America's immigration policy has made the country a lot less white and Christian than it used to be. Is this diversity something to celebrate, or something to fear, resist, and, if possible, reverse?
Skye Jethani talks about immigration policy, how it's changed in the last century, how those policies have changed America, what role racism has played, and how Christians should think about immigration today.
In case you haven’t noticed, America is a lot less white than it used to be. It’s also less Christian. Over the last half century, an influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America has made the country more ethnically and religiously diverse than ever before. To some, the browning of America is something to celebrate. It’s the fulfillment of America’s promise to become what Ronald Reagan called “brotherhood of man made up from people representative of every corner of the earth.” To others, however, America’s changing complexion is something to fear, resist, and—if possible—reverse.
So let’s talk about immigration policy, how its changed in the last century, how those policies have changed America, and how Christians should think about it today.
Many Americans trace their roots back to the the burst of immigration that occurred from 1880 to 1920 knows as the “Great Wave.” This was the era of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and the poem on her pedestal declaring: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
During the Great Wave, 23 million immigrants entered the US—mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe including a lot of Roman Catholics and Jews. In 1850, before the Great Wave, only 5% of Americans were Catholics. By1906, the number had more than tripled (17%) making Catholics the largest denomination in the country. (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/nromcath.htm) This rapid change to America’s ethnic and religious makeup made many white Protestants very uneasy. Sound familiar?
I know it seems strange, but 100 years ago who was considered “White” was different than it is today. Back then “white” only applied to people from northern Europe (England, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia). So, all of these new arrivals from other parts of Europe—they were not accepted as white. And all of those Roman Catholics? They weren’t welcomed as true Christians. And the Jews? They weren’t white or Christian.
At the same time, two other important things were happening. First, the guys with the pointy hoods were very popular. By the 1920s, a combination of nostalgia for the Confederacy a generation after the Civil War, and a backlash against Jewish and Catholic immigration caused the KKK to experience a huge spike in popularity with over 5 million members nationwide.
And the second thing was eugenics—a now discredited scientific theory that said the human race could be perfected through selective breeding, and that society’s problems were caused by allowing those with inferior genes to reproduce. In 1920, an expert in eugenics testified before Congress that the American gene pool was being polluted by immigrants with inferior genes—specifically Italians and Jews (http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay9text.html#:~:text=The%20resulting%20law%2C%20the%20Immigration,period%20from%201900%20to%201920)
This combination of popular racism and fake science led Congress to pass the “Immigration Restriction Act” of 1924. The new law used a quota system to keep Jews, Catholics, and other“inferior races” off our shores. Here’s how it worked. If 20% of Americans were of English heritage, then 20% of immigrants in a given year were allowed from England. If 15% of Americans had German heritage, then 15% of immigrants were allowed from Germany. “America must remain American” is what President Coolidge said when he signed the law.
But here’s the sneaky part. The data used to calculate the quotas wasn’t based on the most recent census in 1920, but the census from 1890 before the Great Wave of immigrants arrived. In other words, the real goal of the Immigration Act of 1924 was to make America white again. And “white” back then meant Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
And it kinda worked. The Great Wave stopped. For example, during the Great Wave approximate 300,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. In 1929, after the Quota Act, just 307 Greeks were allowed into the country (https://immigrationhistory.org/item/1924-immigration-act-johnson-reed-act/).
The Quota Act also blocked thousands of Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis during World War II from entering the United States. In 1939, one ship reached America with nearly 1000 German Jews onboard. Because of the Quota Acts, the ship was not allowed to dock and was ordered to return to Europe. More than a quarter of those onboard were killed in the Holocaust. Another Jew, Otto Frank, tried repeatedly to immigrate to the United States with his family but was also denied because of the Quote Act. The only thing that eventually made it to the U.S. was his daughter’s diary.
The explicitly racist Quota Act remained in place for over 40 years—and it worked exactly as intended. The number of Jewish, Catholic, Southern, and Eastern European immigrants declined dramatically (http://metrocosm.com/animated-immigration-map/). And the law probably would have remained in place if it hadn’t been for these guys [image of Soviets].
Let me explain. After WWII, between 1945 and 1965, more than 50 nations representing 1/4 of the world’s population, became newly independent countries (https://twitter.com/amazingmap/status/962262511369293824/photo/1). But the question was—would these post-colonial countries align themselves with the the United States, or with the Soviet Union? The fate of the world depended on the U.S. winning countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to its side in the Cold War.
America began a global PR campaign. In fact, in the 1950s, the State Department put up an American Cultural Museum across the street from my Dad’s high school in Bombay, India, where he watched American movies, listened to Elvis Presley records, and read American magazines. That’s where he first fell in love with America’s values of freedom, democracy, and equal rights.
But the Soviets had their own PR campaign that was quick to point out America’s hypocrisy—particularly its long history of racism and segregation. And America’s quota policy barred nearly all people of color from immigrating—not a good look if you’re trying to win the loyalty of newly independent Asian and African countries. And people at home were noticing the hypocrisy too. For example, by the late 1950s, the U.S. was committed to defend South Vietnam from a communist takeover. But the quota system only permitted 100 Vietnamese to enter the U.S. As one member of Congress said:
“Apparently we are willing to risk a major war for the right of the Vietnamese people to live in freedom at the same time as our quota system makes it clear that we do not want very great numbers of them to live with us.” -Rep. John Lindsay
By the 1960s, it was becoming apparent that America’s racist policies at home and abroad were a serious impediment to winning the Cold War against the Soviets. Something had to be done. President Kennedy pushed for new laws to repeal both Jim Crow in the South and the 1924 Immigration Quote Act. Lyndon Johnson took over these causes after Kennedy’s assassination.
