The condemnation of President Donald Trump’s remarks on immigration has been swift and widespread. Most of the denunciations cast his ideas as seriously out of line with American ideals on immigration. The problem is that they aren’t, really. From the very beginning of our nation, there has been a white nationalist core driving our immigration priorities. Even as we struggled to be a “nation of immigrants,” most of the people we allowed in were chosen on the basis of national origin from the “whitest” parts of Europe.
The first U.S. naturalization law of 1790 required that anyone who wanted to become a citizen had to be a “free white person.” At its start, the framers envisioned the U.S. as a political society for members of a specific racial caste. This requirement stayed in place until the mid-20th century.
In 1924, the U.S. passed the Johnson Reed Act, one of the most significant comprehensive immigration reform bills in our history. It limited the number of immigrants each year and those allowed were selected on the basis of their country of origin. Immigrants from North and Western Europe (such as Norway) had almost no restrictions on entering, while Southern and Eastern European immigrants were severely controlled. Immigration from Asia had been almost completely prohibited for several decades by this point.
The shocking issue with the act is its little-known origin story. The law was the brainchild of a notorious white supremacist named Madison Grant. In 1916, Grant wrote a book, "The Passing of the Great Race," which argued that the truly white people in the U.S., the Nordics, were at risk of going extinct because of the massive influx of Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Jews whom Grant did not consider white. Grant’s book became a bestseller and reading groups were formed among members of Congress. Grant chaired the committee to advise Congress on immigration. The result was Johnson Reed. Grant went on to inspire the Racial Integrity Act for the state of Virginia that prohibited interracial marriage. It was widely copied throughout the U.S. So for almost 40 years of the 20th century, U.S. immigration policy and marriage law was specifically designed to create a white majority population.
Congress didn’t remove this system until 1965, replacing it with one that shifted the demographic makeup of most immigrants. Since 1965, the large bulk of immigrants have been from Asia and Latin America. The new policies today favor creating a diverse pool of immigrants rather than one based on national origins, and they encourage immigrants, once here, to bring their family members from their former home countries in a process called “chain migration.”
Trump’s remarks, and the policy proposals on immigration that he has released in the past year, indicate that he wishes to return U.S. immigration policy to the way it was under Grant. Clearly, his preference for individuals from Scandinavia versus Africa or Latin America would have pleased Grant immensely.
Trump’s advisers have also proposed to reduce the total number of immigrants who can enter each year; those allowed would be selected by a merit system. Those immigrants demonstrating English proficiency and the right job skills would have a preference. This obviously will favor immigrants from those countries with the educational systems that can give people experience with the American way of life. Such a system will drastically limit immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa by eliminating chain migration.
About a century ago, Americans struggled to find a language to describe what a multicultural, racially diverse, and democratic society would look like. One group of progressive thinkers, led by figures such as John Dewey, Alain Locke, and Jane Addams, urged us to imagine a nation where immigrants were not forced to assimilate to a single mold, but encouraged to keep their traditions and enlarge the possibilities of what it means to be an American. This theme is missing from public discussions on immigration today. But if we are looking to the past for hints today about what to do with our immigration policy that do not involve reinventing a white nationalist vision, then perhaps this is a conversation we need to remember.