A re­turn to 1924 im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Julie Greene Julie Greene is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Mary­land at Col­lege Park and co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Global Mi­gra­tion Stud­ies.Her email is jmg@umd.edu.

Speak­ing in Ari­zona re­cently, Don­ald Trump linked un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants to ev­ery ill fac­ing the United States. and stressed the im­por­tance of as­sim­i­la­tion as a guid­ing prin­ci­ple of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. The U.S. should “se­lect im­mi­grants based on their like­li­hood of suc­cess in U.S. so­ci­ety and their abil­ity to be fi­nan­cially self-suf­fi­cient,” he said.

Af­ter this speech, Richard B. Spencer, young dar­ling of the white na­tion­al­ists, tweeted: “Trump is re­turn­ing to the ideas of the 1924 Im­mi­gra­tion Act. Im­mi­grants will re­flect the racial makeup of the coun­try. #Amer­i­caFirst.”

He may be right. Mr. Trump’s lan­guage echoed an ear­lier his­tory of racial­ized im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy when the unas­sim­i­l­able char­ac­ter of some im­mi­grants seemed to threaten Amer­i­can iden­tity.

By the 1920s, the U.S. had been de­bat­ing im­mi­gra­tion for decades. Ear­lier pat­terns of im­mi­gra­tion from North­ern and Western Europe were be­ing over­taken, in the 1880s and 1890s, by new­com­ers from South­ern and Eastern Europe. The lat­ter in­cluded mil­lions of Ital­ians, Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans, Slove­ni­ans and Rus­sians — most of them Catholic or Jewish — who were seen as prob­lem­atic by (some) na­tive-born white Amer­i­cans, who linked them to crime, ur­ban pol­lu­tion and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion.

New pseudo-sci­en­tific the­o­ries of race be­came preva­lent by the early 20th cen­tury — par­tic­u­larly the eu­gen­ics move­ment, which would later in­spire Adolf Hitler. Eu­geni­cists held that im­prove­ment of the ge­netic char­ac­ter of a race could be achieved through care­ful breed­ing and that the Nordic and An­glo-Saxon races were su­pe­rior to all oth­ers. Race mix­ing, they said, would cre­ate an in­fe­rior hu­man be­ing.

In his best-sell­ing 1916 book “The Pass­ing of the Great Race,” Madi­son Grant warned that the Ital­ians and Jews were tak­ing over the cities (and the women) be­long­ing to the Amer­i­can male, but they “sel­dom adopt his re­li­gion or un­der­stand his ideals.” Eu­geni­cists fo­cused on var­i­ous so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing ster­il­iza­tion of groups deemed un­de­sir­able. Grad­u­ally, how­ever, they grew to be­lieve that re­strict­ing im­mi­gra­tion would be ef­fec­tive and achiev­able. Very strict lim­its could be de­ployed to ex­clude so-called in­fe­rior or unas­sim­i­l­able groups, thus pro­tect­ing the North­ern Euro­pean char­ac­ter­is­tics of the U.S.

Eu­geni­cists pro­foundly in­flu­enced the shape of the1924 John­son-Reed Im­mi­gra­tion Act. Madi­son Grant and eu­geni­cist col­leagues like Charles Daven­port served as ex­pert ad­vis­ers to Congress dur­ing the de­lib­er­a­tions. The John­son-Reed Act lim­ited the num­ber of im­mi­grants from any coun­try to 2 per­cent of the num­ber present in the U.S. as of 1890. Since rel­a­tively few Ital­ians, Hun­gar­i­ans, Slove­ni­ans and Rus­sians were in Amer­ica by then, this part of the law aimed squarely at elim­i­nat­ing new im­mi­grants from those coun­tries in or­der to pre­serve the coun­try’s North­ern Euro­pean char­ac­ter. The law also se­verely re­stricted the im­mi­gra­tion of Africans and com­pletely banned Asians and Arabs as in­fe­rior peo­ples “in­el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship.”

Most ad­vo­cates of John­son-Reed counted it a great suc­cess. In the years that fol­lowed, im­mi­grants from Italy and other parts of South­ern and Eastern Europe found it nearly im­pos­si­ble to en­ter the U.S. Whereas hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ital­ians had been en­ter­ing the U.S. most years since 1900, now their quota was re­duced to less than 4,000 per year. All of Rus­sia was re­duced to a quota of just over 2,000 peo­ple; only 100 peo­ple per year could en­ter the U.S. from many other na­tions, in­clud­ing Greece, Bul­garia, Egypt and Syria.

In the 1920s, as­sim­i­l­abil­ity be­came a not-so-hid­den racial code, and the John­sonReed Act set a stan­dard — signed and sealed by eu­geni­cists — for how to main­tain the ge­netic pu­rity of Amer­i­cans. Mr. Trump’s fam­ily would have found the new regime eas­ier to nav­i­gate than most, be­cuase Ger­mans re­ceived the high­est quota of any eth­nic group. How­ever his top sur­ro­gates — Chris Christie and Rudy Gi­u­liani — would likely have been among the mil­lions ex­cluded. Mr. Christie’s Si­cil­ian great-grand­par­ents and Mr. Gi­u­liani’s Ital­ian grand­par­ents in each case made the fam­i­lies highly sus­pect, de­scended as they were (ac­cord­ing to Madi­son Grant) not from the mighty Ro­mans but from the slaves who out­lived them.

So there’s a rea­son why white na­tion­al­ists found Mr. Trump’s em­pha­sis on as­sim­i­la­tion at­trac­tive; it has the ef­fect of ex­clud­ing peo­ple who don’t look like them. There’s also a rea­son the 1924 act was even­tu­ally re­placed by 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which abol­ished the quo­tas and lib­er­al­ized im­mi­gra­tion rules: Wel­com­ing for­eign­ers of all kinds brings new chal­lenges, new ideas, new life strate­gies to our shores.

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