When the Illegals Were White (Russians)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017
6:30 PM - 8:30 PM (ET)
PALMTN Davis Auditorium
Event Type
American Studies

When the Illegals Were White (Russians): Protecting Refugees in Restrictionist America
Professor Erik Christiansen, Rhode Island College 

Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, American legislators and immigration officials have concerned themselves with the legality of certain immigrants. One effect of the broad restrictions on immigration during the 1920s was an exponential increase in the number of immigrants who, according to the law, did not belong in the United States. In subsequent decades, the millions of people residing in the United States without legal status at times have been the targets of blame and hatred, and at times have been welcomed. President Trump’s executive order of January 25 referred to those who overstay visas or enter without documents as a “significant threat to national security and public safety.” This attitude contrasts with the treatment of “illegal” immigrants of the restrictionist era, when members of Congress broadly supported protecting particular undocumented immigrants. In 1934, members of Congress sought to protect anti-communists fleeing the USSR – wealthy members of the old nobility or soldiers of the White Army, for example. Their politics were assumed to be relatively conservative, and their racial background was white. For the undocumented immigrants of the 21st century, the opposite, in both cases, is assumed to be true. However, implementation of the 1934 refugee act was complicated, with many unanticipated consequences, and ultimately this first attempt at distinguishing refugees from other immigrants failed to protect “bona fide refugees” or to exclude all of the immigrants (Jewish refugees in particular) that Congress had sought to exclude. 

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