The Anti-Immigration Fervor That Swept America in the Early 20th Century (ep. 63)

September 5, 2019
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Starting with the Muslim ban, the Trump presidency has consistently unleashed a barrage of new policies designed to keep immigrants out of the country. But while these restrictions might seem unprecedented, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have deep roots in our country. Today’s guest is Daniel Okrent, the award-winning writer of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America. He discusses the political dynamics behind the anti-immigrant zeal of the early 20th century and the junk science that was used to justify it.

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EMERSON SYKES
[00:00:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host.

Starting with the Muslim ban in the early days of the Trump presidency, this administration has announced new policies designed to keep immigrants out on a nearly weekly basis. This feels like an unprecedented wave of restrictions, but anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have deep roots in our country.

Here to discuss another period in American history when the nation's gates were slammed shut is Daniel Okrent, an award-winning writer and editor. His most recent book is The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants out of America. The book details the political dynamics that created anti-immigrant zeal in the early 20th century and the junk science that was used to justify it.

Daniel Okrent, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to the podcast.

DANIEL OKRENT
Thanks very much, Emerson. Happy to be here.

EMERSON
Your book tells an interesting story from the early part of our 20th century and in many ways you track a debate that culminates in the Immigration Act of 1924. Can you start by telling us about that law and what restrictions it imposed?

DANIEL
The 1924 Act was by far the most severe immigration restriction law in American history. First, it reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the country to 160,000. As recently as 10-12 years before that there were over a million coming in every year. And then, most importantly, it established national quotas based on the percentage of people from each nation that were already in the U.S., so that for instance, 10 percent of Americans could trace their origins to Country A, then 10 percent of the immigrants would be from Country A.

[00:01:52] And the worst part of it is they didn't use the 1920 census to determine this, or the 1910, or even the 1900 census. They went back to 1890, the last census before the huge immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe began, and computed the shares for that each nation would have from that. So that the consequence was that as many as 220,000 Italians had come in a year, previous to the 1924 Act. And the 1924 Act reduced it to fewer than 5,000. And similarly for all other Eastern and Southern European people, and that stayed in place for 41 years.

EMERSON
Well, it's fascinating that there was both an overall cap, but also, as you said, these national quotas, both of which resonate with the current time. But sticking with the period that's covered in your book, can you tell us about what sort of political dynamics came together to give life to this Act?

DANIEL
Well, there were a number of things. There was, first of all, the inherent xenophobia that has cropped up in American history from the very beginning. You know, you go back as far as the 1750s, where a newspaper editor in Pennsylvania wrote that the Pennsylvania colony was being destroyed by the influx of Germans who were coming in to not only to hurt the colony as a whole but also to even destroy the English language. That was a newspaper editor named Benjamin Franklin, to indicate, you know, how deep these roots are.

And then it goes like a sine wave throughout American history. In times of economic stress, usually the immigrants are the first people to be blamed and the first people that people want to keep out. There was a period when immigrants were wanted very badly, in the period after the Civil War when bodies were needed to hew the forests and to build the railroads. And then when you get to the 1890s and there's some economic trouble, then a big anti-immigration movement begins.

EMERSON
The sine wave pattern we certainly can trace through our history, and I want to come back to that. But you talked about the issue of xenophobia, and specifically race played an interesting role. It's not exactly how we understand race today, but race was central to the debate in 1924.

DANIEL

[00:03:57] Absolutely true and what we mean by race is very different than what was meant by race at the time. This cockeyed view of race that really divided even the European peoples into a variety of different races so that the predominant view put forth by a really virulent, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti Catholic New York aristocrat named Madison Grant. He maintained that there were three European races: the Nordics who were tall and blond and brave, and they built western culture; the Alpines, who were somewhat shorter and they were alright, and they were artisans and needed to have them around; and the Mediterraneans who were the lowest of the low. They were short and swarthy and they weren't worth a lot. And of course that was speaking specifically about the Italians whom Grant despised. And he said that the “merger” between any two, the marriage between any two people from these groups, automatically the the offspring would revert to the lower form. So if a Nordic married an Alpine, their children would be Alpine’s, and if an Alpine married a Mediterranean, their children would be Mediterraneans.

