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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Immigration Policy Questions


President Trump's newly revised travel ban is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow. The administration has cited a 1952 immigration law as the basis for this ban. Major revisions to that law were signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This bill says simply that from this day forth, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationships to those already here. The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied.

MARTIN: But that standard had hardly ever been applied in U.S. law, which many of you have been asking about for our regular Wednesday Ask Cokie segment. I'm joined now by Cokie Roberts, who is on the line via Skype.

Good morning, Cokie.


MARTIN: Our first question comes from Twitter from @ShifrahPuah. What is considered to be the first immigration law in the U.S.?

ROBERTS: Well, in the very first Congress, in 1790, it addressed the question of immigrants already here in the first naturalization law. And it said that aliens who were, quote, "free white persons" could become citizens after two years. Now, that changed over the years to require 14 years. But the question of immigration, Rachel, had been debated in the ratification of the Constitution. And it was a big issue because people who oppose the Constitution said the states, rather than the federal government, should decide who could come into those states so that they could refuse to admit foreign mixtures, so they could preserve their religion and morals.

And, you know, that animus against foreigners started very, very early in our history. Benjamin Franklin, back in 1751, railed against the swarthy Germans, asking, why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?

MARTIN: So given that history, our next question seems particularly relevant. It's from Leslie Friedman (ph). And Leslie asks, when was our country truly open to immigrants?

ROBERTS: Actually, through most of the 19th century, with the brief exception of the Alien and Sedition Acts. As the country moved west and workers were needed, immigration was basically open. And naturalization was extended to persons from Africa or of African descent after the Civil War. But then, toward the end of the century, in 1875, prostitutes and criminals were barred followed by the infamous Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, not letting Chinese laborers into the country.

And then there were more and more restrictions. There were restrictions against, quote, "idiots, insane persons, paupers and polygamists." Others were added. Anarchists were tacked on after the McKinley assassination. And then, immigration officers were allowed to ask about political beliefs. Then alcoholics were added, anyone from the Asia-Pacific region. But even so, remarkably, starting in 1892, 12 million immigrants poured into Ellis Island, sometimes up to 10,000 people a day.

MARTIN: Amazing. So that gets us to Jo Ann Hogan's (ph) question. And she asks, how has U.S. policy changed since the days of Ellis Island? And what can we learn from those changes?

ROBERTS: Well, in 1924, a law that set quotas on the country of origin essentially limited immigration to Northern and Western Europeans. And the island of hope, as Ellis Island was called, basically became a detention center and then a hospital until it closed in 1954. The awful Chinese Exclusion laws were finally repealed during World War II. But that big 1952 law that President Trump is now citing combined all of the other previously banned categories of people and added Communists.

Then the changes under President Johnson abolished country quotas and gave priority to family members of those already here plus skilled workers and refugees. But criminals, people with some health conditions, terrorists and polygamists are still excluded. The limit, by the way, for permanent immigrants is still 675,000 a year, with exceptions. But that 1965 law had the effect of changing the face of America.

MARTIN: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie about how government and politics work. Just tweet us your questions using the hashtag, #AskCokie, or you can email those questions, askcokie@npr.org. Cokie Roberts, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.