But Johnson had a problem. He knew racist politicians in Congress would never support more immigrants from non-European countries. They were still determined to keep America white (FROM: "Edward M Kennedy, "The Immigration Act of 1965", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 367, The New Immigration (September 1966), pp. 137-149). The solution came from this guy—Congressman Michael Feighan. Feighan was a conservative with close ties to Southern white conservatives in congress who were blocking Johnson’s immigration reform bill.
Feighan proposed an amendment to the bill that would technically allow immigrants from non-European countries while still prioritizing immigrants who already had family members in the U.S. And since most American families were white, Feighan expected most immigrants to still come from Northern and Western Europe. He called the policy “Family Reunification.” When the plan was introduced in Congress, Senator Ted Kennedy reassured conservatives that “our cities will not be flooded with millions of immigrants,” and that family reunification would ensure that the “ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”
The new bill seemed like a win-win. It would disarm the Soviet accusation that America was racist by technically opening the door to immigrants from non-European countries, while the family reunification clause would quietly shut that door before too many brown people got in. The U.S. immigration policy would still be racist, just less obviously racist. The plan worked. Southern conservatives supported the bill, and LBJ signed it into law in front of the Statue of Liberty in October,1965.
And then it backfired—spectacularly. Before the 1965 Immigration Law, 85% of immigrants came from Europe or Canada (where they grow white people). Today, about that many (78%) come from Latin America and Asia ( JYNNAH RADFORD; ABBY BUDIMAN (September 14, 2018). "Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2016. Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States". Pew Research Center). And the Family Reunification amendment racist Southern politicians thought would keep America white? Well, it did precisely the opposite. For example, the 1965 law is what allowed my father to immigrate from India in 1970 and become a U.S. citizen. And the family reunification policy then allowed his two brothers to come, and their wives, and today all of my American cousins, on both sides of my family, have at least one immigrant parent. My incredibly diverse family, like millions of others, exists because of the 1965 immigration law and the family reunification policy that was supposed to keep America white actually did the opposite
That’s also why critics hate it so much. Today, the Family Reunification Amendment is condemned as “chain migration” and it’s often blamed for changing the complexion of America. And, that’s why some are calling for an end to family reunification altogether. During a meeting with congressional leaders in 2018, President Trump complained about the number of immigrants coming from Africa and Haiti and asked why we can’t get more immigrants from countries like Norway (where they grow white people). That same year, the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. was cut to an all-time low, and Canada—a country with 1/10th our population—accepted more refugees than the U.S. for the first time ever.
Here’s my point—the anti-immigration, anti-refugee politics we’re seeing today looks a lot like what happened in the 1920s. After a 50-year wave of Jewish & Catholic immigration, white Americans feared what the country was becoming, so they changed the law and closed the boarders—even to refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Since 1965, we’ve had a 2nd Great Wave of non-white immigration, and we’re seeing the same fearful response—calls to close the boarders & ban refugees. And sadly, no one supports these ungodly policies more than white evangelicals.
According to surveys, they’re the group most likely to view immigrants as “invaders” and a “threat to traditional American customs and values.” ( https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/PRRI_Mar_2020_Immigration_Fig2-1024x829.png). Evangelical are also the religious group most opposed to the resettlement of refugees in the U.S. (68% - https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/24/republicans-turn-more-negative-toward-refugees-as-number-admitted-to-u-s-plummets/) And in 2016, the issue of immigration was more important than even abortion and religious liberty in determining how evangelicals voted (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/07/13/religion-and-the-2016-campaign/ )
Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), and he summarized the entire law of God with two commands, “Love the Lord…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). But you’re not likely to care for the “least of these” if you believe they’re a threat to your country. And it’s pretty hard to love your neighbors if see them as invaders.
And that’s why the data is so ironic. It shows that out of a desire to keep the country Christian, some evangelicals are pushing for less Christian immigration laws. The fear of immigrants is being used to justify disobedience to Jesus, to inflame racism, and to fuel the hearsay of Christian nationalism. It’s the1920s all over again.
But as anti-immigrant sentiment continues to grow in some Christian communities, here are three things to keep in mind:
Number 1: There’s No Going Back. Even if anti-immigration laws were passed tomorrow, there’s no going back to the white, Protestant America that existed in the 1950s. Whites are projected to be a minority in the U.S. by 2045. And among Americans under 16, they’re already are. As one senior fellow at The Brookings Institution said,“We are browning from the bottom up.” Diversity is here to stay (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/census-shows-white-decline-nonwhite-majority-among-youngest-americans-n1232094)
Number 2: Diversity is American. Despite a century of immigration laws designed to keep the country white—whether the overtly racist 1924 Quota Act or the more subtly racist 1965 Law—it hasn’t worked. And that’s a good thing because the America we see today actually fulfills George Washington’s original vision for the country. He said:
“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and Respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” - George Washington, letter Dec 2, 1783.
Washington wanted America to welcome people from all nations and all religions. Despite a century of laws designed to prevent that, it happened anyway. Some may say it was accidental. I like to believe it was providential.
Finally, Number 3: God’s Command is Unchanging. if you’re a Christian then whether the increasing diversity of America encourages you or worries you, it's ultimately irrelevant because our response should be the same. God does not call us to keep America for ourselves, but to love our neighbors as ourselves—regardless of their color, creed, or country of origin. As disciples Jesus Christ we do not love our neighbors because of who they are—but because of who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.