And he wrote the marriage between any two members of any of the European races and a Jew would yield a Jew. And this sense that there was a racial distinction, not just a religious or cultural or ethnic-nationality distinction between say, Italians and Greeks and Austrians and Germans, really was unprecedented; when there were different kinds of white people, and the white people of the eastern and southern European nations were deemed inferior.

EMERSON
It's almost the “one-drop rule” among Europeans.

DANIEL
Exactly. Exactly like that. So, yeah you were right, Emerson, to point out the comparisons to today. I think that when Trump began office, and he was trying to keep out Muslims from the Arab countries, he could have said he was trying to keep out Arabs. And the current controversy at the southern border, the so-called “rapists and murderers” and “invaders” that he has repeatedly invoked, is directed against Hispanics. So you have a repeat of what happened in the 19 teens and 20s, leading to the 1924 Act. The consequence of that Act were, of course, dreadful and tragic because of the number of Europeans who could not leave Europe for the U.S., in the years following 1924.

EMERSON
[00:06:12] And this is, in many ways, sort of run-of-the-mill prejudice, racism that people have had throughout history. But there was an interesting dynamic that developed in the early 20s around eugenics. Can you tell us about eugenics and the role that it played in the development of this anti-immigrant craze?

DANIEL
Sure. This anti-immigrant craze begins in the 1890s with the influx of the Eastern European Jews and Italians into the eastern cities of the U.S. And from that point forward, the anti-immigration movement tried to enact laws that would cut down on that immigration. It was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the most powerful member of the Senate in the period, and four times between 1896 and 1917, the Congress passed laws that would have reduced immigration from those countries, and four times, presidents vetoed those laws.

And usually they would veto them on the grounds that, you know, we are a country of freedom, and we make no distinction between nationalities. All are welcome here, we are a nation of immigrants. So the anti-immigrants needed to come up with something else and what they found was eugenics, which if you'll excuse the expression was the bullshit science that determined that there were different qualities of not just individuals but of ethnic and national groups.

And the eugenics movement begins in the UK, really in the wake of Darwin back in the 1860s. It crosses the ocean in 1900. And at first, it was used to say “Well, we don't want people coming in who have obvious disabilities, who are--” the term of-- at the time was “feeble minded.” They didn't want epileptics, they didn't want the blind, they didn't want the deaf. But by 1915, 1916 when Madison Grant wrote his book, suddenly the-- the anti-immigrationist who had been losing in the political battle, they seized upon this and said, “This isn't prejudice; we don't dislike these people. We have science that proves they’re inferior, and we must pay attention to what science tells us.” And from that moment forward from 1915, 1916 until the passage of the 1924 law, it was the eugenic argument that carried the day.

EMERSON
[00:08:17] I think probably the most chilling part of your book is the way that eugenics became common knowledge and accepted by a huge variety of different people and subgroups within the United States. What does it mean when the accepted science is wrong?

DANIEL
It’s pretty terrifying, and we see consequences of it then. You know, as you say, it was the accepted science. The number of institutions that either added to the eugenic argument or spread the doctrine of the eugenic argument is kind of scary.

It was the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island. It was the American Museum of Natural History. It was prominent faculty members at Princeton and Columbia and Stanford.The Carnegie Institution of Washington provided the financial support. The Harriman Family: they almost single handedly paid for the initial eugenic research in the U.S. The Rockefeller Foundation was behind it. So you had virtually the entire mass of American science, and those who supported American science, saying that eugenics was something that had scientific merit.

So, it was not a surprise when the politicians picked up that call that people listened. “Well, we're not prejudiced,” as I said before. “We're not prejudiced. We are just following the rules of science.” Or as one particular anti-immigration leader -- a staunch progressive, in fact an early backer of the American Civil Liberties Union -- said at the time, “You know, we love the Jews, but that doesn't we want them anywhere near us.

