-- Los Angeles Times headline, April 13, 1924
Very high current levels of immigration to the U.S. are lamented by some. But others point out that in the late 19th century, legions of non-English poured daily onto our shores, aliens to our founding culture, language, principles, religion, and we absorbed millions of them without breaking a sweat. So what's the problem?
What could possibly go wrong.
Quite a lot, as it turns out, which is why the members of our founding stock decided, in 1924, to put a stop to it. Immigration was from that point on subject to such strict quotas that for all intents and purposes, the tap was turned off.
Here's John R. Commons, a voice from 1907:
In 1882 [...] began a remarkable change in the character of immigration destined to produce profound consequences.
This change was the rapid shifting of the sources of immigration from Western to Eastern and Southern Europe. A line drawn across the continent of Europe from northeast to southwest, separating the Scandinavian Peninsula, the British Isles, Germany, and France from Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, separates countries not only of distinct races but also of distinct civilizations.
It separates Protestant Europe from Catholic Europe; it separates countries of representative institutions and popular government from absolute monarchies; it separates lands where education is universal from lands where illiteracy predominates; it separates manufacturing countries, progressive agriculture, and skilled labor from primitive hand industries, backward agriculture, and unskilled labor; it separates an educated, thrifty peasantry from a peasantry scarcely a single generation removed from serfdom; it separtes Teutonic races from Latin, Slav, Semitic, and, Mongolian races. (1)
And? What possible problem could that cause?
First, a snapshot of urban American in 1900:
In 1900, in the cities of over 100,000 population...65 per cent of the population within these cities is of foreign parentage.
The native-born children of immigrants show a proportion of criminality (5886 per million) much greater than that of the foreign-born themselves (3270 per million), and 70 per cent greater than that of the children of native parents. [...] This amazing criminality of the children of immigrants is almost wholly a product of city life, and it follows directly upon the incapacity of immigrant parents to control their children under city conditions. (2)
A strain on the public (and private) purse:
The census bureau also furnishes computations showing the contributions of the different races and nationalities to the insane asylums and benevolent institutions. In general it appears that the foreignborn and the negroes exceed the native classes in their burden on the public. (2)
(from John Higham:) More or less constantly, relief agencies in the large cities had worried over the strain that immigrants imposed on their financial resources and on the life of the community. (4)
A breakdown in democracy:
This is exactly the political problem that grows out of the presence of races and immigrants. With these admitted to the suffrage on the basis of mere manhood inspired by a generosity unknown to the people of any other land, the machinery of representative government inherited from England does not, for some reason, permit the free choice of leaders. (3)
He goes on to explain why:
A variety of races and nationalities living in the same ward are asked to elect aldermen and other officers by majority vote. No one nationality has a majority, but each sets up its list of candidates. The nationality with a mere plurality elects all of its candidates, and the other nationalities -- a majority of the voters -- are unrepresented. This is an extreme case, and has not often been allowed to happen. But the only means of preventing it is the "ward boss." The boss emerges from the situation as inevitably as the survival of the fittest. And the fittest is the Irishman. The Irishman has above all races the mixture of ingenuity, firmness, human sympathy, comradeship, and daring that makes him the amalgamator of races. He conciliates them all by nominating a ticket on which the offices are shrewdly distributed; and out of the Babel his "slate" gets the majority.
[...] Universal suffrage, clannish races, social classes, diversified interests, seem to explain and justify the presence of the party "machine" and its boss. Otherwise races, classes, and interests are in helpless conflict and anarchy. (3)
Higham confirms it:
The immigrants' votes did in fact go chiefly to the bosses, and during the Tweed régime civic reformers had already vented their wrath on both. (4)
A penchant for a political system that threatened the U.S.:
American business found the whole tide of [labor] unrest baffling, except on the theory that foreign influence lay behind it. Two aspects of affairs impressed employers very forcibly: the prominence of foreigners both as leaders and as members of the unions; and the presence of proletarian radicals here and there among the immigrant throngs. Perhaps cheap foreign labor was proving exorbitantly expensive in its social costs.
In 1882: a writer in the Atlantic Monthly predicted ... "Our era . . . of happy immunity from those social diseases which are the danger and the humiliation of Europe is passing away . . . every year brings the conditions of American labor into closer likeness to those of the Old World. An American species of socialism is inevitable." (4)
Constant racial tensions boiling over into violence:
Other races suffer at the hands of mobs, such as the Chinese in Wyoming and California at the hands of American mine workers, Italians in Louisiana and California at the hands of citizens and laborers, Slovaks and Poles in Latimer, Pennsylvania, at the hands of a mob militia. With the rise of organized labor these race riots and militia shootings increased in number, often growing out of the efforts of older races of workmen to drive newer and backward races from their jobs [...] Many strikes are accompanied by an incipient race war where employers are endeavoring to make substitution, one race for another, of Irish, Germans, native whites, Italians, negroes, Poles, and so on. (2)
The grip of vice and lawlessness on chaotic municipal governments kept the growing urban problem as far as ever from solution, until at last a régime of crime in Cincinnati goaded the populace to three terrible days of fire and riot in 1884. (4)
The eventual passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 was not the work of a fringe of hysterical xenophobes. It was the culmination of a long process of failed integration, crime, social unrest, political breakdown, and ethnic tensions that were the direct result of allowing un-absorbable numbers of aliens into an Anglo-Protestant nation.
It was one of the principal reasons America was, eventually, able to absorb so many of these aliens into its system, instead of becoming a nation of disparate ethnic colonies. Its authors deserve not our scorn, but our recognition.
(1) Commons, John R., Races and Immigrants in America, NY: Macmillan, 1907. (Chapter IV, excerpts)
(2) Ibid. (Chapter VII, excerpts)
(3) Ibid. (Chapter VIII, excerpts)
(4) Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955. (Chapter III, excerpts)