For over three years, the Trump administration has struggled to deliver his campaign promise to stop certain immigrants from entering the U.S., often running headlong into resistance from courts, popular opinion, the private sector and the administrative state. Now, Trump and administration see their opportunity: a national emergency.
It’s not the first time politicians have latched on to economic unrest and public safety concerns to press a hard-line, anti-immigration agenda. In 1921, Congress passed, and President Warren G. Harding signed, the “Emergency Quota Act,” sharply reducing the number of immigrants permitted to enter the country. A putative response to rising unemployment and social unrest, in reality the law represented the culmination of decades of racial and religious-motivated bigotry against newcomers from southern and Eastern Europe and Asia. It also portended a long, four-decade pause in the country’s openness to immigration.
But there are critical differences between then and now. A century ago, anti-immigrant sentiment reached peak levels and commanded sweeping support among America’s native-born population. Not so today. The Trump administration is using a crisis to justify unpopular policy. The reversals of 2020 are by no means certain to have a lasting effect when the country emerges from the pandemic.
Americans 100 years ago weren’t reeling from a health crisis, though the memories of the 1918 flu pandemic were surely still fresh in the public memory. Instead, the destabilizing political and economic events that followed closely on the heels of World War I brought into sharp relief tensions that had been building for decades. They gave anti-immigration zealots an opening to legislate racial biases and religious grievances into law.
In the aftermath of World War I, Americans sustained two years of jarring upheaval. As the government demobilized, unemployment soared to 20 percent even as inflation drove consumer prices 105 percent above their prewar levels. It all amounted to a world of hurt for ordinary working people and their families.
In response, unions staged a series of crippling strikes in 1919 meant to keep wages on par with the rising cost of food and durables. In Seattle, some 35,000 shipyard workers walked out, prompting a larger general strike across multiple industries that brought the city to its knees. Other cities followed suit. Steelworkers struck. The United Mine Workers closed down America’s coal industry. Even the Boston police stopped working for a time, until Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge broke the stoppage, famously declaring that “there is no right to strike against public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
It was easy to group striking workers—many of them immigrants from southern, central and Eastern Europe—with the smaller but menacing number of foreign-born anarchists terrorizing the nation’s political and business establishment that year. Mail bombs targeted the mayor of Seattle and a former U.S. senator from Georgia (his maid opened the package and lost her hands in the explosion). They also targeted John D. Rockefeller, Postmaster General Albert Burleson, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Labor Secretary William Wilson, all of whom narrowly escaped danger when postal authorities intercepted parcels addressed to their homes and offices. On June 2, radicals detonated bombs in eight cities, including Washington, where a terrorist blew himself up while attempting without success to assassinate Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. His neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, bore witness to the carnage the following morning.
In this environment, immigrants were an easy target. Roughly 14.5 million newcomers—most of them Catholics and Jews from southern and Eastern Europe—had arrived in the United States since 1900, transforming overnight the nation’s ethnocultural identity. In 1910, almost 15 percent of all residents were foreign-born, a figure that didn’t account for their American-born children. The influx created a powerful backlash. As ordinary people felt themselves stripped of economic and political autonomy in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing nation, it was all too tempting to seek out scapegoats. As early as the 1890s, the Immigration Restriction League, powered by wealthy Boston businessmen and political elites, clamored for restrictions. Prescott Hall, the IRL’s co-founder, asked whether the U.S., historically “peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive,” be overrun by “Slav, Latin and Asiatic races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
The influx of new Americans overlapped coincidentally with the rise of modern scientific method—and, with it, pseudoscience and scientific racism. A generation of cranks posing as rigorous thinkers borrowed from emerging academic fields to conceal crude racism and religious intolerance in a scholarly cloak. In 1911, the U.S. Immigration Commission—an official panel created jointly by Congress and the president and popularly dubbed the Dillingham Commission, named for its chairman Vermont Senator William Dillingham—studied the issue of immigration and found that the world could be divided into a five-tier racial scheme (Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, Malay and American). Not all races were equal, and certainly, most newcomers were not quite white—the original legal prerequisite for citizenship dating to 1790, which became inoperable in the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction but was still widely regarded as the North Star of immigration policy. The commission’s Dictionary of Races or Peoples reported such wisdom as, “the weight of [the Bohemian’s] brain is said to be greater than [other] people in Europe,” Greeks were “broad-headed, broad-faced, and more heavily built,” “the ‘Jewish nose,’ and to a less degree other facial characteristics, are found well-nigh everywhere throughout the race,” and Poles were “darker than the Lithuanians” but “lighter than the average Russian.”
