Opinion | How America became a reluctant nation of immigrants

Media today portraying immigrants coming to the United States

Newspaper articles in 1924 portraying immigrants coming to the United States

Fear of uncontrolled immigration is upsetting the political landscape in the run-up to the presidential election.

At a rally in December, former president Donald Trump went as far as to say that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Americans’ mistrust of new immigrants is hardly new. In fact, it exhibits a striking resemblance to the prevailing fears 100 years ago.

The country might soon need to “station a soldier every hundred yards on our borders to keep out the hordes,” argued an article in Wisconsin in April of 1924.

Treating Japan in the same way as “white nations,” an Illinois newspaper cautioned in May of 1924, could allow Japanese immigrants to own land and seek the “rights given white immigrants.

America,” wrote James J. Davis, the secretary of labor, in the New York Times in February of 1924, should not be “a conglomeration of racial groups, each advocating a different set of ideas and ideals according to their bringing up, but a homogeneous race.

100 years ago the U.S. tried to limit immigration to White Europeans. Instead, diversity triumphed.

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“I think that we have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door.”

That sounds like Donald Trump, right? Maybe on one of his campaign stops? It certainly fits the mood of the country. This year, immigration became voters’ “most important problem” in Gallup polling for the first time since Central Americans flocked to the border in 2019. More than half of Americans perceive immigrants crossing the border illegally as a “critical threat.”

Yet the sentiment expressed above is almost exactly 100 years old. It was uttered by Sen. Ellison DuRant Smith, a South Carolina Democrat, on April 9, 1924. And it helped set the stage for a historic change in U.S. immigration law, which imposed strict national quotas for newcomers that would shape the United States’ ethnic makeup for decades to come.

Immigration was perceived as a problem a century ago, too. Large numbers of migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flocked to the United States during the first two decades of the 20th century, sparking a public outcry over unfamiliar intruders who lacked the Northern and Western European blood of previous migrant cohorts.

On May 15, 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which would constrain immigration into the United States to preserve, in Smith’s words, America’s “pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock.”

“It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries,” Smith continued, speaking of America not 40 years after the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York harbor, with its open arms for all humankind. Immigration, Smith noted, should be shaped “to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.”

The act set the rules of who’s in and who’s out. Here is what happened:

Fast forward 100 years and the United States no longer has quotas. But it still has not landed on an immigration policy it can live with. Trump asks why the United States can’t take in immigrants only from “nice countries, you know, like Denmark, Switzerland,” instead of “countries that are a disaster.” President Biden, who not even four years ago wanted to grant citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants, today wants to “shut down the border right now.”

All the while, desperate immigrants from around the world keep fleeing poverty, repression and violence, launching themselves into the most perilous journey of their lives to reach the United States.

The public conversation over immigration that has raged at least since the days of the 1924 Johnson-Reed law can explain Washington’s policy failure: There is no way America can reconcile the sentiments embodied by the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor,” etc. — with its deep-seated fear that immigrants will reshape its ethnic makeup, its identity and the balance of political power.

Try as they might, policymakers have always been unable to protect the White America they wanted to preserve. Today’s “melting pot” was built largely with policies that didn’t work. Millions upon millions of migrants have overcome what obstacles the United States has tried to put in their way.

The registry room at Ellis Island in New York in 1924. (AP)

Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” — which opened at the Columbia Theatre in D.C. on Oct. 5, 1908 — has a narrow understanding of diversity by current standards. The play was an ersatz “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring a Jewish Russian immigrant and a Christian Russian immigrant. But it carried a lofty message. “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the crucible with you all!” trumpets David Quixano, the main character. “God is making the American.”

Americans, however, were already uncomfortable with that fluid sense of identity. In 1910, two years after the debut of Zangwill’s play, geneticist Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. It provided the intellectual grounding for America’s increasingly overt xenophobia.

Israel Zangwill, circa 1905. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics,” Davenport wrote that Italians had a “tendency to crimes of personal violence,” that Jews were prone to “intense individualism and ideals of gain at the cost of any interest,” and that letting more of them in would make the American population “darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial,” as well as “more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality.”

Harry Laughlin, another Cold Spring Harbor researcher, told members of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee in 1922 that these new immigrants brought “inferior mental and social qualities” that couldn’t be expected “to raise above, or even to approximate,” those of Americans descended from earlier, Northern and Western European stock.

The Johnson-Reed Act wasn’t the first piece of legislation to protect the bloodstream from the outside world. That would have been the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which kept Chinese migrants out for six decades. In general, though, immigration law before World War I excluded people based on income and education, as well as physical and moral qualities — not on ethnicity and its proxy, nation of origin.

In 1907, “imbeciles, feeble minded persons, unaccompanied children under 17 years of age” and those “mentally or physically defective” were put on the excluded list, alongside women coming for “prostitution or for any other immoral purpose.” The Immigration Act of 1917 tried to limit immigration to the literate.