EMERSON
Wow.

DANIEL
“Because it's dangerous.”

EMERSON
Wow.

One of the central arguments in your book is around how people's inherent prejudice led to public policy and then how eugenics was used to bolster that policy. But it's a little bit complicated to understand what started this process and what was a legitimate belief by these people and what was just used as an excuse. How do you untangle that causal knot?

DANIEL
[00:10:09] It’s very, very hard to untangle it but I think that at its base, inherent prejudices that pre-existed even the arrival of Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans and then was aggravated by the large numbers that were suddenly visible to the anti-immigrationists. The prejudices were there. There was a built in prejudice, particularly among the upper class of the Northeast, and you find some of the noblest figures in our history embrace these prejudices. And then when they stumbled, and I think that was really the term, when they stumbled across the eugenic argument, they saw it as, “Oh I've been right all along. This proves my point that these people are inferior.” If you begin with the prejudice, and then you are provided an intellectual justification for your prejudice, it's not only gratifying, it's very, very effective.

EMERSON
We've talked a bit about what led to the Immigration Act of 1924, but let's play the-- the story a little bit forward. What brought an end to this craze? World War II and the rise of the Nazis in Germany played a critical role.

DANIEL
Absolutely. What you see happening around 1931,1932 and then accelerating in the middle 30s, is that the institutions that had supported the eugenic argument suddenly realized, “Oh my God, look what we've done.” And they begin to run away from it. They begin to drop their support for it. Some say they were never involved in it, but there's this very clear, almost humiliating sense that--that these bogus arguments that these scientists put forward are the justification for the Nazis. And in fact, there was a great deal of--of connection between the American eugenic scientists and the Nazi eugenic scientists.

[00:11:48] They had been collaborating on various projects, not necessarily race-based, but they knew each other very well. They had been collaborating for 30 years and, you know, as late as 1931, one of the leading German eugenic scientists comes to the U.S. He tours, he visits various universities, he goes to the Cold Spring Harbor Labs where he's accepted as, you know, almost as a brother. And this was the man who later wrote the Nazi euthanasia statutes and was given the Goethe Medal by Hitler in 1939 for all he had done to support the Aryan race. And you see that even if the American eugenicists had not been meaning to promote Nazi thought, it was inevitable. Hitler read the eugenics textbooks while he was in prison after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in the early 20s.

He cited Madison Grant and speeches, and the connections were invariable so that finally, at the end of World War II, in 1946 at the Doctors’ Trial in Nuremberg, the Nazi physicians, they used as their defense, said, “Well look what your American scientists were saying. We were only doing what they were doing.” And as I say in the book, you know, we're used to the phrase, “Well we were only following orders,” but really they could have been saying, “We were only following Americans.”

EMERSON
Wow. Well, if the Nazis spoiled eugenics, we still clearly have the prejudice and many of the public policies that restrict immigration. Do you see any echoes of the eugenics movement and rhetoric in current society, even if the central premise in the original textbooks are no longer cited?

DANIEL
Well I think it's basically, as I said before, it has to do with the nature of making ethnic distinctions. It's not, “Let's keep this individual out because he's no good or she's no good. Let's let this one in because he or she will add to the American gene pool and make us all better.”

When it's based on nationality, you're using the same kind of arguments and it's clear that the Trump administration is directing their anti-immigrant measures against specific unwanted, by them, nationalities.

EMERSON
And what changed? We experienced a period of relative openness after World War II.

DANIEL
[00:13:59] A few things happened. I mean there was a sense of guilt, of our doors not having been open when these people might have come, but more, it begins to accelerate the openness. During the 1950s, after the Soviet Union has occupied much of Eastern Europe, put it behind the Iron Curtain, suddenly these Eastern European peoples whom had been derided and despised, suddenly they were heroic. They were being kept in prison, as it were, by godless communism, the captive nations of Eastern Europe. We needed to get-- help those people escape the yoke of communism. So, over a period of time, you find not only an acceptance but an encouragement of wanting people from Eastern Europe.

