OTD in History… June 29, 1940, Roosevelt signs into law the Alien Registration Smith Act monitoring immigrants

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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On this day in history June 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Alien Registration Act known as the Smith Act making it illegal to plan to overthrow the United States Government and requiring all non-citizen immigrants to register with the government. With American involvement in World War II imminent, Congress decided to pass a series of laws restricting basic freedoms starting in the 1930s meant to protect the government citing national security. The law targeted communists, anarchists, fascists, racists and labor unions, most of which were immigrants. The Act was also used as a basis to intern Japanese Americans in camps during the war.

The US government has a long history of being wary of immigrants especially during times of war. The first laws were passed under President John Adams the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Again in World War I, Congress a series of laws that hindered free speech and targeted immigrants including the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which made it criminal to use any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about US “government, its flag, or its armed forces” and applied “when the United States is in war.”

In the late 1930s, Congress again attempted to revive anti-alien and anti-sedition laws, particularly aimed at deporting Austrian born union leader Harry Bridges. Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, an anti-labor Democrat and Chairman of the Rules Committee authored the Alien Registration Act, a softer version than the 100 other anti-immigrant bills under consideration. The bill passed the House 382 to 4, with 45 abstaining on July 29, 1939.

The Act made it illegal “to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing any government in the United States by for or violence.” There were few dissenting voices in Congress, Rep. John A. Martin of Colorado called it “an invention of intolerance contrary to every principle of democracy and abhorrent to the spirit of Christianity,” while Rep. Lee E. Geyer of California called it a “Hitler measure.” (Martelle, 6) Roosevelt signed the bill the same day France fell to Germany and signed an armistice with Nazi Germany.

In addition, the Roosevelt administration distrust of immigrants was so high he had the Immigration and Naturalization Service transferred and operated under the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The New York Times writing about the bill stated, the “normally distasteful, appeared inevitable, the Administration sponsored the legislation.” In total 215 individuals were indicted, only after the Supreme Court deemed some of the convictions unconstitutional did the prosecutions stop.

The American government overreached with the Alien Restriction Act. As Scott Martelle writing in his book The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial analyzed, The Smith Act would resonate in ways unimagined at the time it was enacted. The law would be used to ruin lives, destroy friendships, and kill careers; it would become a tool of court-sanctioned political repression; it would feed the “hysteria,” as President Harry S, Truman called it, that Senator Joseph McCarthy would harness with such devastating results. In the end, it would give license to the U.S. Government to send American citizens to prison for what they believed, rather than for what they had done.” (Martelle, 7)

Seventy-seven years later the US under President Donald Trump is again reviving anti-immigrant laws with his America First agenda, first with travel ban mostly from Muslim countries upheld by the Supreme Court, his calls for building a wall at the Mexican-American border, and his zero-tolerance policy arresting immigrants illegally crossing the border and separating them from their children. Although reports make it seem that anti-immigrant policies in the US are new under Trump, they have a history as almost as old as the nation, and unfortunately will continue to occur as long as there are immigration and fear of the unfamiliar.

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Martelle, Scott. The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

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Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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