Panel 4 Emancipation Today: The Politics of Immigration Reform

Amanda Sherman, Managing Editor for Business and Production for the Government Law Review

 Lincoln & Immigration:  Angela Alexander, Instructor of History and Humanities, York Technical College 

           Instructor Alexander began discussing the nativist movement of the mid-1800s.  This group, whose motto was “America for the Americans” believed that no foreign-born citizens should govern in America.  The voice of the anti-nativist at this time was much softer, although it may not have been less popular.  Instructor Alexander said that Lincoln saw each ethnic group as distinct; he had a unique conception of those who were not born in America.  In the instructor’s words, “Lincoln treated people as people.”  In her presentation, Instructor Alexander detailed President Lincoln’s encounters with several minority groups as a depiction of Lincoln’s conception of non-natives.

           The group that Lincoln was most in contact with was the Germans, which was the most common immigrant group in Illinois in his day.  Lincoln owned a German language newspaper in Springfield, and also worked and corresponded with many Germans.  In a letter, circa 1858, Lincoln wrote, “Our fellow German citizens, ever true to liberty . . . not for special classes of men, but for all men.  True to the union and the constitution as the best means to advance that liberty.”[1]

           Additionally, Lincoln wanted to ensure that Germans could read his speeches in their own language.  Although, Instructor Alexander says this was politically advantageous for Lincoln, it was mutually beneficial to the Germans.  Germans and others were to be judged by their individual merit and not their nativity.  The instructor went on to detail Lincoln’s encounters with the Jewish and Irish population.  She spoke of Lincoln’s handling of General Ulysses S. Grant’s denial of orders to pay permits for Jewish individuals in 1862 as a demonstration of his ability to divorce himself from certain political or social pressures in order to do what he felt was necessary.


          The instructor says that Lincoln was less familiar with the Irish who tended to stay on the east coast.  Although Lincoln was criticized for voicing his concerns about Irishmen aiding in voting fraud during his campaign against Stephen Douglas, Instructor Alexander says that this was a concern that had nothing to do with the ethnicity of the individuals involved and everything to do with the potentiality of voting fraud. 

           Instructor Alexander concluded with the thought that Lincoln believed that the Declaration of Independence would eventually apply to all men and that it was his duty to protect both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, demonstrated in his interactions with and regarding the non-natives in the U.S. in his day.

 Obama & Immigration:  Renee Redman, Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Connecticut School of Law

        Professor Redman’s remarks focused on immigration law and the beginnings of federal legislative power in Lincoln’s times as well as the current state of immigration policy today. 

         Before the Civil War, immigration was somewhat regulated by statutory law and diplomacy.  Congress passed naturalization laws, and the beginnings of immigration law dates back to this time.  The first wave of European immigrants came from 1830-1850, and the majority of these individuals were Irish Catholics, Germans, and other Europeans.  The next wave of immigration was the Chinese immigration of the 1850s.  Professor Redman demonstrated the rise of Chinese immigration in the beginning of the 1850s by saying that while thirty-five Chinese were admitted to the U.S. in the years between 1841 and 1850, in the years between 1851 and 1860, over 41,000 Chinese were admitted to the country.[2] 

          Two acts were passed at this time that had to do with immigration.  The first of these is the Coolie Trade Prohibition Act.  This was the last slave trade statute and could not be passed until south seceded.  This act outlawed participation by Americans in Chinese Coolie Trade.  This act gave the president the power to order inspections of American ships before leaving Chinese ports.  An exception was made for voluntary Chinese labor.  Chinese immigrants were uniquely positioned for this; they could be slaves or free laborers.  The second of these acts was An Act to Encourage Immigration passed in 1864.  This act made it very clear that the U.S. wanted immigrant labor and permitted indenture contracts of no longer than twelve months.  The act created the Office of the Commissioner of Immigration to gather and disseminate information about agricultural and other opportunities and to encourage European immigration to west.

          The Burlingame Treaty between China and the U.S. followed in 1868 and recognized the universal right to emigrate.   Over the following twenty-five years, Chinese exclusion cases established the doctrine that the federal legislative branches have the sole power over immigration.  In 2007 the foreign-born comprised 12.6% of total US population.  There were somewhere between seven and twenty million undocumented immigrants.  We are currently facing a renewed nativism movement in the United States.  There have been rises of nativism throughout our history, however, today even the term “undocumented” is a contentious one.  While President Obama has not spoken much publicly regarding his views on immigration, the White House states its goals as (1) strengthening border security, (2) fixing dysfunctional bureaucracy, (3) removing incentives, (4) allowing the undocumented to pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line, and (5) working with Mexico.

           Professor Redman says that Comprehensive Immigration Reform may not be possible for some time.  The President has pushed back the date for such reforms, and is now saying that they will take place in 2010.  Professor Redman points to the stimulus bill’s refusal to give federal funding to those who hire those individuals in the U.S. on work visas (H-1Bs) as an example of what may be in store with the current administration.   The professor says that Obama can still use diplomacy.  There have been renewal agreements with Mexico: it appears that the administration is working with Mexico for repatriation into inner Mexico, strengthening Mexico’s other borders, and making trade agreements.  All of these things do, however, take time.  The executive branch has the power to influence how immigrants live, who is admitted in to U.S., and who is deported from the U.S.. 

          The administration under Bush had a policy of conducting raids, but the Obama administration has said they will target employers rather than employees.[3]

         Recent changes in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office include targeting employers rather than employees, expanding 287(g) approvals, and a rise in criminal prosecutions.

         Professor Redman explained that President Obama has many options in addressing immigration policy and reform.  While the Lincoln presidency saw the beginnings of federal control of immigration, we now have a system where the executive controls immigration.  We will see what changes this administration brings to the lofty task of reforming this area of law.



 Edited by Marisa Floriani


[1] A copy of the letter is available on the University of Michigan’s digital library at;rgn=div1;view=text;idno=lincoln2;node=lincoln2%3A519.

[2] Professor Redman showed those in attendance a political cartoon from the late 1860’s demonstrating popular sentiment at the time.  This cartoon can be found online at

[3] See, e.g., Julia Preston, Immigration Crackdown with Firings, Not Raids, N.Y. Times, Sept. 29, 2009, available at

1 thought on “Panel 4 Emancipation Today: The Politics of Immigration Reform”

  1. I thought it was interesting how Professor Redman indicated that the federal government has begun to increase the practice of criminally prosecuting illegal immigrants (I believe she spoke of it in the context of those being caught at the border). The consequence of this is that an alien is intercepted at the border, then thrown in jail for months, and then finally kicked out of the country to their homeland.

    When thinking about this rise of criminal prosecution, it is hard not to think about the economy of this nation in the same point. Tax money is spent for a criminal prosecution and housing the illegal alien in jail for months. How can this be justified when states across the nation are looking at their prisons that house U.S. citizens and are downsizing these populations because of economic strain?

    This is where I would point back to one of this panel’s main themes: nativism. It was noted during the panel that we are again in a rise of nativist thought and practice. One argument, thus, for the increase of prosecution for illegal aliens may be a preservation for the American way of life and the people’s want to punish those who may be entering the country. These “boarder-crossers” could take away American jobs, which are greatly needed for US citizens in this state of the economy. This would be the nativist thought and it may be a possible connection to the rise in prosecution.

    The panel was very interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you Instructor Alexander and Professor Redman.

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