But the large number of migrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe since the turn of the 20th century refocused the national debate. In 1907, Congress established the Dillingham Commission, which would reach for arguments from eugenics to recommend choosing migrants to maintain existing American bloodlines via “the limitation of the number of each race arriving each year” to a percentage of those living in the United States years before. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 did just that, establishing the first specific national quotas.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act completed the project, reshaping the nation’s identity over the next four decades. It set an overall ceiling of 165,000 immigrants per year, about 20 percent of the average before World War I, carefully allotting quotas for preferred bloodstreams. Japanese people were completely excluded, as were Chinese people. Elsewhere, the act established national quotas equivalent to 2 percent of citizens from each country recorded in the 1890 U.S. census. Germans received 51,227 slots; Greeks just 100. Nearly 160,000 Italians had entered the United States every year in the first two decades of the century. Their quota was set at less than 4,000.

An Italian immigrant family at Ellis Island around 1910. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

And, so, the melting pot was purified — and emptied: Two years after the Johnson-Reed Act, sociologist Henry Pratt Fairchild published “The Melting Pot Mistake,” a reiteration of the racial logic that undergirded all the new restrictions. By 1970, immigrants made up less than 5 percent of the population, down from nearly 15 percent in 1910.

There can be “no doubt that if America is to remain a stable nation it must continue to be a white man’s country for an indefinite period to come,” Fairchild wrote. “An exclusion policy toward all non-white groups is wholly defensible in theory and practice, however questionable may have been the immediate means by which this policy has been put into effect at successive periods in our history.”

And yet perhaps the most important lesson to flow from this moment is that the levee didn’t hold. Today, immigrants are back at 14 percent of the population. And despite the repeated efforts over the decades to preserve the ethnic purity proposed in Johnson-Reed, the pot filled up with undesirables again. Migrants from Europe accounted for three-quarters of the foreign born in 1960, but only 10 percent in 2022.

The Statue of Liberty is arguably the nation’s most prominent symbol, representing America as a land of opportunity and refuge. But the nation’s tolerance of outsiders has mostly been shaped by baser instincts, a tug of war between the hunger for foreign labor to feed a galloping economy and the fear of how the newcomers might change what it means to be American.

Immigration restrictions relax when the immigrant population is comparatively small and jobs plentiful, and they tighten when the foreign footprint increases and jobs get relatively scarce. Muzzafar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute points out that even recent migrants turn against newer cohorts, fearful that they may take their jobs and transform their communities.

Fifteen percent, Mr. Chishti suggests, might be the tipping point when the uneasy equilibrium tips decidedly against newcomers. Foreign-born people amounted to about 15 percent of the population when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, and again when the Johnson-Reed Act was signed into law.

Charts show that since the 1860s, new laws restricting immigration were enacted when foreign-born people reached 15% of the population. Still, the share of the population that’s not White has grown.

In the 1960s, when the foreign-born share was dropping to about 5 percent of the population, however, other considerations became more important. In 1965, the quotas established four decades earlier were finally disowned.

Their demise was, in part, a barefaced attempt to woo the politically influential voting bloc of Italian Americans, who had a hard time bringing their relatives to the United States under the 1924 limits. There was a foreign policy motivation, too: The quotas arguably undermined the international position of the United States, emerging then as a leader of the postwar order in a decolonizing world.

The story Americans most like to hear is that the end of the quotas was a natural outcome of the civil rights movement, in tension with the race-based preferences implicit in the immigration law. “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on one’s place of birth,” Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said in 1964. “Yet this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.”

But the most interesting aspect of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which did away with the quotas, lies in what it did not try to change. Though the new immigration law removed quotas by nationality, it did not abandon the project of protecting the predominant European bloodstream from inferior new strains. It just changed the instrument: It replaced national quotas with family ties.

Rep. Michael Feighan, an Ohio Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee on immigration, ditched the original idea of replacing the nationality quotas with preferences for immigrants with valuable skills. In their place, he wrote in preferences for the family members of current residents, which ensured new arrivals remained European and White.

It was paramount to preserve America as it was. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who managed passage of Hart-Celler through the Senate, promised his fellow Americans that the new legislation “will not upset the ethnic mix of our society.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law on Oct. 3, 1965, in New York. (AP)

“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” President Lyndon B. Johnson claimed on Oct. 3, 1965, as he signed the Hart-Celler Act into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

That didn’t quite work out as planned. Migrants allowed in under Hart-Celler have ushered in an America that looks very different from the one Johnson addressed. Half of the foreign born today come from Latin America; about 3 in 10 from Asia. Fewer than 6 in 10 Americans today are White and not of Hispanic origin, down from nearly 9 in 10 in 1965. Hispanics account for about one-fifth of the population. African Americans make up nearly 14 percent; Asian Americans just over 6 percent.

Chart shows the share of the population that is not White or is Hispanic

And some of the old arguments are back. In 2017, the Harvard economist George J. Borjas published a tome about foreigners’ impact on the United States, in which he updated the debate over migrant quality to the post-1965 era: Newer cohorts, mostly from Latin America and other countries in the Global South were, he said, worse than earlier migrants of European stock. “Imagine that immigrants do carry some baggage with them,” he wrote. “That baggage, when unloaded in the new environment, dilutes some of the North’s productive edge.”

