Immigration Law and Anti-Terrorism: A History

Immigration Law and Anti-Terrorism: A History

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By Mary Barton, ASP Adjunct Fellow

Although largely forgotten, immigration law has long served as a way to counter terrorism in the United States. Exclusionary immigration legislation is appealing because it allows the federal government to appease domestic constituents, and to externalize terrorist threats,labeling them as foreign. Militant and extremist ideologies, however, have rarely been detained at the border.


Drawing by T. Dart Walker of the McKinley Assassination.

Drawing by T. Dart Walker of the McKinley Assassination.

In September 1901, a homegrown terrorist with a foreign last name, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York. Czolgosz proclaimed himself an anarchist, and by doing so, pledged allegiance to a revolutionary doctrine emanating from Europe. Following McKinley’s death, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, decried the immigration system as broken and called upon Congress to enact legislation that would prohibit the entrance of foreign-born anarchists and allow for their deportation.


The subsequent Immigration Act of 1903, better known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act, targeted a political belief rather than conduct, and banned those who advocated the violent overthrow of government. The law emerged in a period of mass immigration to the United States, and reflected the demands of the nativist movement that immigrants become “100 percent” American and declare their allegiance to American institutions.


Congress continued to expand the Immigration Act of 1903, despite its limited enforcement. In 1904, only one alleged anarchist was deported from the United States. The anti-anarchist provisions of U.S. immigration law reached their zenith during the first Red Scare, a fervent period of anti-radicalism that followed on the heels of the First World War and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. By this time, foreign born residents who espoused political beliefs considered subversive or dangerous, or who affiliated with organizations or groups that supported or printed anarchist principles were subject to arrest and deportation by federal immigration officers.


The Home of Attorney General Palmer after a bombing

A series of spectacular bombings ushered in the Red Scare. In April 1919, a parcel bomb exploded in the house of Georgia senator Thomas Hardwick, co-author of the Immigration Act of 1918, injuring his maid and wife. Federal postal authorities found 36 package bombs intended for prominent politicians, judges, and industrialists. Two months later, on June 2, 1919, a coordinated attack rocked eight American cities, as bombs exploded simultaneously in New York, Boston, Newtonville (Massachusetts), Philadelphia, Paterson, Washington, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.


A frightened Congress immediately flushed the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, forerunner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with cash to catch the bombers. The newly formed Radical Division took charge, and under the direction of a young and ambitious lawyer, J. Edgar Hoover, focused on deporting members of foreign left-wing organizations.


On November 7, 1919 federal agents arrested hundreds of Russian immigrants connected to the Union of Russian Workers. Deportation hearings quickly followed, and on December 21, 1919, the USS Buford, nicknamed the “Soviet Arc,” left New York harbor carrying 249 persons, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. The Justice Department next turned to its primary target among radical groups – the Communist and the Communist Labor parties. On January 2, 1920 the Justice Department launched a second dragnet. Agents raided homes and offices of alleged communists in over 30 cities, arresting thousands.



The 1920 Bombing of Wall Street

The Radical Division’s hyperbolic rhetoric and unfounded claims that a nationwide revolutionary uprising was imminent delegitimized the government’s campaign. Respected lawyers criticized the Justice Department for its violation of civil liberties, including warrantless arrests, forging evidence, using agent provocateurs, and distributing political propaganda. As fears of the red menace faded, the Wall Street bombing of September 1920 ripped through the financial district of downtown Manhattan and left thirty-eight people dead and wounded hundreds more. This was the worst terrorist attack in American history, in terms of persons killed and wounded, until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The Wall Street bombing remains unsolved, but scholars believe it was a retaliatory attack for the deportation of an Italian anarchist, Luigi Galleani.


Even after the arrests and deportations of the Red Scare, the federal government continued to worry about the infiltration of foreign terrorists. Authorities turned to immigration law to safeguard the homeland and to nation-build by restricting immigration from Asia and limiting migration from southern and eastern Europe. The immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 instituted a national origins quota system, which functioned in part to keep out alleged Italian anarchists and Russian (often equated with Jewish) Bolsheviks and their revolutionary doctrines.


These efforts failed to halt the spread of an ideology. During the Great Depression, indigenous forms of communism and socialism flourished in America, most famously advocated by the Louisiana populist, Huey Long. More recently, declassified Soviet records have revealed that Comintern agents and Soviet security services continued to operate in the United States despite the immigration ban. The lessons of the past should not be forgotten, as the United States once again considers whether exclusionary immigration legislation makes for good anti-terrorism policy.


Further Reading:


Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: The Story of America in its First Age of Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)


Regin Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943 (Copenhagen: University of Cophenhagen Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000)


Charles McCormick, Seeing Reds: Federal Surveillance of Radicals in the Pittsburgh Mill District, 1917-1921 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)


Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, eds., The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995)


Stanley Coen, A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963)