History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

In the United States, legal immigration is based on three essential programs; family sponsorship, refugee status, and work visas. Only 5,000 low-skilled workers were welcomed annually in 2014, and the conditions of asylum have been more narrowly defined over the years. Race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion make up the strict eligibility for asylum, or refugee status that would grant legal entry, and residence in the United States.

In turn, one of the most prevalent causes for migration among children in Central America, for example, is reunification with their parents, many who have illegally immigrated themselves. Coyotes, or people who traffic migrants for a cost, often about $7,500, have made a relatively lucrative career out of the endeavor in the past four decades. Evidently, the tens of thousands of child migrants accosted at the border would have gone nowhere fast without them.

Deportations are not nearly the answer, and instead, fly in the face of resolving this historic transnational crisis. In a brilliantly comprehensive exposé of the issue, written by Óscar Martínez, appearing in the August 18-25, 2014 edition of The Nation, he writes, “One thing is certain: the Obama administration’s record number of deportations has only given coyotes like José new customers” (Martínez, 2014). The reason why deportations are so hot on the to-do-list of the U.S. government is that they align with history.

Since the 1950s, notably during the Red Scare, there has ever been a deeply seated tradition in America to block, censure, and dismiss the cultural worldviews, political perspectives, and economic livelihoods deemed foreign, as with the outlying people who represent them. As the militarist invasion in the “New World” transformed into settler assimilation, founded on religiously motivated colonial principles of socioeconomic exclusivity, immigration policy has ever followed in suit.

War, and the cost of military conflict, has always been a looming shadow in the narrative of migrants, whether fleeing the post-civil war destitution of Central America, or the rise of Nazism in Europe. Tragically, an oft-referenced connection to the current child migrant crisis in the U.S. is that of SS St. Louis. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt received direct appeals to allow SS St. Louis to dock at a Florida harbor, as it carried 900 Jewish refugees. Instead, the liner was forced to turn back to Europe, where 254 were killed (Lanchin, 2014). In 1987, as the American military began to outlandishly impose its military might in the Middle East, eventually sparking a global “war on terror”, America’s most famous playwright wrote of the repercussions of Roosevelt’s death into the latter half of the 20th century. In his autobiography, Timebends, Arthur Miller voiced his enduring dissidence over the incipient climate of anti-immigrant legislation, which began during the era of McCarthyism.

I suppose that it was civility imposed by the war itself, for with victory and Roosevelt’s passing, with the United States the most powerful nation on earth and the only solvent one, the restraining hand was struck away and a new age of unbridled and even joyous accusation opened, the age of the political investigating committees of Congress, of McCarthyism, of openly antileft legislation like the McCarran-Walter Act, which set up a political means test for any foreigner wishing to so much as visit the country (Miller, 1987, p. 209).

Prior to the amendment of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 in 1999, even distinguished Canadians such as the internationally renowned book author Farley Mowat, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau were denied entry into the United States. Also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, the McCarran-Walter Act was spearheaded by Nevada’s Senator Pat McCarran who co-sponsored the bill with the chairman of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Since then, countless others joined the ranks of those denied entry into the United States, depriving Americans of the goodwill and patronage of immensely significant luminaries from every sphere of cultural, political, economic, and social activity from around the world.

In 2005, the debate remained pertinent, despite the amendment, as the prolific author and board member of the PEN America Center, Larry McMurty testified on behalf of a national debate on immigrant rights with respect to international cultural exchange:

One of the most glaring examples of our failure to consistently and fully protect First Amendment rights is the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act whose ideological-exclusion provisions – still in effect for those who seek to reside here permanently – are an affront to all who cherish the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and association. To a writer whose living depends upon the uninhibited interchange of ideas and experiences, these provisions are appalling.

In April 1984, in an effort to bring attention to the growing threat to our First Amendment freedoms posed by the ideological exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, PEN American Center, together with the Fund for Free Expression, sponsored a public reading in New York City. American authors read from the work of their foreign counterparts whose entry into the United States had been made difficult and humiliating – or impossible – under these provisions…

For 30 years, writers of this caliber have been denied normal visas to visit or become permanent residents in the United States because their political beliefs or associations are not in accordance with the politics and ideology of the administration in Washington.

The English sociologist Torn Bottomore wrote to Sophie Silberberg of the Fund for Free Expression in February 1980, about his second attempt to attain a visa: ‘…in 1977, having received several interesting invitations, and being under the impression that the immigration laws had been amended, I again applied for a visa. To my surprise, the same issues were raised as in 1951, and I was asked to provide an account of my political affiliations and to apply for a waiver. I consider all this an indignity, and of course, I withdrew my application again.’

In 1986, when American PEN was to host an International PEN Congress, there was a serious question as to whether such a meeting could in fact take place in this country. PEN members from everywhere in the world had been welcomed for congresses in far less free countries, such as Yugoslavia. But the 212(a) (28) provision of the McCarran-Walter Act could have effectively prevented such a gathering in the United States.

We believe that the ideological-exclusion principles of the McCarran-Walter Act serve no useful purpose and cause inexcusable damage to individual rights and to the ability of the United States to champion the cause of individual liberties around the world (McMurty, 2005).

On that April night in 1984, American authors read from the works of Farley Mowat, the Canadian literary hero, whose books shed profound light on environmental stewardship, on Indigenous peoples, and on the spirit of humanity. Before the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and Administrative Justice of the House Judiciary Committee, Larry McMurty testified with fascinating references to the wonderful abundance of intellectual inspiration that arrived to the U.S. prior to the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. He also spoke of the overall impact of such legislation on all of society, that Americans are worse off, even more so than the honorable individuals who must remain outside of its intolerant borders.

The McCarran-Walter Act made it impossible not only for Americans to experience cultural revitalization in an exciting global era of international exchange, but also for them to consider hosting foreign intellectuals. Even when invited as world-renowned professionals, with a mind to contribute to American culture and society, intellectuals, artists, and writers have faced, and continue to confront insuperable obstacles institutionalized by the imperfect legal system, and power politics of the U.S. government. Curiously, one malicious example of cultural suppression is in the instance of the Nobel prize-winning author from Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when he was denied entry into the U.S. on political grounds. In the entire life of Marquez, the U.S. would remain the only democratic capital in the world to deny him as such.

Arthur Miller, the first American president of PEN International, fulfilled his promise as an intellectual leader by successfully inviting writers behind the Iron Curtain into the pale of protection under the umbrella of PEN. For this, and for his nonconformist playwriting, he paid with his civilian freedoms, such as when the U.S. government denied him a passport, simply to see the 1954 London opening of his play The Crucible, which was based on the hysteria of the HUAC. When Senator Pat McCarran co-sponsored the McCarran-Walter Act with the chairman of HUAC their aim was to keep “subversives” out of the country.


Óscar Martínez. (July 30, 2014). Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming. The Nation.
Mike Lanchin. (May 12, 2014). SS St. Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted. BBC News.
Arthur Miller. (1987). Timebends. New York, NY: Perennial Library. p. 209.
Larry McMurty. (January 3, 2005). Larry McMurty testimony. PEN America.