That the Hart-Celler law did, in fact, drastically change the nature of the United States is arguably the single most powerful reason that U.S. immigration politics have again taken a dark, xenophobic turn. But even as arguments from eugenics are getting a new moment in the sun to justify new rounds of draconian immigration restrictions, the six decades since 1965 suggest the project to preserve a White European America has already lost.

A freight train is inspected for immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso in June 1938. (Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

What went wrong? Much of Europe got rich, and this dramatically reduced its citizens’ incentive to move to the United States. Instead, immigrants from poorer reaches of the planet — from Asia but predominantly from Latin America — took the opportunity to invite their relatives into the land of opportunity.

As usual, the U.S. economy’s appetite for foreign labor played a large role. Mexicans, like people from across the Americas, had been mostly ignored by immigration law. They were not subject to the 1924 quotas, perhaps because there weren’t that many of them coming into the United States or, perhaps, because their labor was needed in the Southwest — especially during the world wars.

Mexicans suffered periodic backlashes, such as when the Hoover administration figured that kicking out millions of Mexicans and Mexican-looking Americans was a smart political move in response to the Great Depression, or when President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched “Operation Wetback,” a mass deportation effort created ostensibly to raise wages in the South.

In any event, the first quota for immigrants from the Western Hemisphere as a whole came with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Nonetheless, the story of immigration after that was largely a Mexican affair. By 2000, Mexicans accounted for 30 percent of the foreign-born population, up from 6 percent 40 years earlier.

Unsurprisingly, the zeitgeist again took to worrying about the pollution of the American spirit. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington fretted that “the persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.”

And still, the U.S. political system proved powerless to stem the tide. U.S. economic interests — and the draw they exerted on immigrants from Mexico and other unstable economies south of the border — overpowered the ancestral fears.

The last major shot at immigration reform passed in Congress, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, was based on a supposed grand bargain, which included offering legal status to several million unauthorized immigrants, bigger guest-worker programs to sate employers’ demands for labor and a clampdown on illegal work that came with a penalty on employers who hired unauthorized workers.

Employers, of course, quickly found a workaround. Unauthorized migration from Mexico surged, and the mass legalization opened the door to family-based chain migration on a large scale, as millions of newly legalized Mexican immigrants brought their family members into the country. In 1980, there were 2.2 million Mexican immigrants in the United States. By 2022, there were 11 million.

The border between Mexico and the United States is staked out on International Street in Nogales, Ariz., in 1929. The U.S. flag flies on the right. (AP)

Migration today, again, has taken a new turn. Migrants are no longer mostly single Mexicans crossing the border surreptitiously to melt into the U.S. labor force. They are families, and they come from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Ecuador, China and India. Mexicans accounted for fewer than a quarter of migrant encounters with U.S. agents along the border in the first half of fiscal 2024.

The most explosive difference is that immigration today is much more visible than it has possibly ever been. Immigrants don’t try to squeeze across the border undetected. They cross it without permission, turn themselves in and ask for asylum, overwhelming immigration courts and perpetuating the image of a border out of control.

Americans’ sense of threat might have more to do with the chaos at the border than with immigration itself. Still, the sense of foreboding draws from that same old well of fear. That fear is today arguably more acute than when ethnic quotas were written into U.S. immigration law in 1924. Because today, the White, Anglo-Saxon Americans who believe this nation to be their birthright are truly under demographic siege.

Twenty years from now, White, non-Hispanic Americans will slip below 50 percent of the population and become just another, albeit big, minority. For Trump’s electoral base of older, White rural voters, the prospect of non-Whites acquiring power to challenge their status as embodiments of American identity amounts to an existential menace that may justify radical action.

Immigration has re-engineered U.S. politics. Non-White voters account for some 40 percent of Democrats. Eighty-one percent of Republican voters, by contrast, are both White and not Hispanic. The nation’s polarized politics have become, in some nontrivial sense, a proxy for a conflict between different interpretations of what it means to be American.

Newly arrived migrants receive information, snacks, clothing and other items from nonprofit groups in Brownsville, Tex., last July. (Meridith Kohut for The Washington Post)

The renewed backlash against immigration has little to offer the American project, though. Closing the door to new Americans would be hardly desirable, a blow to one of the nation’s greatest sources of dynamism. Raw data confirms how immigrants are adding to the nation’s economic growth, even while helping keep a lid on inflation.

Anyway, that horse left the stable. The United States is full of immigrants from, in Trump’s memorable words, “s—hole countries.” The project to set this in reverse is a fool’s errand. The 1924 Johnson-Reed immigration law might have succeeded in curtailing immigration. But the restrictions did not hold. From Presidents Johnson to Trump, efforts to circle the wagons around some ancestral White American identity failed.

We are extremely lucky it did. Contra Sen. Ellison DuRant Smith’s 100-year old prescriptions, the nation owes what greatness it has to the many different women and men it has drawn from around the world to build their futures. This requires a different conversation — one that doesn’t feature mass expulsions and concentration camps but focuses on constructing a new shared American identity that fits everyone, including the many more immigrants who will arrive from the Global South for years to come.

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