When it Comes to Immigration, President Trump Could Use a History Lesson

Another week in the Trump presidency, another heinous attack on immigrants by our commander in chief. This time, however, instead of hiding behind the dubious logic of pushing to eliminate employment authorization for H-4 spouses, or holding the lives of hundreds of thousands of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Dream Act) recipients hostage over funding negotiations for his border wall, Trump made no attempt to disguise his contempt for immigrants as a matter of national security or protecting U.S. workers. During a meeting to discuss immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and several African nations, held last Thursday at the White House, President Trump reportedly wondered aloud about “having all these people from [expletive deleted] countries come here,” and then added, “We should have more people from Norway.”

There is no need to belabor the point on just how offensive these comments are. But equally concerning is the apparent ignorance such comments reveal regarding the history of our nation’s immigration; because, Norwegian immigrants were flooding into the United States, at one time, to the displeasure of many Americans. According to census data compiled by Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program, between 1825 and 1925, 800,000 immigrants from Norway came to America, primarily settling in the mid-western region. The reason for the mass migration of Norwegians to the U.S. was, in short, why immigrants from all over the world have continued to seek out our shores – the possibility of a better life. During the mid-19th century, Norway suffered from exorbitant unemployment rates, and opportunities for upward social and economic mobility were minimal. Meanwhile, in 1862, the U.S. passed the Homestead Act, which provided settlers in western states free land with the provision that they stay on it for at least five years. The opportunity to become landowners lured one fourth of Norway’s working population to America by 1910. [See Why Norwegians Aren’t Moving to the U.S., by Krishnadev Calamur, The Atlantic, 12.Jan.2018.]

Eventually, the tides turned. The Immigration Act of 1924, which was prompted in large part by the irrational fear and suspicion of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia, instilled strict immigration quotas based on country of origin. As a result, immigration from Norway dropped off precipitously. And the immigrants from Norway who were already living and working in the U.S. found it difficult to make their American dreams come true. Compared to immigrants from fifteen other European countries who made their way to the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Norwegians were among the poorest and least educated. They remained on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder here, often toiling in manual labor jobs for low wages. In fact, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst with the public policy research organization, The Cato Institute, noted on Twitter in response to Trump’s comments last week that “Norwegian immigrants did so poorly in the United States that about 70% of them returned and stayed in Norway.” [See Trump Wishes We Had More Immigrants From Norway. We Once Did, by Nurtih Aizenham, National Public Radio, 12.Jan.2018.]

It’s implausible that immigrants from Norway will return to the U.S. en masse any time soon. Of the 1.18 million people who became lawful permanent residents (i.e. “green card” holders) in 2016, only 362 of them claimed Norway as their country of origin. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank that tracks and analyzes the movement of people worldwide, the number of Norwegian immigrants to America has declined steadily over the past 50 years. Experts point to the exponential increase in Norway’s socioeconomic standing and overall quality of life as the reason that so many Norwegians are staying put. Thanks to a vast oil reserve that was discovered in the mid 1960’s, Norway’s per capita gross domestic product has surpassed that of the United States. Norwegians also enjoy a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than the U.S., as well as the most political and press freedom in the world. In fact, immigration to America from many other Western European countries has declined over the past few decades as that region of the world has steadily improved economically.

The case of Norway’s immigration pattern to the U.S. isn’t a unique one. Immigration is a constantly fluctuating phenomenon, one that is dependent on a wide variety of socioeconomic factors. Perhaps the only consistent characteristic of immigrants, no matter where they come from, is their fortitude and willingness to work hard and forge a new life in an unfamiliar place. Sadly, based on his recent comments, President Trump seems unlikely – or unwilling – to consider this.


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