Multiple presidential candidates are now calling for the repeal of the 90-year-old law that prosecutes immigrants for illegally crossing the border.
As it turns out, that legislation was written by an avowed white supremacist U.S. Senator from South Carolina who was a proponent of lynching (extrajudicial mob killings of black people) and who called for a Constitutional amendment to ban interracial marriage.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was the first candidate to call for the repeal of the law, and he was recently joined by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Ever since 1929, any immigrant who crosses the U.S. border without authorization can be criminally prosecuted, and can face a sentence of up to six months in prison.
Castro, Warren and others support reform that would instead impose civil — not criminal — penalties on illegal border crossers. According to The Washington Post, other candidates calling for the elimination of criminal penalties for crossing the border include South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg; Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont); Miramar, Florida mayor Wayne Messam; venture capitalist Andrew Yang; Congressman Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts); motivational speaker Marianne Williamson, and Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington).
“I agree with Secretary Castro,” Warren said in a statement to HuffPost. “We should not be criminalizing mamas and babies trying to flee violence at home or trying to build a better future. We must pass comprehensive immigration reform that is in line with our values, creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants including our DREAMers, and protects our borders.”
The history behind the bill and its author may give pause to candidates who either supported keeping criminal penalties — which include Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Governor Steve Bullock (D-Montana), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and former Congressman John Delaney (D-Maryland) — or candidates that were noncommittal, like former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and others.
The entire concept of criminal penalties for illegal border crossing came from Senator Coleman Blease (D-South Carolina). He was the chief sponsor of legislation dubbed the Immigration Act of 1929, which made it a misdemeanor to cross the border illegally, and a felony to cross it again after being deported. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez — who studied the history of mass incarceration in the United States in her book City of Inmates — wrote that the new law overwhelmingly punished Mexican immigrants.
With stunning precision, the criminalization of unauthorized entry caged thousands of Mexico’s “birds of passage.” By the end of 1930, the U.S. attorney general reported prosecuting 7,001 cases of unlawful entry. By the end of the decade, U.S. attorneys had prosecuted more than 44,000 cases.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the vast majority of immigrants imprisoned for breaking Blease’s law were Mexicans. Throughout the 1930s, Mexicans never made up fewer than 85 percent of all immigration prisoners. Some years, that number rose to 99 percent.
Aside from his antipathy toward immigrants, Coleman Blease vilified black people, in particular. As Governor of South Carolina, Blease promised to pardon anyone convicted by a jury of lynching. According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia, Blease once said “whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.”
Blease also proposed a Constitutional amendment to ban interracial marriage, though it failed to pass and was never submitted to the states. He even once had a poem read on the U.S. Senate floor called “N***ers in the White House,” which was written anonymously in protest of Herbert Hoover’s wife inviting a black person to the White House for tea.
Democratic candidates could likely be asked about their support for repealing criminal penalties for illegal border crossings at this week’s Democratic presidential debates.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.