u.s. immigration -- 8/16/21

Today's selection -- from Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King. Following World War I, American immigration laws, in the form of the Johnson-Reed Act, expressly favored immigrants "who were classed as white." This policy was supported by the patently false theories of Madison Grant's book The Passing of the Great Race. A little-known Austrian took note and incorporated them into his own manifesto, Mein Kampf:

"Under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the U.S. Congress allowed in newcomers only as a proportion of the people of their national origin in the country in 1890. This rather arcane framing was meant to tilt the country's demographic makeup back to what it had been before the mass migrations around the turn of the century. Immigration from much of Asia -- a source of cheap workers and, as such, a worry both to nationalist politicians and to labor unions -- was effectively banned altogether, although no limits were placed on arrivals from Latin America, from which the flow of people had been small. The act was explicitly designed to reduce the future populations of those people whom [anthropologist Frans] Boas knew so well from the Lower East Side -­- Jews, Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and others whose communities had ballooned -- and to prevent the influx of people deemed dangerous or culturally inappropriate. The policy would remain the centerpiece of America's immigration system for more than four decades, until its reversal in 1965.

Madison Grant

"Further restrictions soon created a bulwark against aliens. The U.S. Department of State introduced a new bureaucratic tool -- the visa -- to monitor entrants to the country. It offered visas only to eligi­ble travelers and only for a mandatory fee. Consular officers encour­aged family reunification -- today sometimes denigrated as 'chain migration' -- but for a very specific reason: since the Johnson-Reed act privileged immigrants who were classed as white, allowing U.S. citizens to bring in family members from abroad was a way of increas­ing the white share of the overall population. Other legislation explic­itly blocked families who were deemed to be wrongly structured. The 1922 Married Women's Act, for example, revoked the citizenship of American females who married a foreign male who was ineligible for citizenship because of his race or national origin -- in other words, it stripped citizenship rights from many women who married nonwhite foreign men. That same year the Supreme Court affirmed the con­stitutionality of the entire system in Ozawa v. United States, one of a string of court cases that delineated the boundaries of whiteness, in this instance denying Japanese people eligibility for naturalization because of their race.

"'We have closed the doors just in time to prevent our Nordic population being overrun by the lower races,' said Madison Grant at the time. The new origins-based system adopted by Congress was, he wrote, 'one of the greatest steps in the history of this country.' His own lobbying had been critical to the passage of the series of immi­gration restrictions that culminated in the 1924 legislation. Scribner's issued two more editions of The Passing of the Great Race, now nearly doubled in size and accompanied by a substantial bibliographic appen­dix. Even Boas's employer, Columbia University, began to limit the race-alien and foreign-born, as did most of the country's premier col­leges. Application forms now required a student to list his family's religion and parents' place of birth. New scholarships were created for people 'of either the Anglo-Saxon, the Germanic, the Scandina­vian or the Latin Race.' With each freshman class, it became easier to 'pronounce every name without tying a double knot in your tongue,' as the undergraduate dean, Herbert Hawkes, noted approvingly.

"In 1925 The Passing of the Great Race appeared in German transla­tion. That same year an Austrian radical, just out of prison, wrote a letter to Grant praising the work as 'my Bible.' Not long afterward, when he published his own treatise on history and world affairs, he followed Grant in arguing that European states had fallen victim to mongrel populations now laying false claim to being British, French, or German. There was one country, however, 'in which at least the weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable.' By expressly excluding the race-alien, Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, the United States was showing the way toward a brighter, more scien­tific way of building a political community. 'A state which in this age of racial poisoning dedicates itself to the care of its best racial elements must someday become lord of the earth.'"

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Charles King


Gods of the Upper Air


Anchor Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2019 by Charles King


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