The (First) Thirty Years War For Immigration Reform
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PETER BRIMELOW WRITES: I have become more reluctant over the years to disagree with Thomas Fleming, Editor and presiding genius of Chronicles magazine. He's been right, and I've been wrong, on at least  two issues we've debated: the increasing embarrassment of the term "conservative," which has been usurped by the right wing of the governing Beltway/Business party, much as "liberal" was long ago usurped by its left wing; and the "moral recklessness" of a tragically talented immigration writer whom I'd befriended and he'd rebuffed. (Fleming's view turned out to be an understatement.)

But several readers have asked about Fleming's downbeat Foreword to Chronicles' November special issue on immigration (not yet online). The issue contains, as usual, much important material, including essays by Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried and Chilton Williamson.

But Fleming introduces it all by saying flatly "The time has come to face the unpleasant reality that – politically, at least – we have lost the immigration battle." Which is especially striking because, as Fleming says, Chronicles has been engaged in that battle for nearly twenty years, mostly alone.

I am not as disturbed by Fleming as are some of our readers, because I think his broader point is the ultimate limits of the political – as befits the Editor of "a Magazine of American Culture." Politics indeed cannot cure cancer, alas, inspire transcendent art or save souls. VDARE.COM, however, has a much narrower focus than Chronicles. Within that focus, losing a battle would not mean losing a war – there would still be much to be salvaged from the wreck of the Americans' great republic. And anyway, respectfully, I don't agree that the battle is lost, as I've explained before. (And I was writing before 9/11 – as of course was Fleming.)

The critical point to grasp: CHANGING BAD GOVERNMENT POLICY TAKES TIME.  It took thirty years to bring the first Great Wave to a halt, as James Fulford outlines here. (Check out his handy timeline.) By Tom Fleming's count, that means we should see a cutoff around the end of the decade – a very short time in the life of a nation. If irritating to reformers and activists.

See Fleming's reply...

Upbeat footnote: whatever the future interests of Chronicles, we welcome a new magazine devoted to immigration and the National Question: The Occidental Quarterly,  journal of the Charles Martel Society.

Fifty, even thirty years ago, there was a rightful presumption regarding the average immigrant that he was among the most enterprising, thrifty, alert, adventurous, and courageous of the community from which he came. It required no small energy, prudence, forethought, and pains to conduct the inquiries relating to his migration, to accumulate the necessary means, and to find his way across the Atlantic. To-day the presumption is completely reversed. So thoroughly has the continent of Europe been crossed by railways, so effectively has the business of emigration there been exploited, so much have the rates of railroad fares and ocean passage been reduced, that it is now among the least thrifty and prosperous members of any European community that the emigration agent finds his best recruiting-ground.  

Atlantic Monthly, Francis Walker, 1896

It would be impossible to exaggerate the contempt with which the "great generation" of American patriots who worked to end the last (1890-1925) Great Wave of immigration are treated by modern historians of the era. The History Channel says

In 1917, however, as wartime hysteria fed American xenophobia, another literacy bill was passed over by President Woodrow Wilson's veto.

(Of course they were xenophobic. There's nothing like a few torpedoes and a threatened invasion to make people unreasonable.)

Roger Smith of Yale referred to the seminal Immigration Restriction League as a "handful of Boston bluebloods" - which is not meant to be complimentary. (It must have been distressing that the League was pretty much solidly Harvard. Boola boola!)

And, needless to say, the reformers are regularly accused of being racist, xenophobic, nativists etc. etc. But their "racism", if any, is a feature of the times they lived in. No one who lived in the 1920s, including the early Zionists like Israel Zangwill, is immune to that charge. The IRL was not, however, anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic.

It's also said that the 1920's immigration restriction was responsible for a part of the death toll in the Holocaust. For example, a pro-life magazine, in a story about Margaret Sanger, says:

1924: A Year of Infamy

Since 1933 was the year Adolf Hitler became leader of Germany, why would 1924 be a year of infamy? 1924 was the year the U.S. government passed the Immigration Restriction Acts.

The story goes on to tell how some people who were turned away were later murdered by the Nazis.

Of course, this smear is ridiculous. Perhaps the lives of some pre-war refugees might have been saved if there had been no restriction, but this was in no way the fault of the restrictionists. The "Boston bluebloods" had opposed the Hun in 1917 and they opposed the Nazis in 1941. And they had no way of knowing in 1924 what Hitler was going to do in the 30's and 40's.

Moreover, the plain fact is that, during World War II, everyone in the world would have been better off in the United States. That includes the Allies, the enemy, and even US troops overseas. Is the IRL to be blamed for keeping them out?

It would be just as easy to say that immigration policy prevented the immigration of Adolf Hitler, probably the worst immigrant in history, along with thousands of other Fascists, Nazis, and other overseas totalitarians.

