Immigration

Last Century’s Absurd Immigration Debate

People await examination at Ellis Island. (Undated/Library of Congress)
It makes today’s debate seem enlightened.

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them presses a wild motley throng. . .

O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well

To leave the gates unguarded?

— Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1892)

If you think we have reached peak stupidity — that America’s per-capita quantity has never been higher — there is solace, of sorts, in Daniel Okrent’s guided tour through the immigration debate that was heading toward a nasty legislative conclusion a century ago. The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America provides evidence that today’s public arguments are comparatively enlightened.

Late in the 19th century, immigration surged, as did alarm about it, especially in society’s upper crust, particularly its Boston portion, which thought that the wrong sort of people were coming. Darwinian theory and emerging genetic science were bowdlerized by bad scientists, faux scientists, and numerous philistine ax-grinders with political agendas bent on arguing for engineering a better stock of American humans through immigration restrictions and eugenics — selective breeding.

Their theory was that nurture (education, socialization, family structure) matters little because nature is determinative. They asserted that even morality and individuals’ characters are biologically determined by race. And they spun an imaginative taxonomy of races, including European “Alpine,” “Teutonic” (aka “Nordic”), and “Mediterranean” races.

Racist thinking about immigration saturated mainstream newspapers (the Boston Herald: “Shall we permit these inferior races to dilute the thrifty, capable Yankee blood. . . of the earlier immigrants?”) and elite journals (in The Yale Review, recent immigrants were described as “vast masses of filth” from “every foul and stagnant pool of population in Europe”). In The Century, which published Mark Twain, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, W.E.B. Du Bois, and H. G. Wells, an author informed readers that “Mediterranean people are morally below the races of northern Europe,” that immigrants from Southern Italy “lack the conveniences for thinking,” that Neapolitans were a “degenerate” class “infected with spiritual hookworm” and displaying “low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins. . . and backless heads,” and that few of the garment workers in New York’s Union Square “had the type of face one would find at a county fair in the west or south.” The nation’s most important periodical, The Saturday Evening Post, devoted tens of thousands of words to the braided crusades for eugenics and race-based immigration policies. Popular poet Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) wrote “The Great Race Passes”:

On State Street throngs crowd and push,

Wriggle and writhe like maggots.

Their noses are flat,

Their faces are broad. . .

Eugenics was taught at Boston University’s School of Theology. Theodore Roosevelt, who popularized the phrase “race suicide,” wrote to a eugenicist that “the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” Woodrow Wilson warned against the “corruption of foreign blood” and “ever-deteriorating” genetic material.

Amateur ethnologists conveniently discovered that exemplary southern Europeans (Dante, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci) were actually from the north. One wrote, “Columbus, from his portraits and from his busts, whether authentic or not, was clearly Nordic.” (Emphasis added.) Okrent writes: “In an Alabama case, a black man who married an Italian woman was convicted of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law, then found surprising absolution when the conviction was vacated by an appellate court’s provocative declaration: ‘The mere fact that the testimony showed this woman came from Sicily can in no sense be taken as conclusive evidence that she was therefore a white woman.’”

The canonical text of the immigration-eugenics complex, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, is available today in at least eight editions and is frequently cited in the internet’s fetid swamps of white supremacy sites. At the 1946 Nuremberg “Doctors’ Trial,” Nazi defendants invoked that book as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision upholding states’ sterilization of “defectives” (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a eugenics enthusiast: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”) and America’s severely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. It based national quotas on 1890 immigration data — before the surge of the “motley throng.” Okrent writes, “These men didn’t say they were ‘following orders,’ in the self-exonerating language of the moment; they said they were following Americans.”

Four years before the 1924 act, 76 percent of immigrants came from Eastern or Southern Europe. After it, 11 percent did. Some of those excluded went instead to Auschwitz.

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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