In this environment, immigration opponents tried for over 20 years to pass all manner of restrictionist legislation. While this era predated scientific polling, judging by its support in Congress and in state and local governments, and by the rise of popular movements like the second Ku Klux Klan, it is likely that nativism commanded strong approval among native-born Protestant Americans. Reflecting popular opinion, Congress repeatedly passed literacy bills barring all persons who could not read and write in their own tongue from entry, but successive presidents of both parties—from Grover Cleveland to William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson—vetoed the bills out of conviction or simple recognition that immigrants helped power the country’s economy. As Wilson put the matter in 1915, literacy tests were “not tests of quality or of character or of personal fitness, but tests of opportunity.” America, in his eyes, remained a land of opportunity.
But World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia swiftly altered the political landscape. Jarring economic instability, alongside very real labor unrest and radical incitement at home, offered immigration opponents an opening. The unrest of 1919 led to a “Red Scare” that saw thousands of immigrant radicals deported and many more arrested and imprisoned. Louis Post, the assistant secretary of Labor, deemed the reaction a “deportation delirium,” and that delirium expressed itself in ugly ways. Pseudoscientific pretense gave way to crude racial invective, as when Albert Johnson, chairman of the House Committee on Immigration, warned that the country stood vulnerable to “abnormally twisted” and “unassimilable” Jews and other immigrants who were “filthy, un-American” and fundamentally dangerous to the body politic. When Congress sent literacy legislation to his desk in early 1921, Wilson, now a lame duck, killed it by pocket veto. But the House and Senate voted again and the newly installed president, Warren G. Harding, signed it into law.
Later that year, Congress passed new legislation—deemed an “emergency” act in response to dual economic and security threats—capping immigration from any given country at 3 percent of the total number of people who emigrated from there in 1910. In 1924, legislators went a step further: building on the emergency act, they set the benchmark year back to 1890, just before the immigrant population shifted from northern, Protestant Europeans to Catholics and Jews from southern and Eastern Europe, and thereby imposing artificially low limits on “new” immigrants who might further alter the nation’s character.
The quotas would largely remain in place until 1965. For a time, the golden door had swung shut.
Anyone with cognitive ability can discern what is happening. The United States was unprepared for the current pandemic. Its health care system is rickety. Its response was patchwork—strong in some states, deficient in others. We lagged behind other developed nations in per capita testing and tracing for several critical weeks, and we have no real plan—certainly, no national plan—to reboot the economy and emerge from lockdown. The crisis may offer a convenient pretense to pursue immigration restriction, or a means to deflect people’s attention from the real problem at hand. But immigration is entirely incidental to the emergency we currently face.
The difference between today and 1921, however, is striking. Then, Congress used a crisis to channel popular opposition to immigration—opposition that had been building for decades and which expressed itself in the nation’s most prominent institutions and among a broad cross section of the voting population.
Today, Trump is appealing to a loud, highly consequential but minority position. Polling suggests that roughly one-third of Americans believe immigration levels should be decreased; two-thirds would support either an increase in immigration or maintenance of the status quo.
The pandemic may give Trump cover to take unpopular actions, while a distracted country looks to its governors and mayors for everyday direction and governance, but the new restrictions are not bound to be as sweeping or as lasting as those of a hundred years ago. They are only as durable as the next election.