It's nice to think of the U.S. as a refuge from people like Hitler. But it has to be American for that to be true. 

The Immigration Restriction League was formed in Boston in 1894 by Robert DeCourcey Ward. He announced in the Century Magazine that the purpose of the League was:

"To advocate and work for the further judicious restriction, or stricter regulation, of immigration, to issue documents and circulars, solicit facts and information, on that subject, hold public meetings, and to arouse public opinion to the necessity of a further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character. It is not an object of this league to advocate the exclusion of laborers or other immigrants of such character and standards as fit them to become citizens."

He spent the next three decades working for immigration restriction. The Act that lead to the 40 year Great Pause in immigration wasn't passed until 1924 - thirty years after the League was founded.

In between, it was a long fight. An Act of 1891 had federalized immigration, especially that by sea. (Naturalization had been a state responsibility.) The Mexican and Canadian borders remained open.

Aliens who became public charges were within a year of landing could be deported. "Persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease" were banned. So were polygamists.

Several Presidents vetoed bills that would require literacy. Henry Cabot Lodge , a supporter of the Immigration Restriction League, sponsored a bill in 1896 that would have required immigrants to read 40 words in any language. (Many of today's immigrants not only can't speak English but can't read and write their own native tongue - a fact that makes bilingual education even more pointless than it already is.)

Lodge said in 1910 (remember that he'd introduced a bill to require literacy 14 years previously, and was still arguing),

There is a growing and constantly active demand for more restrictive legislation. This demand rests on two grounds, both equally important. One is the effect upon the quality of our citizenship caused by the rapid introduction of this vast and practically unrestricted immigration, and the other, the effect of this immigration upon rates of wages and the standard of living among our working people.

I shall not attempt to argue the question with you, but will merely point out the number of persons who would have been excluded since 1886 if the illiterates over fourteen years of age had been thrown out. During that period the number of illiterates who, by their own admission, could neither read nor write in any language, numbered 1,829,320.

Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson all vetoed restrictionist bills requiring literacy. But after McKinley was shot by an anarchist,  Leon Czolgosz, Teddy Roosevelt did manage to ban anarchists from entering.

At the same time, they banned, for example, epileptics and professional beggars.

An Act of 1907 toughened many of those requirements, providing

SEC. 2. That the following classes of aliens shall be excluded from admission into the United States: All idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, and persons who have been insane within five years previous; persons who have had two or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; paupers; persons likely to become a public charge; professional beggars; persons afflicted with tuberculosis or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons not comprehended within any of the foregoing excluded classes who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living; persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists, or persons who admit their belief in the practice of polygamy, anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States, or of all government, or of all forms of law, or the assassination of public officials; ...

Let's go through that again: Persons with "loathsome" diseases?  Persons likely to be a public charge?  Persons who believe in the overthrow of the government?

Native-born Americans would definitely say, "Good thing they can't come in now!"

Teddy Roosevelt was also responsible for the "Gentleman's Agreement " with the Empire of Japan. Secretary of State Elihu Root had talks with the Empire's Baron Takahira, of which the terms weren't made public, but which amounted to the United States saying it wouldn't ban Japanese from entering, if Japan would agree to prevent Japanese laborers from leaving. In return, the US agreed to integrate Japanese-American students in the San Francisco public school system. In other words, a pause and assimilation were seen as mutually reinforcing.

In 1917, Congress passed another Immigration Act. It finally established a literacy requirement and an "Asiatic Barred Zone" defined by latitude and longitude, which prevented immigration from India, Indochina, Afghanistan, Arabia, the East Indies, and other Asian countries, China and Japan being covered under separate provisions. (This would have excluded the 9-11 terrorists.)

Wilson vetoed again, but this time it was overridden by a veto-proof majority.

After the Act of 1917, the Immigration Restriction League had a victory dinner. It closed down in the 1920s, due to the death of its founders and the fact that it was no longer needed. (Its archives can be found in the Boston Public Library.)  Significantly, there is no serious academic history of the Immigration Restriction League.

The 1917 Act was aimed at increasing the standard for new citizens, but it did not lower the massive numbers partly because literacy was spreading. In 1921 the Johnson "Quota" Act (vetoed by Wilson, but then signed by Harding) finally lowered the numbers of immigrants allowed, introducing a quota system proportionate to the national origins of the American population. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed tightened this system and  really began the Great Pause. 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That this Act may be cited as the "Immigration Act of 1924"

Calvin Coolidge had no problem signing the Johnson-Reed act. When accepting the Republican Presidential nomination, he had said that:

Restricted immigration is not an offensive but purely a defensive action. It is not adopted in criticism of others in the slightest degree, but solely for the purpose of protecting ourselves. We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.

