This Day In History

There are two items of American political history that jump out at you when checking out “This Day in History.”

The first was the veto override in 1917 whereby Congress imposed a major immigration act on Woodrow Wilson. According to the Encyclopedia of Immigration:

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed “undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

More specifically, this act “barred most immigration from Asia:”

Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Wow. And this was only the beginning of race-and-ethnicity-conscious immigration policies that peaked in the 1920s.

Twenty years later on this day in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his proposal to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court with as many as six additional Justices (one for each sitting Justice over the age of 70). The defeat of this plan is often viewed as Roosevelt’s greatest political setback. Yet it actually produced the desired result of ending Court obstruction of New Deal legislation, via the “switch in time that saved nine,” a reversal of positions by Justice Owen Roberts (which in part due to the coincidence of surnames, was often described as the same motive for Chief Justice John Roberts’ alleged “switch” on Obamacare).

The awful legacy of U.S. immigration policies should be thoughtfully considered during the current discussion of comprehensive immigration reform. And President Obama should continue to reflect on the power of strategic executive audacity when his agenda is obstructed by the abuse of institutional barriers.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.