History Redux: Immigrants from MENA and the US Presidential Election

Although the United States is often called a nation of immigrants—most people with the exception of Native Americans can trace their origins to somewhere else—there have been times in US history when the government demeaned immigrants from so-called inferior groups and severely restricted their entry into the country. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act after its congressional sponsors) which drastically limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

The present-day equivalent of the sentiment animating that discriminatory legislation is embodied in former President Donald Trump’s MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) movement that has railed against immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa and contributed to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices. Alarmingly, during his 2024 reelection campaign, Trump has vowed to bring back his ban on people from certain Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. Even though President Joe Biden has lost significant support from Arab-American and Muslim-American communities for his stance on the war in Gaza, Trump has generally not picked up this support, largely, because these communities remember his disparaging rhetoric and policies. But the Biden campaign’s hopes that these constituents will again support the Democratic presidential ticket in November may be misplaced, as these voters might stay home or cast a protest vote for a candidate from a minor party.

Replacement Theory, Eugenics, and Nativist Fears

The great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped to build America into an industrial giant. But it also produced a backlash from so-called nativists who believed that American society was being “overwhelmed” by people whom they considered morally and intellectually inferior, prone to crime, and resistant to assimilation. Madison Grant, a prominent advisor to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization Chair Rep. Albert Johnson (R-WA), wrote the 1916 best-seller The Passing of the Great Race. Referring to the book in his infamous 1924 “shut the door” speech, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith (D-SC), stated:

            …We have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door…Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost nation in her progress and in her power….

Not to be outdone, Johnson’s collaborator on the 1924 Act, Sen. David Reed (R-PA), referred to the wave of immigrants as “filthy, un-American and often dangerous,” adding that the “races of man who have been coming in recent years are wholly dissimilar to the native-born Americans.” Both Reed and Johnson emphasized that these immigrants were “untrained in self-government.”

Such politicians were also influenced by the so-called science of eugenics, which was popular at the time but was later dismissed as a bogus and racist theory. Several prominent scholars, such as University of Chicago professor Charles Davenport, advanced the theory that there were biological differences among races and ethnic groups, with the white race, in particular people of northern and western European stock, superior to all others. Another eugenicist was Harry Laughlin, a former teacher and principal, who believed that such conditions as poverty, promiscuity, and criminality could be traced to family pedigrees and ethnic groups. As “bad” traits were believed to be inherited and traced to one’s origins, it was not surprising that politicians in the 1920s would use this theory to justify keeping “undesirable” peoples out of the United States.

Impact of the 1924 Act

Johnson’s and Reed’s 1924 legislation severely restricted immigration by using a discriminatory quota system based on the 1890 census, which was conducted just before the large wave of immigration took place. The bill limited immigration to about150,000 people total a year, with quotas based on the percentage of the population of each “national origin” group in America in 1890. This system favored immigrants from Britain, Germany, and Ireland and drastically restricted those from Southern and Eastern Europe such as Italians, East European Jews, and Poles. For example, while 222,260 Italians immigrated to the United States in 1921, only 6,203 were allowed to do so in 1925.

The restrictions were even more extreme for those from the Middle East. In 1929, the quota was just 100 each for Armenians, Egyptians, Persians, Iraqis,  Moroccans, and those from the British mandate of Palestine. The quotas for Syrians and Lebanese (defined as those from the French mandates) was 123 each. By contrast, figures from the same year show the quotas for those coming from Britain and Northern Ireland as 65,721; from the Irish Free State as 17,853; and from Germany as 25,957. As for Asians, most had already been excluded by earlier legislation, but the 1924 Act added Japanese to the list of nationalities forbidden from immigrating. Congress passed the Act overwhelmingly; in the Senate, there were only six negative votes.

Parallels to Recent Times

Using language reminiscent of the 1920s, Trump has disparaged recent immigrants. In December 2023, he said that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country” and were from prisons and mental institutions. He noted that those crossing the southern border were not just from South American countries, but “from Africa, from Asia, all over the world.” Earlier, he charged that they were coming from “unbelievable places and countries…that are a disaster,” and lamented the lack of immigrants from “nice countries” like “Denmark or Switzerland or Norway.” Hearing his comments, one may surmise that Trump would be comfortable aligning himself with the arguments of the eugenics pseudo-scientists as well as supporting the 1924 Immigration Act.

Trump Wanting to Renew His Muslim Ban

Trump seems to have a special animus toward immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. In late 2015, in his first run for the presidency, he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” On January 27, 2017, just six days after taking office, Trump issued an executive order banning for 90 days nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries—Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—from entering the United States. (The order also suspended entry of all Syrian refugees indefinitely and barred all other refugees from entering the United States for 120 days.) Although the courts overturned his first two attempts at the “Muslim ban,” his third attempt succeeded after he included North Korea and Venezuela, thereby avoiding the religious label that the courts had found troubling and cleverly masking his real intention of excluding immigrants from these Muslim countries.

Although the courts overturned his first two attempts at the “Muslim ban,” his third attempt succeeded after he included North Korea and Venezuela.

