A Journalist on How Anti-Immigrant Fervor Built in the Early Twentieth Century
In his new book, “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America,” the journalist Daniel Okrent looks back at how anti-immigrant fervor at the turn of the twentieth century built over the following decades. Specifically, he examines the intellectuals and scientists who, through the eugenics movement, offered ballast and respectability to conservative and progressive opponents of immigration alike. This complicated brew of racist anti-immigrant fervor culminated in the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, of 1924, which set quotas for Southern and Eastern European immigrants and banned Asian immigrants for decades. Okrent’s history has obvious echoes today, but the distinct manner in which this debate played out, and the ideological mix of the different sides, offer the reader a startlingly contrast with the racist and demagogic rhetoric of today.
Okrent, the former public editor of the Times, has previously written books on prohibition, New York City, and baseball. During a recent phone conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the crucial differences between the nineteen-twenties and the present, how expanding definitions of whiteness have changed the immigration debate, and the dangers of putting too much—or too little—faith in science.
How would you compare and contrast the current era of immigration restrictionism and anti-immigrant rhetoric with the one that you are writing about?
I think that there are two primary differences. The first is that, one hundred years ago, the invocation of science was the key element in making the American public believe that these newcomers were inferior, whereas today it’s more an economic argument and an argument about crime. I don’t think either of those are the real reasons why there was the strong feeling then or strong feeling now. It’s a feeling of ethnic superiority. The difference is that today it’s Muslims and Latin Americans, and back then it was Jews and Italians.
To what degree do you think that this restrictionist sentiment was a top-down phenomenon, and to what degree was it a grassroots phenomenon? Was it more about the “will of the people,” or was this about élites influencing how people think about an issue and then reflecting it back?
A little bit of each. I do think that there would have been legislation and immigration restriction in 1924 without the eugenic argument. The eugenic argument cleansed it and made it palatable and made it not prejudiced. It made it acceptable with the American view of itself as a nation believing in freedom and liberty and equality—at least equality for white people. The nascent inborn feeling of prejudice that existed that would have kept these people out was valorized by the eugenic argument.
What was it that you found, when you were researching this topic, that made you want to focus so much of your book on the scientific aspects of the immigration debate?
The book began as a book about eugenics, and then I discovered the immigration angle and moved it into a book about immigration that was propped up by what I’d just learned about eugenics. The power of the eugenics movement, the ubiquity of the eugenics movement, in the years from 1910 until 1930, was everywhere. It was widely accepted. The only really strong voice against it was Franz Boas. Even the political opponents—they really couldn’t marshal any scientific argument. [The civil-rights lawyer] Louis Marshall, speaking of marshalling—he, of course, did, and pointed out, If these Nordics are so far superior, how come they’re disappearing? It was very hard for those who were for immigration to stand up to the mass ranks of Ivy League professors and the science that was coming out of Cold Spring Harbor. It was all over the country. It was imposing.
The élite support is the biggest difference between then and today.
Right, it was very different, because the ideological line didn’t exist, as you see from the socialists and the progressives who supported immigration restrictions using a eugenics argument.
When you went back and listened to people talk about Jews and Italians ninety-five years ago, what is it that you think is different from the things we hear today about different groups?
Before eugenics comes into the picture, I think that the attitude toward the Eastern European Jews, specifically, and the Italians, and many other Eastern and Southern European racial groups, was one of errant prejudice, and it was based on what they saw before their eyes, seeing the ghettos in Boston and New York and Washington and Philadelphia. What Jacob Riis saw is what they saw. Riis may have sounded sympathetic, but these people were horrified: “We can’t let this happen to us. We can’t let this happen to our cities. We can’t let this happen to our school systems.” There was an openly prejudicial view that they wanted to save themselves by keeping out “the other.”
Today, it’s more ideologically driven than it was then, when there was a very clear visible threat for the Northeastern élite, the Northeastern Wasps who led the anti-immigration movement. They saw something, and it was very measurable. Here, yeah, we have television that we see it on, but, certainly in much of the country, the threat of immigration is not impinging upon people’s lives in any way. Anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. rises in areas where there are the fewest immigrants.
Right. It was the opposite then. It was the visible presence. It’s Henry Adams running into “a furtive Yacob or Ysaac still reeking of the ghetto, snarling a weird” language, right on Boston Common. I mean, my God, this was something that was so disruptive to the view of American life that somebody like Adams had.
