“This has happened before.” That was the first thought that crossed Professor of History Tyler Anbinder’s mind when he heard President Trump criticize four freshman congresswoman this summer—telling the black, Latina and Muslim lawmakers to “go back” to the countries “from which they came.”
Never mind that all but one of those women were born in the United States. What struck Anbinder, an expert on immigrant history and author of the bestselling book City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), was how familiar the president’s harsh words sounded. “Immigrants, especially those not seen as white, have long been subjected to claims that they’re not entitled to the same rights and freedoms as other Americans,” Anbinder wrote in an article for The Washington Post.
In an interview with CCAS Spotlight, Anbinder discussed the ugly history of suppressing minority groups’ political speech, the inevitable backlash against anti-immigrant rhetoric and what makes this moment different from the past.
Q: As a historian, how did you view President Trump’s calls for four congresswomen to “go back” to “where they came from”?
A: That kind of language has a long historical precedent in America. It can serve as a sort of code for the idea that only a native-born American—a white American—is a true American. Everyone else is somehow less deserving of the full rights of American citizenship, no matter how many generations their family has been in the United States.
Q: So this is, essentially, a recurring part of our history?
A: Absolutely. There is really no aspect of American immigrant life today that hasn’t happened to previous immigrant groups. We tend to forget that. A lot of Americans believe that today's immigrants are totally different than immigrants of the past. But virtually every immigrant group that has ever come to the United States has been told that they can't really become true Americans. Still, every generation of immigrants assimilate. They become accepted, and then they and their children start saying the same things about the next immigrant group. It's a never-ending cycle.
Q: When in American political history do we first see a shift in how immigrants are perceived?
A: The first large-scale American anti-immigrant movement was in the 1850s and was popularly referred to as the Know Nothing Party. But even they did not advocate that immigrants “go back.” The Know Nothing’s actually wanted the nation to be filled with immigrants because the United States was underpopulated at the time. Even nativists could not imagine the country succeeding without immigrants doing the backbreaking work that native-born Americans disdained. But they wanted immigrants to stay in their place when it came to politics. Their feeling was: “It’s OK for you to wash our clothes and scrub our floors, but don't try to tell native-born Americans how the country should be run.” And that is really the precedent for this idea that someone doesn’t have the standing to criticize the way the American government works.
Q: What were the circumstances behind the first calls to “send back” immigrants?
A: The first time you hear those words is in the early-to-mid 20th century. [They were directed at] what were considered American radicals—anarchists, communists or socialists. [But] most immigrants were not socialists. And most immigrant socialists were not anarchists. A lot of their so-called radical agenda is today considered mainstream, like banning child labor in factories or compensating workers who are injured on the job. Those terms become even more commonly used right after World War II during the Red Scare and the McCarthy period. And then, with the anti-draft movement during the Vietnam War, the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment becomes common—even though, like today, it was often aimed at people who were actually born here.
Q: Is there anything that makes our current moment different than what occurred in the past?
A: The main difference is that this the first time ever that a president has been at the forefront of an anti-immigrant campaign. In the past, presidents have opposed restrictions on immigration. That is largely because presidents saw their role as answering to the nation’s business leaders who historically have been pro-immigrant because they want workers to fill their factories. When Congress has periodically passed anti-immigrant legislation, presidents have almost always vetoed it. Not today. Now we have a president who is leading the anti-immigrant chorus rather than resisting it.
Q: So where do we go from here? How do these situations usually end?
A: History teaches us that there will be a backlash. Typically, the nativists go too far and the middle-of-the-road Americans begin to feel uncomfortable with the way those in power are attacking immigrants. They start to think, “Hey, maybe I wasn't an immigrant but my parents or my grandparents were.” Most Americans feel very favorable towards immigrants and therefore tend not to oppose restrictions on anything other than illegal immigration. So generally there is a backlash and some sort of settlement. Now, historians are not very good at predicting the future. And, these days, it’s hard to imagine a political settlement in the form of legislation with such a polarized Congress. But I believe we will see the pendulum swing the other way.