Back on the campaign trail in March 2023, Trump called his ban, which President Biden rescinded on his first day in office, “beautiful” and “wonderful,” adding that he must “bring it back. He also reportedly discussed privately the idea of adding countries such as Afghanistan. In April 2023, Trump said he would restore the ban “to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of our country” because “we don’t want our buildings blown up,” implying that all immigrants from Muslim-majority countries are terrorists.

After the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Trump doubled down on his support for Israel and criticism of some Muslims in the United States. Ten days after the attack, he said that if reelected he would revoke the visas of any foreign students who are “antisemitic” and ban their entry into the United States if they did not believe in Israel’s right to exist. These comments suggested that a new Trump administration would weaponize any criticism of Israel. How Trump would enforce such a ban was not mentioned, nor was it clear how his administration would test a potential foreign student to the United States on her views on Israel. Trump also said he would reinstate his travel ban on “terror-plagued countries.” On other occasions, he has quoted a song called “The Snake” —about a woman foolishly taking a snake home as a pet, only for it to fatally bite her—as an allegory for illegal immigration.

Surprisingly, during a June 20 meeting with Silicon Valley investors Trump said he wants to give green cards to all foreign graduates in the United States so they could stay and contribute to the US economy. Since this pledge seemed so out of character given his opposition to expanding immigration, his aides had to walk back his comments lest they anger his MAGA base. His campaign press secretary quickly said that a Trump administration would implement vigorous vetting to exclude “all communists, radical Islamists, Hamas supporters, America haters and public charges” and would allow only the “most skilled graduates who can make significant contributions to America” to stay. The Biden campaign called Trump’s pledge “a lie and an insult” to the “countless people that have been permanently damaged by his first-term in office.” Given his past rhetoric and policies, Trump was apparently pandering to elements of the business community who have long wanted more foreign students to stay after graduation and work in the high-tech sector.

Exploiting Prejudicial Attitudes

Unfortunately, Trump’s comments about Muslim visitors and immigrants to the United States are not made in a vacuum. A recent scholarly study noted that while most Americans prefer some level of immigration, they have a strong preference for which types of immigrants should come to the United States. The study found that White Americans in particular prefer that Muslims of any race do not immigrate to the United States, with the scholars suggesting that such anti-Muslim prejudices may stem from the belief that Muslims are “cultural outsiders.” In other words, the perception among some White Americans is that while other immigrants may have the skills and backgrounds necessary to assimilate, Muslim immigrants do not.

As a political leader, Trump could have attacked such prejudicial sentiments to argue for a more inclusive society, yet he has done exactly the opposite, playing to people’s worst fears and stoking the flames of their biases. In the latest disturbing manifestation of anti-Muslim sentiments, a woman in Texas was recently arrested after attempting to drown the three-year-old child of a Palestinian-American Muslim woman in a swimming pool in what appears to be a hate crime. Whether the perpetrator was a MAGA supporter is unknown at this time, but it is doubtful Trump and his campaign will condemn the action. Instead, the Trump campaign and its media echo chamber have focused on the rape and murder of a White American mother (albeit a heinous crime) by an undocumented immigrant to malign all migrants and to blame Biden for allowing such people into the country.

Election Impact and Biden’s Predicament

A May 2024 poll by the Arab American Institute found that in contrast to the 2020 election when Biden beat Trump by 59 to 35 percent among Arab-American voters, Trump now is beating Biden among Arab-Americans in four key states (Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) by 32 to 18 percent. Although the Biden administration’s complicity with Israel in the war in Gaza and the large number of Palestinian civilian deaths account for this change (79 percent of Arab-Americans now view Biden unfavorably), it is interesting to note that only 56 percent of respondents view Trump unfavorably. That Trump is currently polling ahead of Biden with these voters is the result of Biden’s drop in support from Arab-American Democrats and the fact that Trump’s support is almost exclusively from Arab-American Republicans. In other words, Independents and Democrats within the Arab-American community are not shifting toward Trump. Undoubtedly, they remember and continue to see in negative terms Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and discourse, and do not want a repeat of his administration with its unwavering commitment to  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The problem for Biden is that this group may not vote at all (more than one hundred thousand people voted “uncommitted” during the Michigan Democratic primary) or may vote for a minor presidential candidate as a protest.  Either possibility would work to Trump’s advantage, particularly in Michigan where Arab-Americans constitute about 5 percent of the electorate and where the election is going to be very close.

The one sliver of hope for Biden is polling suggesting that if he were to call for an immediate cease-fire in and unimpeded humanitarian access to Gaza, or if he were to suspend diplomatic support for and end arms shipments to Israel until its forces withdraw fully from Gaza, some 60 percent of Arab-Americans say they would be more likely to vote for him in November. Democratic activists in are certainly hoping that will be the case. But Biden is not likely to apply such pressure on Israel, even though he and Netanyahu are currently in a spat about US arms shipments to Israel. Hence, while Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rants aimed at Muslims (the majority of Arab-Americans) continue to elicit negative feelings, issues surrounding the war in Gaza are likely to take precedence, and Biden’s recent executive order to give a legal gateway for people without legal status who are married to US citizens will only carry him so far.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image: Shutterstock/Jana Shea