This makes me think that a lot of the feeling today is less organic than it is élite-driven, because it’s being felt by people who are not seeing immigrants. So where are they getting these opinions from?
Well, we know where they’re getting the opinions. Some are getting them from the opinions of the President of the United States and his followers. Stop and think: If the President were not making an issue of this, would there be strong immigration-control feelings in this country? No. He has done what Presidents, even good Presidents, do: he has brought an issue that he cares about to the forefront.
I think some of the same media forces that are responsible for getting him elected and winning the primary are also responsible for driving that feeling.
Right, yeah, Lou Dobbs was ranting about it on Fox before Trump came along, and before his campaign began, but I don’t think he was making much headway with it. By bringing it forth as a primary issue during his campaign, Trump brought it to the surface of American consciousness.
You talk a little bit about anti-Chinese sentiment, which for a time was preëminent among people who disliked immigrants. Do you view the pre-eugenics anti-Chinese sentiment as more akin to what we’re seeing today,?
I think there’s a similarity. It’s first seeing somebody who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t speak like you, and then it’s also aggravated by the economic issue, which you could say was real then in the way that I don’t believe it’s real now. The presence of Chinese laborers as [the railroad executive] James Hill says—I quote him in the book—Why would I pay x dollars a day for one American when I can have six Chinese working for the same amount of money? Labor’s opposition to immigration back then was consistent, pervasive, unyielding. It’s a little bit less so now because of the ethnic nature of the American labor unions today.
The definition of whiteness has expanded so much, while at the same time some form of anti-immigrant politics has remained. Does this mean that people of Latin American descent will eventually be seen as white, but anti-immigrant sentiment will go somewhere else?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It is, I think, a matter of who the groups are that the anti-immigrationists want to keep out. They don’t want to keep out the French, they don’t want to keep out the Russians, even; they want to keep out the Muslims, who are not white by their view, and the Central Americans, who are not white in their view.
Why did the anti-immigration feeling you write about die out after four decades?
I think it finally went away because there was no immediate threat. If you look at the immigration in the fifties and early sixties, there was nothing particularly threatening about it. There was quite a bit of immigration from the so-called Catholic nations of Eastern Europe, but there wasn’t a lot from a lot of other parts of the world. Partly, the reason was the quota laws that were in place, particularly the quota laws as they applied to the Indian subcontinent, to much of Asia, and to all of Africa. If you’ve been going in the postwar period without feeling any danger from immigration, then yeah, sure, let’s let the gates open a bit, no problem there.
Were there any strategies against anti-immigration rhetoric and politics that you think were particularly effective, or way of framing the issue to neutralize it?
Starting around 1913, around the time that the Immigration Restriction League sees the eugenics argument as a worthwhile one, they stop using the race argument. They don’t use the words Italians, they don’t say Jews, they don’t say Europeans. [The League member] Joseph Lee, in his letter writing, changes the word Slavic to “other”; you don’t have to be openly prejudiced if you change your rhetoric to the rhetoric of science. It’s respectable. One of the big problems I have with this reality, and also with talking about my book, is that right now science is at the center of a public debate in which, I think, science is right, but already some of the people who’ve commented on the book say, “Well, why should we pay attention to the climate scientists?” I don’t have an answer for “Why now, not then?” other than “They’re right now, and they were wrong then.”
Do you draw any larger lesson about the danger of relying on science, or do you just think that, like anything else, it can be used for both good and bad?
Relying on questionable science—but how do we know it’s questionable? That’s the fundamental dilemma. If I’m being honest with myself, and I don’t particularly want to be honest with myself on this one, I have to say that you have to look at scientific arguments with a certain amount of skepticism. In this particular case, I don’t want to look at them with skepticism; my scientific understanding is that, yes, there’s real danger in global warming. I suppose that, were I sitting in this chair a hundred years ago, I might have said—and I would hate myself now for having said it—that there’s a real scientific argument that these people are inferior. Not until 1924 and after do the arguments against the eugenic view begin to take place. People like [the biologist] Raymond Pearl and others began recanting what they had said. It was the scientists turning on themselves who finally began to chase this horrible plague of eugenic thinking from American life.