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Boston's Immigration History Repeats Itself In Trump's Policies


And one more word on this - if you think today's debates about immigration are intense and unprecedented, think again. One hundred years ago tomorrow, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, one of the most sweeping anti-immigration bans of the era. The law taxed new immigrants and made them take literacy tests in their native languages for the first time. It was pushed by three scions of some of Boston's most prominent families who had founded the Immigration Restriction League.

Journalist Neil Swidey wrote about all this in a cover story for Boston Globe Magazine this weekend, and he joined us from member station WGBH in Boston to tell us about it. And I started by asking him to tell me about how the Immigration Restriction League got its start.

NEIL SWIDEY: Well, it's fascinating. Here is a group of kind of entitled guys who had a good way in life. They were Harvard educated, members of prominent families, and yet, in the late 1800s, they decided that the country was going to ruin basically because of immigration and because of these undesirable immigrants that were coming in. And they set about trying to influence the influencers to stop this.

MARTIN: Pick one of them and tell me a little bit more about his writings, particularly some of the work that reminds you of the rhetoric that we're hearing at the moment.

SWIDEY: The main leader of this was a guy named Prescott Hall who was frail, was kind of a homebody, and I was struck by just how eerily similar some of the rhetoric was, some of the rationale was, for what he was arguing and even the mechanisms that he was putting through to change how we handle immigrants. I mean...

MARTIN: Well, give me an example.

SWIDEY: ...From drain the swamp...


SWIDEY: From drain the...

MARTIN: They said that.

SWIDEY: ...Drain that great swamp - yes - to the race that made America great, to the invading hostile army of criminal immigrants - I mean, this idea of the other immigrants, and most crucially the idea that, hey, immigrants were OK in the past. We don't have a problem with immigration per se. It's the new kind of immigrants that we really have to worry about.

This was the rhetoric 100 years ago. In many ways, this is the rhetoric that had populated the campaign of 2016.

MARTIN: So who did they like and who did they not like?

SWIDEY: Who they liked were Northern and Western Europeans. Those were the so-called good immigrants. They saw a threat from Southern Europeans, Italians that were coming in, Eastern European Jews, Slavs and Asians. And the changes that they put in place really did radically transform the kinds of people we allowed into this country for 40 or 50 years.

MARTIN: So what should we learn from the country's prior experience with this? What did you learn from all this?

SWIDEY: Well, I learned, first of all, that there are no new ideas in immigration, there are just new people espousing them. I also learned that we tell ourselves about being this nation of immigrants, but in some ways we've been conflicted about immigration from the start. There are some logical, reasonable arguments for making immigration fair, coherent and manageable.

And where things get ugly in history is when there's an overall consensus in the country that the immigration system is broken, which I think we have now. And when that consensus happens, it tends to create a lane - an open lane - for people who are in favor of immigration restriction any decade of their lives. And that coalition pushes through these restrictions that then can have a major effect, as we saw in the early part of the 1900s. But what I also took from history was that the pendulum always swings back. Sometimes it really takes its sweet time, but it inevitably comes back to this sense of, hey, we are a nation of immigrants, and we have to remember that.

MARTIN: That's Neil Swidey. He's an author and a journalist. He's a staff writer for Boston Globe Magazine. His piece on the Immigration Restriction League is in this Sunday's issue. Neil, thanks so much for joining us.

SWIDEY: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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