first time a President has issued a ban on immigration.
But a cursory look at some of the presidents who banned immigrants in the past illuminates a striking difference between the current administration, and its predecessors. Specifically, past presidents were often bowing to significant congressional pressure when they signed restrictive immigration legislation. In some cases, these presidents used their veto powers to either limit the scope of the legislation, or block it altogether.
Conversely, Trump’s restrictions on immigration appear to originate unilaterally from the White House. Here’s a brief list of some of the more infamous anti-immigration policies enacted from U.S. history, and the presidents involved.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act – Signed into law in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, the Chinese Exclusion Act is perhaps one of the most famous incidents involving presidents who banned immigrants.
Believed to be the first federal law to exclude an entire ethnic working group because the group endangered “the good order of certain localities,” the Act was a response to rabid anti-Chinese sentiment that arose as the spoils of the gold rush dwindled and many Chinese laborers made their way west to work on the Trans Continental Railroad.
Arthur vetoed an earlier version of the act, which banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. for 20 years — approving a compromise that would last for 10 years instead. The Act effectively suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States, and also made it unlawful for those already in the U.S. to remain. The Act also placed limitations on non-laborers that were so restrictive, Chinese immigration dropped precipitously.
In 1892, the act was extended for another 10 years, and was made permanent in 1902.
It wasn’t until 1943, when China was seen as an Ally in the U.S. war against Japan, that Congress repealed the act, giving foreign-born Chinese the right to seek naturalization.
The Immigration Act of 1917
The Immigration Act of 1917 – Also known as the Literacy Act, this piece of legislation came to fruition after years of lobbying by groups such as the Immigration Restriction League. Though multiple presidents considered the legislation, it was also vetoed multiple times before its passage.
The Immigration Restriction League was formed by a small group of Harvard graduates in 1894. The group equated the negative effects of rapidly increasing urban centers with an influx of immigrants hailing from Italy and Eastern Europe. For years, the league advocated a literacy requirement for those seeking to enter the country.
The literacy test was designed to keep immigrants — many of whom were poor and uneducated — out of the country.
A circular political advertisement distributed by the League in 1915 urged citizens to write the president and ask that the law be passed.
“We need to have this legislation on the statute books to deal with the large immigration of lower quality sure to come after the war is over,” the circular stated.
President Grover Cleveland had vetoed an earlier law requiring a literacy test. Then, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed similar legislation. In his veto message to the House of Representatives, Wilson took specific aim at the law’s literacy test.
“It excludes those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied, without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.”
After vetoing the law a second time in 1917, Congress was able to gather the votes necessary to override veto and the law eventually went into effect.
The Johnson-Reed Act
The Johnson-Reed Act – In the history of presidents who banned immigrants, this act represented another first. Signed in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge, it was the first law to impose quotas on immigrant visas. The law required the number immigrants admitted from any given country to equal 2 percent of the people living in the U.S. who also hailed from that country.
In addition, immigrants from Asia were totally banned.
Coolidge was elected president in 1923 following America’s involvement in the First World War. Public sentiment at the time sought to isolate America’s involvement in global matters, and fears loomed about the spread of communism as a result of immigration from eastern and southern Europe.
In a 2015 interview with alt-right publication Breitbart News, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions (then a Senator from Alabama) praised the effectiveness of the 1924 law.
“In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic,” Sessions claimed. “Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly.”
The International Security Act of 1950
The International Security Act of 1950 – Also known as the McCarran Act, this law was passed at a time when hysteria over the spread of communist subversion was growing. The law sought to make it possible to deport immigrants believed to be members of the communist party. President Harry Truman, calling it un-American, vetoed the bill.
In his letter to the House of Representatives, Truman praised aspects of the omnibus legislation that sought to remove racial barriers to naturalization as well as an easing of immigration quotas to Asia. But referring to other parts of the bill, he described it as a “mass of legislation which would perpetuate injustices … against many other nations of the world, hamper the efforts we are making to rally the men of East and West alike to the cause of freedom, and intensify the repressive and inhumane aspects of our immigration procedures.”
Unfortunately, Congress was able to gather the votes necessary to override Truman’s veto, and the bill became law.
While the law remained in effect for decades, a gradual dismantling of the Act began in 1965 when the Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the law requiring members of the communist party to register with the government.
Iranian Sanctions of 1980
Iranian Sanctions of 1980 – Many remember the hostage crisis that occurred during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. This event involved the capture of more than 60 American embassy personnel in Tehran, who were held for 444 days. Some defenders of Trump’s ban liken the current president’s action on immigration to Carter’s sanctions.
During the crisis, Carter’s attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti ordered all Iranians in the U.S. with student visas to report to U.S. Immigration officials or face deportation. In 1980, Carter announced a series of sanctions against Iran that included an order to invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry to the U.S. Carter made an exception for those coming to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons.
While right-wing bloggers have argued that Carter’s order was similar to Trump’s ban, political experts say it differs sharply. This due to the fact that Carter’s ban specifically focused on citizens of a country that had a conflict with the U.S.
Trump’s ban, meanwhile, is focused largely on the Islamic faith, which is not similarly connected to terrorism.
While this list may provide little solace to those immigrants who fear the very immediate repercussions of Trump’s travel ban, it’s important to remember that despite the best efforts of America’s lawmakers, immigrants still built and thrived in this country. And if Trump’s scandal with Russia and numerous conflicts of interest continue to grow, there may be even more room for more hope yet.