Trump dialed it up to 10, but his predecessors often treated migrants with disdain

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The scene at the immigrant detention centers in Texas, tweeted attorney R. Andrew Free, was horrifying. He wrote of “the constant, violent coughing and sickness of small children, and the worry of their mothers, who stood in the sun outside the clinic all day only to be told their kids should ‘drink water.’ ” And nearly doubling over when he saw the long line of strollers waiting outside.

But the worst moments were yet to come. Visiting a room for kids in the center, Free was startled to see the walls decorated with cutouts from a book called “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” that he was reading to his own enthralled child at home. Now he was holding back tears, realizing that the immigrant kids “will always associate this same book I was reading my child with this jail.”

Not long after, Free found himself at a political event where the president was present. Reluctant to disrupt the scene, but unable to let what he had seen go unspoken, Free struck an uneasy compromise with himself. He politely shook hands with the president, then mentioned his visit to the detention centers. Close them, Mr. President, he begged. “It’s wrong,” Free said. “And it’s going to be a stain on your legacy.”

The president was unmoved. “I’ll tell you what we can’t have,” he told Free. “It’s these parents sending their kids here on a dangerous journey and putting their lives at risk.” Then he moved on down the line, shaking hands with his supporters. Admitted Free: “I was dumbfounded.”

Free’s poignant tweets, written a couple of weeks ago, stirred a firestorm of thousands of responses — mostly, it appeared, because the year he was describing was not 2018 but 2015, and the president he was reproving was not Donald Trump but Barack Obama. “A lot of people think that all this started with Trump,” Free told the Miami Herald last week from his Nashville office. “It didn’t…

“I think what Trump is doing is qualitatively and quantitatively worse than other presidents. But U.S. policy has always been tough on immigrants.”

In the national frenzy over Trump’s immigration policies, particularly those that have resulted in thousands of children being separated from their undocumented-immigrant parents, there’s been a tendency among both his critics and his supporters to think the president is one of a kind, the first president to play hardball with illegal border-crossers.

But immigration attorneys, historians and policy analysts say that’s not true. “This echoes back at least as far as Jimmy Carter and probably well beyond,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, a Miami attorney who has worked in immigration law for more than three decades.


Mexican migrants, among them a woman carrying a baby, are boarding a plane in Los Angeles, Calif., as they are being deported back to their native Mexico, July 27, 1976.


“Remember all those Cuban refugees from Mariel that he welcomed with open arms?” Fox Isicoff said of Carter. “What people forget is that after they got here, he had the boats that carried them seized and then sued the owners for hundreds of thousands of dollars for smuggling….There’s a long bipartisan history of unfairness in U.S. immigration policy.”

Literally from its first moments, the U.S. government viewed immigrants dubiously. George Washington wrote his vice president John Adams that he didn’t see any need for new people to enter the United States “except of useful mechanics.” Even before that, founding father Benjamin Franklin was brooding about all the “swarthy” and “stupid” Germans settling in Pennsylvania, who, he predicted, “will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

Trump, of course, has raised contempt for the foreign born to a new level by making disdain for immigrants a centerpiece of his campaign and subsequent presidency. This has included referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” whipping crowds into a frenzy with his exhortations to build a wall at the southern border, imposing a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and appearing to use so-called “Dreamers” — young people brought here as children by their parents — as a bargaining chip to get funding for the wall, after promising that Mexico would pay for it.

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Tammy Fox-Isicoff

And his policy of removing children — some of them babies — from migrants and scattering them around the country has been attacked even by elected officials in his own party.

President Trump, even as he complains about immigrants from “s–thole countries,” denies that ethnicity or race have anything to do with his hawkish inclinations on immigration. Perhaps not.

But control of U.S. immigration policy has nearly always revolved around American’s racial composition and the associated cultural connotations, from language to political traditions. The very first federal law on immigration (which was, for most of the first century of U.S. history, managed by the states) was an 1882 bill stopping any more Chinese from entering America.


Two Mexican immigrants, Pedro Vidal, left, and Canuto Garcia, right, are fingerprinted by U.S. Border Patrol inspectors Paul Watson, left, and N. Franklin Davidson, right, at a detention camp at El Centro, Calif., on Aug. 11, 1951. After processing they would be airlifted back to their homes in Sinaloa, Mexico.

AP file

“After they finished building the U.S. transcontinental railroad system,” drily noted Muzaffar Chishti, the lawyer who heads the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute. “For a consummate nation of immigrants, we’ve been incredibly ambivalent about immigrants.”

The anti-Chinese law was not a political hiccup for the United States, but a harbinger of things to come. In the 1920s, Congress debated — and ultimately passed — a series of laws that gave immigration preference to northern Europeans (mostly white and Anglo-Saxon), and the back of the U.S. hand to everyone else.

“The debate on those laws in Congress was completely driven by what was then the very popular theory of eugenics, which held that some races were genetically superior to others,” said Chishti. “American lawmakers were convinced that eastern and southern Europeans were physically and and mentally inferior to the rest of Europe. Most of what was said about Jews and Italians on the floor of the House of Representatives would be unprintable today.”

Soon the debate moved out of the halls of Congress and into the streets of Southern California, where the Great Depression was beginning to get an icy grip on the population. In 1931 and 1932, under first the Republican presidency of Herbert Hoover and then that of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, immigration officials and local law enforcement began pushing Mexicans — many of whom were actually Mexican Americans who had never lived anywhere but the United States — to go home.

Knowing exactly what happened in what came to be known as the Mexican Repatriation, or how many people it happened to, is difficult. More than a million Hispanics left the United States for Mexico; a large number of them — estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands — eventually turned out to be either U.S. citizens or legal U.S. residents. The repatriation was partly voluntary and partly coerced, and in either case, formal deportation hearings were rare and few records exist.