And then the other thing that comes into play of course is the civil rights movement in the early 60s. And it is inevitable that the arguments of the civil rights movement that pertain to African-Americans created an atmosphere of questioning of any form of race-based or ethnicity-based prejudice. So this culminates in 1965, when Congress passes the Hart-Celler Act, and Lyndon Johnson signs it into law, that ends all of the quotas, stops any kind of ethnic discrimination, and fundamentally creates a lottery system that has been in place ever since, or at least until now.

EMERSON
It's a fascinating story, and there are several lessons and parallels that we can draw to today. Obviously, with our president making distinctions between immigrants from Norway and quote-unquote “shithole countries.” When you were researching this book, how much was the current state of our society and our politics in mind?

DANIEL
[00:15:40] Well, it’s funny. I--I take a long time to research my books. I spent five years on this one. And though the immigration issue was an issue back in late 2013, early 2014, when I started-- that was during the Obama administration, that's when DACA looked like it was going to become permanent law or at least permanent policy. So, though immigration was an issue, it wasn't the issue that it has become, and as I have said to my wife, I’ve never been so lucky that I was a year and a half late delivering a book, in terms of the public consciousness of these issues being heightened in an extreme way by what this White House has been doing. So my book did not have the Trumpian policy as a backdrop until really the last several months that I was working on it. But then it became so clear, it was inescapable.

So the last line the book, which was meant as you will hear, entirely ironically but some people took it seriously, is that I-- I say that on that beautiful, sunny October day at Liberty Island, when Lyndon Johnson signed the the Hart Cellar Act that ended the quotas into law, I said that “The future of open immigration in America looked as bright as the sun overhead.” I wrote that line after Trump was in office. And its irony was meant obviously to point out how that's not the case and it never is the case. These issues keep coming back.

EMERSON
Well, for those of us who are distraught by the current state of affairs it is somewhat comforting to know that, you know, our history is full of of ebbs and flows, and for those of us who are trying to push another flow we can learn some lessons from our colleagues from the past.

DANIEL
One hopes that we can. One of the things that I find most difficult is dealing with the fact that so many of the people who supported the anti-immigration movement were people that we would otherwise look upon as heroes for other things that they did. The leading financial backer of the movement was an extremely wealthy Bostonian named Joseph Lee who was known as the number one progressive in New England, who created the Massachusetts Civic League, who as chairman of the Boston School Committee kept the schools open at night so immigrants could learn English, who supported Black civil rights in the South and in Boston which was even a rare thing for Bostonians to do. Yet at the same time, he would write a letter to friends saying that, “Soon all of Europe may be drained of its Jews, perhaps to its benefit, but not to ours,” and expressed a fear that America would become a “Dago” nation.

[00:18:07] And then you find people like Margaret Sanger whose passion for her own cause of the birth control movement led her to some really unsavory associations with many of the most racist and anti-Semitic members of the anti-immigration movement. And at times she wrote about how one of the reasons we needed birth control, because just look in these Italian neighborhoods, and how they're reproducing and living in filth. One goes on and on and on and sees that that that the anti-immigrant view was not necessarily one held by the right-wing of its time, although many people like Madison Grant were very much of the right wing, but crossed ideological borders.

Another element of it was the labor movement. The American Federation of Labor opposed immigration and tried to help pass anti-immigrantion laws from the time that it was created. And Samuel Gompers, himself a Jewish immigrant from England, he was uncontrollable in his rage at open immigration and worked very closely with people like Henry Cabot Lodge, whom he otherwise despised, because he wanted to keep immigrants out.

EMERSON
Well, in a former life you were the public editor of The New York Times, and I think your book is as much as anything an intellectual history of this time period and the debates around immigration. But as someone who was trying to sort of keep your finger on the pulse of-- of the New York Times readership and the society at large, I'm wondering if that experience provided any insights as to how immigration is covered and discussed over the last few decades in the United States.

