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Michele Bachmann Yearns For An Era Better Known For Its Anti-Immigrant Policies and Xenophobia

by Mahwish Khan on 09/14/2011 at 5:14pm

Michele BachmannRepublican contender Michele Bachmann (R-MN) apparently longs for the good old days of the 1920s — and their rampant racial and ethnic paranoia.

At the presidential debate held Monday, she said:

The immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid-1960s when liberal members of Congress changed the immigration laws. What works is to have people come into the United States with a little bit of money in their pocket, legally, with sponsors so that if anything happens to them they don’t fall back on the taxpayers to take care of them.

Some background:

The 1920’s were a pretty dark period in our country’s immigration history, when a national hysteria known as “the Red Scare” gripped much of the American public. Afraid that their Anglo-Saxon values would be eliminated, Americans became increasingly xenophobic. The era is credited for the rise and spread of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and marked by the passage of a slew of anti-immigrant laws. (For more information on xenophobia in the 1920’s, read this research paper).

Ian Millhiser of Think Progress explains further:

In 1924, Congress passed a package of immigration laws — including the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act — establishing a quota system giving preferential treatment to European immigrants. Under these laws, the number of immigrants who could be admitted from a given country was capped at a percentage of the number of people from that nation who were living in the United States in 1890.  Because Americans were overwhelmingly of European descent in 1890, the practical effect of these laws was an enormous thumb on the scale encouraging white immigration.

The 1965 immigration law, shepherded through Congress by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), overturned the ethnic origins restrictions that had been in place since the 1920s, and led to a fairer, non-racialized American immigration system based on family ties and work skills.  This led not only to a more diverse stream of immigrants, but to a group that has been every bit as successful as the wave that came to America through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. 

Fortunately, a number of commentators quickly grasped the true meaning of Bachmann’s comments. 

David Neiwert of Crooks & Liars highlighted that while the effects of World War II “slowly eradicated” the most restrictive elements of the 1924 law, “the race-based system of quotas persisted, and Asian immigration remained at a trickle as a result during those years.  This is the system that Bachmann thinks is just hunky-dory.  Which is even more appalling when you consider its origins.”  And Eli at Firedoglake wrote, “This reminds me of nothing so much as Trent Lott’s comments about how America would have been better off if we had elected staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond president in 1948.  Lott expressed nostalgia for an openly racist candidate, and Bachmann expresses nostalgia for an openly racist policy….Trent Lott paid a price for his remarks, but I’m guessing the similarity will end there.”

The Republican Party cannot expect to reach the required 40% threshold of Latino voter support if its candidates continue to run hard to the enforcement-only right during the primary season.  In addition to Latino voters, many Asian-Americans also see through comments like Bachmann’s and know they are code for an immigration policy designed to keep them out.  For a Republican Party needing to show to Latino and Asian voters that it has learned its lessons from past failures of the immigration wedge strategy, Bachmann’s comments are a reminder that they have yet to do so.

Will anyone in the Republican Party or conservative movement denounce Bachmann’s comments?  So far, the silence is deafening.

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