The Humanities Department Symposium Series consists of two annual programs: When East Meets West and American Crossroads.
Make America 1919 Again? Anti-Immigrant Sentiment, a Century and Back
Friday, February 22, 2019
9:00 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.
Plenary lunch at 1:00 p.m.
The resurgence of Nativism is irrefutable in today’s tribal politics, with recent campaign promises for a border wall and a ban on Muslim immigrants, “alt-right” demonstrations, and drummed-up fears of immigrant caravans. “Make America 1919 Again? Anti-Immigrant Sentiment, a Century and Back” will attempt to make sense of current events by examining similar issues from a century ago, especially by addressing the virulent xenophobia unleashed by a world war, the 100 percent American movement, the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, the antiradicalism of the Red Scare, and 1920s legislation restricting immigration based on national origins.
All we want to do, complained New York Klan leader Paul Winter in 1928, is “make America safe for Americans.” According to the alternative media system of Klan newspapers and radio broadcasts in the 1920s, white Protestant native-born citizens were an increasingly victimized community. Klan members were, they wailed, under attack from a rising tide of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe holding threatening religious beliefs. Klan novels, films, and songs assured members and sympathizers alike that they were not hateful bigots, but proud patriots, fighting to defend a nation besieged by un-American enemies. From heated defenses of “Western civilization” to fears of “white genocide,” in grounding their nativism in this language of victimhood, Klan members in the 1920s provided a model for the rhetoric of white nationalists today.
This presentation explores the competing constituencies that created a new understanding of legal entry at the turn of the twentieth century that has affected American immigration attitudes and practices to the present. Starting in the 1890s, U.S. government authorities made legal entry a distinct part of the immigration process that they then could regulate. As a result, entry could be granted not only to legally admitted immigrants, but also to people who were excluded under certain conditions. A growing number of businesses and other institutions contended that exclusionary legislation hurt their ability to recruit and work overseas and pressured immigration authorities to find remedies. Thus, the concept of temporary admittance created by immigration authorities gave foreigners—who were otherwise barred from entering the country—the opportunity to live and work in the United States for a short period of time. Nativist anxieties, however, also meant that these individuals were under constant surveillance by immigration officials and were denied access to permanent residency or citizenship. These policies first affected the American entertainment industry, which argued that the recruitment of overseas talent was central to their profit making. By the 1920s, regulations for temporary admittance were finally codified, allowing otherwise barred foreigners to enter the country but also denying them access to permanent residency and citizenship.
The arrival of “new” immigrants from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century terrified Americans. Part of the largest migration in world history, many Chinese, Italians, and Eastern European Jews, among others, came to the United States in search of economic opportunities and safety from persecution or political instability. Americans of northern and western European ancestry regarded immigrants from these areas of the world as non-white, biologically and culturally inferior, and unassimilable. While a swift and rabidly xenophobic campaign quickly led to the exclusion of most Chinese immigrants, nativists struggled to do the same for European immigrants. That would change with World War I. The war allowed restrictionists to make the strongest case yet to pass the most restrictive immigration law to date. Although its intended primary target were Southern and Eastern Europeans, the 1917 Immigration Act had far broader consequences both in the short-term and in the long run. It not only set a precedent for further restricting European immigration after the war, but it simultaneously created a hierarchy of desirability among legal and undocumented immigrants whose echoes reverberate to this day.
The late nineteenth century witnessed a profound wave of migration. In these years, powerful American businessmen migrated into Mexico and other Latin American countries and acquired mines, plantations, ranches, and oil fields. Mexican laborers, free to travel to and from the United States, found themselves working for U.S. companies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. As Mexicans continued to enter the United States, they became the targets of direct violence. Perceived as economic competitors and as racial outsiders, more than 200 Mexicans were lynched between 1871 and 1900, and the number of lynchings only surged during the war years. In 1918 alone, fourteen Mexicans were pulled out of their homes in Porvenir, Texas, and lynched en masse. Between the Great War and the 1920s, the U.S. government recalibrated its immigration policies and its relationship with Mexican migrant workers. Advised by prominent members of the eugenics movement, U.S. government officials set federal quotas against Eastern and Southern European immigrants for the first time, they institutionalized the use of identity documents, created the Border Patrol, and carried out an aggressive deportation campaign in 1919. The Bureau of Immigration targeted Eastern and Southern European immigrants for removal in 1919 but would develop the procedures to expel Mexicans by the tens of thousands in the years to come. By the 1920s, the number of Mexican lynchings would decrease significantly, as the deportation rate of ethnic Mexicans would increase significantly. Put another way, as the social relations between ordinary American citizens and Mexicans became less violent, the relationship between the U.S. state and the Mexican people became more structurally violent. This history of violence and social control teaches us much about the contemporary relationship between the United States and Mexico and about a globalizing world in which international borders continue to harden, while anti-immigrant political parties, organizations, and activists call for more violent measures to control the lives, movement, and choices available to Mexicans.