How GOP Conflicts Over Immigration Helped Pave the Way For Donald Trump

Yesterday, I explained how a dangerous nostalgia for America’s past helped contribute to the rise of Donald Trump. Today, I will explain how intra-party disagreements over immigration also played a role. In the first place, it is important to note that from its formation, the Republican Party has had clashes over immigration. When the GOP was founded in the 1850s, many members of the anti-immigrant American Party (better known as the “Know Nothing Party”) joined. While it may seem incongruous, there were a significant number of Northern WASP politicians who favored both more rights for black people and greater restrictions on immigration. Thaddeus Stevens and Henry Wilson, two of the most radical antebellum politicians when it came to slavery and African Americans’ rights, spent time as Know Nothings in between being in the Whig Party and joining the Republican Party. Other Republican figures, however, opposed the Know Nothings and defended the influx of non-Protestant immigrants from Europe. These individuals included people like Charles Sumner (whose liberalism toward African Americans rivaled Stevens’s and Wilson’s), William Seward, and Abraham Lincoln. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively banning Chinese immigration. There was significant division within the Republican Party about the legislation. President Chester A. Arthur, a Republican, signed the bill. In the House, only a little over a quarter of the Republicans who participated in the vote opposed the bill; nonetheless, this was far higher than the less than three percent of participating Democrats who voted “nay.” In the Senate, nine Republicans voted “yay,” fifteen voted “nay,” and fourteen abstained. Every Democratic Senator either abstained or voted in favor of banning Chinese immigrants. One of the chief Senate critics of the bill was George Frisbee Hoar, a Massachusetts Republican who compared discrimination against Chinese immigrants to discrimination against African Americans. For the most part, albeit with significant variation, Democrats seem to have been less hostile to European immigrants, while Republicans seem to have been less hostile to Asian immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Besides the views of the two parties, another significant dynamic was noticeable in debates about immigrants from China and other Asian countries. Labor unions largely favored immigration restriction, while railroad executives, a largely Republican constituency, opposed it. The GOP likely maintained its position as the less xenophobic party toward Asian immigrants partly because both Yankee bleeding hearts and railroad magnates were often members. In 1900, a Stanford University Economics professor named Edward Ross was fired for speaking out against Asian immigration and stating that, “Should the worst come to the worst, it would be better for us to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores than permit them to land.” Even in 1900, this was a controversial proposal, and Ross was fired for his speech. Some details, however, are crucial. Firstly, Ross was a progressive, and his anti-immigrant speech was made at a labor union meeting. Secondly, he was fired because Jane Stanford, widow of railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and cofounder of the university, demanded it. Ms. Stanford called Ross a man who “steps aside and out of his sphere to associate himself with the political demagogues of this city, exciting their evil passions, drawing distinctions between man and man, all laborers, and equal in the sight of God, and literally plays into the hands of the lowest and vilest elements of socialism, it brings the tears to my eyes.”

Since then, wealthy Americans, particularly those from the business sector, have tended to oppose strict immigration laws. Bernie Sanders undoubtedly surprised some leftists by declaring that open borders were supported by the Koch Brothers, but he was quite correct. In 2011, Republican presidential contender and entrepreneur, Herman Cain, garnered controversy for advocating right-wing policies on immigration that included an electric border fence that would kill illegal immigrants who tried to climb it. However, the National Restaurant Association, a group Cain led in the 1990s, has called for “a clear path to legalization” for undocumented immigrants. While I am sure that many wealthy Americans have sincere reasons for favoring open immigration, many of them are also dependent on both legal and illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labor. On the other hand, many working class Americans, largely but not exclusively white, vote Republican partly because they see illegal immigration as a threat to their jobs and want GOP politicians to crack down. Republican politicians are thus put in a bind, especially as many of them likely employee illegal immigrants themselves. How does the party resolve these competing desires from constituents? They have largely responded with a two-pronged approach. Firstly, they use conservative rhetoric on immigration, including in some cases advocating that American-born children of illegal immigrants not be considered citizens, despite the disturbing racial implications of this proposal. Secondly, they generally refrain from trying to fully lock down the border and deport all illegal immigrants once elected. Consider the administration of George W. Bush. His actual immigration policies were quite moderate. While opposing amnesty, Bush favored a guest worker program, declared mass deportation impossible, and allowed the Justice Department to file a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

What does all of this have to do with Trump? One of the factors in his rise to power is that a significant number of working class Republicans feel that the GOP Establishment has misled them about immigration, promising “border security” and deportation, then reneging to please corporate donors. Trump promises to curtail illegal immigration once and for all. Many of his proposed solutions are impossible to carry out, cruel, or, in the case of ending birthright citizenship, discriminatory. However, they have an appeal for members of the Republican base who feel that the elites in their party have repeatedly deceived them on immigration. This is the inevitable result of making campaign promises that one has no intention of fulfilling. Eventually, the people who voted for you based on those promises often stop voting for you and start supporting someone else. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am a fiscal conservative and support liberal immigration policies for humanitarian reasons. But I am well aware that some of my fellow fiscal conservatives who support immigration do not have solely humanitarian motives. And I oppose the decision of Republican politicians to play both sides of the fence on immigration, both because it is unethical and because it has helped put Trump dangerously close to the presidency. For a final thought, it is interesting to look at a parallel between Trump and the aforementioned Leland Stanford, who served as Governor of California from 1861 to 1863. Trump himself has used immigrants as low-wage guest workers while engaging in vile xenophobic attacks. Like Trump but in contrast to the idealistic Ms. Stanford, Mr. Stanford warned the California legislature that Chinese immigrants should be discouraged. He argued that they came from an inferior race. And again similarly to Trump, Mr. Stanford’s corporation was importing thousands of Chinese workers to construct the Central Pacific Railroad.


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