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The Coldest Winter

The Coldest Winter

By David Halberstam

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One Nation, Indivisible

Posted on Feb 10, 2014

By Richard Reeves

spirit of america /

Immigration is something like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but not many people really want to do anything about it.

The last couple of weeks have provided a stormy example. It began when congressional Republicans in their annual retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland surprised most everyone, probably including themselves, by proposing a path to legalization—but not citizenship—for aliens in this country without papers. "Undocumented aliens," as Democrats like to call them, almost 12 million of them by most estimates.

Wording, and meaning, too, as always, was fuzzy on all sides. Most folks take the Republican words to mean they are really talking only about infant and children aliens who were brought to the United States by parents entering illegally.

Then President Obama, who supports a bill passed by the Democratically controlled Senate that provides a 13-year "path to citizenship," surprised most everyone else by saying he was open to talking about the Republican idea of legalization without citizenship. Perhaps more surprisingly, United We Dream, an activist organization of those very children, who call themselves "Dreamers," as in "The American Dream," also signaled they might be open to the Republican idea—at least as a start.


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Then, last Wednesday, John Boehner, speaker of the Republican-controlled House, said forget about it—at least for this year. It’s an election year for Congress, after all, and his party is sharply divided on the issue, with Republican members basically driven by how many of the undocumented (and their documented, voting relatives) live in their districts.

It could be worse. The Republicans, the president and the Dreamers are playing around with a very bad idea. One of the worst of American ideas. We have played this game before and the outcome was disastrous. In 1882, Congress passed and President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred more immigration from China and denied citizenship to the Chinese.

In 1924, the Congress, under pressure from agricultural and other economic interests—and racial attitudes—in California, passed and President Calvin Coolidge signed the Asian Exclusion Act, which barred not only Chinese, but also Japanese and other Asians from becoming citizens of the United States and owning property in our country. Message: Whites only!

As is the case with the children of illegal aliens today, the children of those Asian immigrants were American citizens if they were born in the United States. That right is in the Constitution. But the parents of those young Americans, the first-generation Japanese, for instance, had none of the rights that came with citizenship.

That chauvinism, or racism, created a two-tier system of Americanism—citizenship for whites, not so much for others. That caste system was practiced for decade after decade in the Western United States, and it was not totally different from the Jim Crow regime in the South. There were two Americas—the white one, and one for people of color, the colored one.

What that led to in 1941, when the Imperial Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, was the imprisonment of more than 120,000 American Japanese, 70 percent of them citizens. None of them were charged with any crime other than looking like the enemy. Germans and Italians, also the descendants of our enemies, looked like us and were spared unless charged with actual crimes against national security. The Japanese in America, alien and citizen alike, lost their homes and everything else they had, taken away with only what they could carry and put behind barbed wire and machine gun towers, held in concentration camps in barren corners of the country for the duration of the war.

Along with African-American slavery and the treatment of the Indians, the native Americans, the World War II imprisonment of the American Japanese is one of the great stains on American history. "A Jap is a Jap," there is no way to gauge their loyalty. That, instead of "An American citizen is an American citizen," was the cry of the military and the press during that war. And that American hysteria was the work of such luminaries as Walter Lippmann and some of our greatest political leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Earl Warren, the attorney general and later, governor of California.

It is an old and rotten American tradition, and it would be foolish and wrong to do it again. We are not only a nation of immigrants. We are a nation made by immigrants, foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills. Foreigners who loved America, but were often hated or scorned by us because they were not like us until they were us.


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