“There are plenty of documented cases of parents being taken off the porches of their rented homes, their children screaming, entire families being deported to Mexico regardless of where they were born,” said Colorado College historian Douglas Monroy, author of “The Borders Within: Encounters between Mexico and the United States.”

“That happened. There are records. But it’s also true that some people accepted cash or discounted transportation to voluntarily repatriate. Will Rogers and some Hollywood celebrities even put on a big fundraiser for it. It was the Depression, jobs were drying up. Some people were sent forcibly, and for others, it was a free trip home and they came back later, when labor conditions were better.”


Mexican migrants leap from the border fence into the United States along the US-Mexico border near Tijuana in this November 1991 file photo. On Friday Jan. 12, 1996, Attorney General Janet Reno said hundreds of additional law enforcement officers and state-of-the-art equipment would be deployed along the California-Arizona border starting the following week to control an expected surge of immigration from Mexico.


There’s no doubt at all about the nature of the next round of deportations of Mexicans, the unsubtly named Operation Wetback. Directed by the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, the operation rounded up more than a million undocumented Mexicans — mostly farm laborers and their families — and shipped them home, sometimes in the overheated cargo holds of freighters, where a few of them died.

“I’ve talked to guys who were picked up in Operation Wetback,” said the Nashville immigration lawyer Free. “They said you could just be sitting in a movie theater, minding your own business, and bam, the immigration agents got you.”

The idea of the federal government mounting something with a name like Operation Wetback may seem next to impossible in this day and age. But as the issue of immigration has become intertwined with those of drugs and national security, several American presidents have brushed up against it in unpleasant ways:

Carter’s seizure of hundreds of boats from the private flotilla that went to the port of Mariel to pick up the 125,000 or so Cubans freed to leave by a Fidel Castro fit of pique in 1980. “On the one hand, Carter was making this grand humanitarian gesture, welcoming everybody in, and with the other, he was behaving so vindictively, taking the boats that brought the refugees in,” said Fox-Isicoff, who as a young attorney just out of law school was working as a federal immigration prosecutor.

Fox-Isicoff handled scores of the seizures. Already growing dubious about federal treatment of undocumented workers who, in her view, were guilty of nothing more than wanting to work for a living, she was so dismayed by what she saw as the unfairness of the seizures that she switched sides, going into private practice to represent immigrants rather than the government.

Immigration activists began calling President Obama the Deporter-in-Chief after his administration booted 2.5 million undocumented immigrants out the country during his presidency, more than all previous presidents put together. He also began the policy of detaining entire undocumented families to await their day before an immigration judge, rather than releasing them on parole as previous administrations had done.

“They were kept on horrible conditions,” said Fox-Issicoff. “They were in facilities that were so cold that everybody called them ‘meat lockers.’ The children were sick all the time and they had no toys, nothing to do. Nobody is as bad as Trump, but I blame Obama for many of the problems we have now. There were so many things he could have done to ward off the disaster that Trump has created.”

Bill Clinton’s decision to send tens of thousands of first Haitian and then Cuban refugees to live in tents at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The refugees were, in many respects, treated worse than the accused terrorists housed in prison there today. The prisons have air conditioning and running water; the refugees had neither.

“We lived in tents in groups of 22 people. It was really in overcrowded conditions,” said Moraima Alfonso, a TV makeup artist who spent more than a year in the camps after the U.S. Coast Guard picked up the raft upon which she was escaping Cuba in 1994. “We were like prisoners. They would put us out in the scalding sun for hours at a time to count us.”

The refugees, for a time, also had to endure intermittent harassment from the U.S. military, which had been instructed to try to get them to voluntarily repatriate to Fidel Castro’s side of the island. “Some nights, at 3 in the morning, soldiers would come in with loudspeakers and start yelling, ‘You are not going to go to the United States,’ ” Alfonso said.


A Mexican man hides his face from the camera as he rows his raft with three migrants across the Rio Grande into the United States, at El Paso, Texas, on July 5, 1987. The man made it his business to transport people across the river on rafts.


As the weeks and months wore on, some of the refugees did give up and return. Others, when they learned that anyone with a serious injury would be flown to a hospital in Miami, deliberately mutilated themselves. “People started hurting themselves to get out,” said Alfonso. “I saw a guy who burned his legs so he had to be transported out of there.” Even the camp doctors were awed by a few refugees who doused their own hemorrhoids with hot sauce from the tiny Tabasco bottles that came with their military rations.

Alfonso, though, kept waiting. And eventually she and 20,000 other Cuban refugees were released to the United States. She hasn’t forgotten her 17 months of bleak desperation in the camps, at times so dark that she thought of jumping the fence and walking into the minefields that surround the Guantánamo Bay base. But she doesn’t dwell on it, either.

“I think it was all worth it in the end, because here I have done what I always wanted,” Alfonso, now 55, said last week. “I always worked at TV stations, doing makeup because here I have done what I wanted. I have always worked at TV stations, doing make-up. I went to Miami-Dade College. I had a son…I have accomplished the American Dream.”

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After spending more than a year at the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba during the 1994 rafter crisis, Moraima Alfonso has made a life for herself in Miami.

Roberto Koltun

For his part, Clinton is still a little broody. In his autobiography “My Life,” published in 2004, he bitterly reflected on another of his brushes with immigration policy. In 1980, when Clinton was governor of Arkansas, the Carter administration told him that some of the Cuba refugees from Mariel would be moved to a detention center in his state. Clinton said he didn’t want criminals and mentally ill people housed in Arkansas. Sorry, said the White House, there’s no place else to put them.

“We still have a base at Guantánamo, don’t we?” retorted Clinton. “And there must be a gate in the fence that divides it from Cuba. Take them to Guantánamo, open the door, and march them back into Cuba.”

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