DANIEL
Well certainly my-- my time as the public editor of The Times led me to look at all journalism with a jaundiced eye, and I found that from that moment forward, and in the years since, it's impossible for me to read the newspaper as a normal newspaper reader. I read it as somebody who was supposed to be--to be critical and to look at it with a critical eye.

[00:19:58] You know, I think that--that the general coverage of the immigration issue is pretty good. I would like to say it's as good as it is strictly because of the presentation of factual matter to rebut the dishonest claims of the Trump administration. But I think it's also partly because, much as I'm uncomfortable saying this, that--that Trump is to a degree, right -- that the American press is on a different side of the issue than he is. He of course doesn't say it as politely as that, but I think we do see the ideological viewpoint of the newspaper and broadcast writers and editors definitely coming into the coverage, but the coverage is-- it's important. It is showing the falsity and the cruelty of the Trump policies.

EMERSON
Well, talking about the importance of the narrative and--and humanizing this issue and giving not just facts but also stories, and giving the full picture of the complexity in the ways that people experience immigration: you included your own family's path to the United States in the initial part of the book. And you sort of describe it as your forebears who are Jewish coming from Europe, right before the gates were slammed shut and that experience informing how you look at immigration today.

DANIEL
Well, I thought that it would be only honest of me to say, “Look I don't come at this entirely impartially. I come at this with some direct experience.” First on my father's side, “poor shtetl” Jews who came in 1911, who would've been precisely the people that the anti-immigration has wanted to keep out and we're able to keep out after 1924. And on my mother's side, Romanian-Jewish grandfather was a physician. He would have been welcomed, there were exceptions in the law, but he made it in before 1924 and then was able to bring over my mother and her mother several years later because of what later became known as “chain migration,” because you know, he was here, he was a citizen, and he had the right to do that.

[00:21:54] At the same time, I would like to think that even if this weren't my story, that I would be able to look at it with the same, I hope, fair and eventually impassioned perspective that I eventually did. But it was important for me to make it clear to readers that I'm not impartial here.

EMERSON
And what's the big picture message that you want readers to be left with after reading the book? Is it that history is more complicated than we think, that it's cyclical? What’s—What’s the bigger takeaway that we should go home with?

DANIEL
All of the above and plenty more things. The point is that this feeling, not simply about immigrants but about the Other, however, you define the other by race by religion, by height, by weight, whatever it is. The need of the species, it seems, to have someone else to look down on, to validate your own position by saying that somebody’s lower than you are. This seems to be built in. It doesn't go away. I think that those people who say that none of us is entirely free of racism are basically right. We seem to have a species need to make the distinctions and to establish hierarchies. That's very, very discouraging, but presumably, we have the intelligence, and the investigative abilities, and the analytical abilities to see the flaw in that kind of thinking and to see our way to a clearer sense of how we truly are all the same and connected to one another in infinite ways.

Another aspect of it and this is a particularly troubling one I think at this moment in American history, here was a case where 95 percent of the scientific establishments in America, the credentialed people in America, sold this so-called science of eugenics as being authentic. Now, today, I desperately believe that the scientific consensus around global warming is correct. But, but you know, science only knows what it knows today. It doesn't know what it's going to learn tomorrow. I suspect that in 1917, the people who didn't like what the scientists were saying were saying, “Well, they will be disproved in time,” and I think that those who don't believe in global warming are saying the same thing. And it would be intellectually dishonest to say that there isn't a similarity between the two. It is a troubling one, but there is a similarity.

EMERSON
[00:24:12] It’s— it's a fascinating insight, and if nothing else, it's helping us remember to be skeptical and to make judgments on our own. I really appreciate this contribution to the current debate and also all of your career’s worth of work informing public debate. Thank you very much, Daniel Okrent.

DANIEL
This has been my pleasure. Thank you.

EMERSON
Thanks very much for listening. If you enjoyed this conversation, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback.

‘Til next week, peace.

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