In the early 1920s, politicians called for restrictions to be placed on the numbers and types of immigrants. This desire was known as 100% Americanism and the people who promoted it as often referred to as ‘nativists’, people who were born in America as opposed to abroad.
In The Passing of the Great Race , Madison Grant wrote that:
“The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by foreigners, just as he is today being literally driven off the streets of New York City by swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the same language of the Native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals.”
rotection of racial purity
The drive for immigration restrictions in the 1920s was based on pseudo-scientific racism commonly seen in the years prior to and during the war. Men with little knowledge of either science or public affairs were accepted as experts on ‘race’, although their writings revealed neither insight nor good judgement.
Most influential of all were the widely read articles of Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post where he:
Urged that the immigration laws be revised to admit fewer Polish Jews who were “human parasites”
Cautioned against Social Democrats since “social democracy gives off a distinctly sour, Bolshevik odour”
Believed that immigration had to be restricted because it would inevitably produce “a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and South Eastern Europe”
Nativist Americans believed that the immigrants were a danger to the American way of life. They spoke out against the ‘alien menace’. Nativist intellectuals wrote articles and books. They preached sermons from church pulpits and university lecterns but the majority of people never heard this. More serious was the hostility generated by ordinary people who held nativists views. Such nativists believed that immigrants threatened their economic and social position. For example, many middle class Americans dreaded job competition and congested cities full of foreigners, who they distrusted.
The sheer numbers and diversity of people flocking into the USA created problems. M A Jones suggests that it was not so much the increased numbers of immigrants, but the changing nature of the immigrants that worried the American people. In 1914 the majority of immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe. They were escaping social revolutions, poverty, persecution and unemployment. The ‘new’ immigrants were largely illiterate and unskilled. New immigrants confronted substantial and escalating hostility. Americans were intimidated by the size and diversity of the foreign intrusion and by 1921 were welcoming the federal legislation that finally dammed the flow from abroad.
Americans had specific grounds for objecting to these newcomers:
Majority of immigrants were Catholic or Jewish and so frightened predominantly Protestant America.
Almost all immigrants had left non-democratic societies and tended to view the law and Government as institutions that always catered to rulers and statesmen. To Americans, the unfamiliarity of the immigrants with the ways of democracy and their general mistrust of Government loomed as a threat to the constitution of US republican Government.
The physical appearance frightened Americans. Amongst immigrants were many malnourished and with deformities caused by vitamin deficiencies and poor diet.
Immigrants sometimes continued to wear native clothing. Out of place on America’s modern streets.
With each boatload, Americans worried about the influence of foreign blood on the vitality of the American population.
By 1920 many otherwise humane and broad-minded Americans just did not like foreigners. Often immigrants were dirty and unskilled, knew little or no English and had no home to go to and no money with which to buy or rent one. There was no more free land available for farming but many new immigrants were not farmers, instead they congregated in the rapidly growing cities at which they had arrived, usually New York, and lived in atrocious conditions, eking out a living at some tedious and often unhealthy manual job. As they were usually poorly paid, the areas in which they lived became run down and overcrowded. They crowded together with people from their native country, continued to speak their native language and follow their traditional culture.
The population of the cities was increasing rapidly, accompanied by social problems such as poor housing and crime. Immigrants were blamed for social disorders that burdened American society, especially in the cities. Statistics in the soaring crime rates in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of immigrants were held up by journalists, reformers and politicians who favoured restricting immigration as proof of the bad influence of the immigrant on his or her environment. However, further investigation reveals a more complex interpretation. Because taverns, gambling houses and brothels were not tolerated in the refined neighbourhoods of the American citizens, they often could only exist in immigrant enclaves. In such establishments immigrants sought temporary escape from cramped housing and their grey and depressing lives.
Settlement workers (charity organisations, social workers) were more realistic in acknowledging that abominable living conditions, sickness, fear and loneliness were the real causes of crime. Most of the immigrant arrests were for crimes of poverty such as drunkenness, vagrancy or petty theft. Social workers argued that the thief who stole small amounts of food, clothing or money was desperately attempting to cope with poverty and hopelessness, rather than responding to an innate criminality. The facts suggest that the criminality of foreign born in America was no larger than that of the native population. Yet the myth of immigrant criminality persisted.
By the 1920s, some new immigrants were beginning to pound on the doors of America’s top, most prestigious universities. Schools such as Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton responded by trying to refuse their entry. Wealthy private educational institutions, protected by influential patrons and graduates, were impervious to the efforts of political bosses to allow the students in. Pressure groups that formed to aid immigrant access to education had to influence and change public opinion and privately persuade influential people. However, such groups were little match for the WASP establishment that opposed them.