In his first Message To Congress, he said:

American institutions rest solely on good citizenship. They were created by people who had a background of self-government. New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration. It would lie well to make such immigration of a selective nature with some inspection at the source, and based either on a prior census or upon the record of naturalization. Either method would insure the admission of those with the largest capacity and best intention of becoming citizens. I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted. We should find additional safety in a law requiring the immediate registration of all aliens. Those who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America.

This ushered in, incidentally, an era of unparalleled Republican dominance – until the Depression.

The Thirty Years War could be considered won.

Great graph on U.S. immigration ebb and flow  1790-2000

1607-1875 Immigration responsibility of states, which repeatedly legislate against paupers, criminals etc.


1875 U.S. Supreme Court rules immigration federal, not state, responsibility.

1880 Treaty with China gives US right to restrict, but not exclude Chinese immigration.

1881 President Chester Alan Arthur sends message to Congress stating immigration problem and requesting legislation.

1882 First Immigration Law passed. Chinese immigration effectively excluded – i.e. before the 1880-1925 "Great Wave" from Southern, Eastern Europe.

1885 Legislation restricts importation of contract labor. Reflects labor unions' historic concerns.

1889 Standing Committee on Immigration and Naturalization established in House of Representatives.

1889 In  Chae Chan Ping v. United States, the Supreme Court explains that there is no constitutional right to immigrate.

1890 Committee determines that no radical change in legislation is necessary but current laws should be better enforced. But elected officials in 23 states demand better regulation of immigration.

1891  Act of 1891 federalizes immigration, especially that by sea. Office of Superintendent of Immigration established.

1892 Steerage passengers from Hamburg bring cholera epidemic to New York. Quarantine imposed.

1892 Immigration station opens at Ellis Island in New York . Of the 37 million who entered between 1880 and 1920, 20 million will enter through Ellis Island.

1893 Cholera epidemic in New York brought by steerage passengers.

1894  Immigration Restriction League formed in Boston by Robert DeCourcey Ward.Century Magazine

1895 Thomas Bailey Aldrich writes  The Unguarded Gates. Explicit opposition to Lazarus poem.

1896 Henry Cabot Lodge , a supporter of the Immigration Restriction League, sponsors a bill that would require immigrants to read 40 words in any language. Grover Cleveland vetoes it.

1897 Grover Cleveland vetoes Immigration Act due to literacy test.

1901 McKinley shot by anarchist Leon Czogolsz.

1903 Years after the erection of the Statue of Liberty,  New York philanthropist Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Emma Lazarus , has Lazarus' sentimental poem, The New Colossus, engraved on a bronze plaque and placed inside pedestal on Bedloe's  Island.

1903 Congress bans anarchists from entering.

1903 Immigration transferred to newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. 

1905 A commission on Naturalization procedure reports little or no uniformity among the nation's 5,000 naturalization courts.

1906 Basic Naturalization Act sets nation-wide rules.

1907 Senator William P. Dillingham' commission starts hearing testimony immigration.

1907 Immigration act toughened. Attempt to reduce flow by barring undesirables.

1908 Zangwill's The Melting Pot opens on Broadway.

1908 "Gentleman's Agreement " with the Empire of Japan. Immigration from Japan stopped.

1910,  Henry Cabot Lodge says in a speech : I shall not attempt to argue the question with you, but will merely point out the number of persons who would have been excluded since 1886 if the illiterates over fourteen years of age had been thrown out. During that period the number of illiterates who, by their own admission, could neither read nor writer in any language, numbered 1,829,320.

1911 Dillingham commission  report fills 42 volumes. Many of its recommendations will be adopted in 1917, 1921, and 1924.

1913 President Taft vetoes immigration bill with literacy test attached.

1913 Woodrow Wilson elected. US population will grow  by 15 percent during his eight years in office with  6 million post-1910 immigrants.

1915 Woodrow Wilson vetoes literacy test for immigrants.

1917, Congress finally passes Immigration Act with a literacy test and  "Asian Barred Zone."  Wilson vetoes it again, but Congress passes it anyway. Immigration Restriction League has a victory dinner.

1920 January. Palmer Raids. Foreign radicals deported

1921 William Walter Husband, secretary of the Dillingham commission, appointed Commissioner General of Immigration.

1921 Johnson Act (vetoed by Wilson,  then signed by Harding) introduces a quota system.

1920 September. 500 pound dynamite bomb exploded in front of 23 Wall Street. Wall Street support for immigration takes sudden drop.

1924 Johnson-Reed  act signed by Coolidge. National Origins and Quota system in place. Great Pause begins. The Immigration Restriction League.

Immigration Restriction League disbands.
Immigration Reformers let their guard down.

November 17, 2001

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