A 1952 American immigration law intended to end the discrimination of immigrants based on “race and creed” became an argument to keep specific immigrants out of the United States in 2015, when Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential candidate, released a statement calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
In response to backlash over the statement, Trump’s supporters pointed to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (which became Public Law 414) as “vindication,” because the law supposedly banned Muslims from entering the country at the time with no complaints or backlash.
This is not true, although it is widely accepted that the law went about that in a backwards way, which led to much of the law (including the provision in question) being repealed by Congress in 1990.
Claims that Congress banned Muslims from entering the U.S. in 1952 can be traced back to Public Law 414. As written, that law bans all aliens “who are members of or affiliated with” organizations that advocate for the overthrow of the U.S. government:
Aliens who advocate or teach or who are members of or affiliated with any organization that advocates or teaches (i) the overthrow by force, violence or other unconstitutional means of the Government of the Unites States or of all forms of law; or (ii) the duty, necessity, or propriety of the unlawful assaulting or killing of any officer or officers (either of specific individuals or of any other organized government, because of his or their official character; or (iii) the unlawful damage, injury, or destruction of property; or (iv) sabotage.
It is true that the law as written would ban Islamic extremists from groups like the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda — grounds that have openly stated that they support the overthrow of the U.S. government — but only a tiny minority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are affiliated with extremist groups. That is one reason we are classifying claims that Muslims were banned from the United States in 1952 as false.
It also contradicts the original intent of the immigration law. With the bill, Congress ended the “blanket exclusion of immigrants based on race and creed” and established a (controversial) quota system for admitting immigrants from different and ideological grounds for excluding them based on personal history.
President Harry S. Truman believed the quota system did not go far enough in ending racial barriers, and he opposed so-called ideological tests for immigrants as a violation of the Bill of Rights. He vetoed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (Congress later overrode the veto) and wrote that the bill presented “a difficult problem of weighing the good against the bad” to arrive at a judgement:
In outlining my objections to this bill, I want to make it clear that it contains certain provisions that meet with my approval. This is a long and complex piece of legislation. It has 164 separate sections, some with more than 40 subdivisions. It presents a difficult problem of weighing the good against the bad, and arriving at a judgment on the whole.
H.R. 5678 is an omnibus bill which would revise and codify all of our laws relating to immigration, naturalization, and nationality.
A general revision and modernization of these laws unquestionably is needed and long overdue, particularly with respect to immigration. But this bill would not provide us with an immigration policy adequate for the present world situation. Indeed, the bill, taking all its provisions together, would be a step backward and not a step forward. In view of the crying need for reform in the field of immigration, I deeply regret that I am unable to approve H.R. 5678.
Truman also wrote:
I am asked to approve the reenactment of highly objectionable provisions now contained in the Internal Security Act of 1950 — a measure passed over my veto shortly after the invasion of South Korea. Some of these provisions would empower the Attorney General to deport any alien who has engaged or has had a purpose to engage in activities “prejudicial to the public interest” or “subversive to the national security.” No standards or definitions are provided to guide discretion in the exercise of powers so sweeping. To punish undefined “activities” departs from traditional American insistence on established standards of guilt. To punish an undefined “purpose” is thought control.
These provisions are worse than the infamous Alien Act of 1798, passed in a time of national fear and distrust of foreigners, which gave the President power to deport any alien deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” Alien residents were thoroughly frightened and citizens much disturbed by that threat to liberty.
Such powers are inconsistent with our democratic ideals. Conferring powers like that upon the Attorney General is unfair to him as well as to our alien residents. Once fully informed of such vast discretionary powers vested in the Attorney General, Americans now would and should be just as alarmed as Americans were in 1798 over less drastic powers vested in the President.
We therefore classified the claim that Muslims were banned from the U.S. in 1952 as false for two reasons. First, it assumes that all Muslims belong to or are affiliated with groups that want to overthrow the United States government, which is false on its face. Second, that idea contradicts the purpose of the 1952 law to end discrimination of immigrants based on “race and creed.”