Xenophobia and Pseudoscience Shaped U.S. Immigration Policy

Historian Daniel Okrent looks back at the bigoted "intellectual justification" for anti-immigration policies.


When Donald Trump claimed in 2015 that Mexican immigrants will ravage our women, destroy our neighborhoods, and taint our ethnic and cultural purity, he entered into a longstanding, well-cultivated American tradition of xenophobia and fear-mongering.

In the late 19th century, poet Emma Lazarus celebrated the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and "the wretched refuse" who came to America for a better life. But Prescott F. Hall, co-founder of the powerful Immigration Restriction League, offered a rebuttal verse:

Enough! Enough! We want no more
Of ye immigrant from a foreign shore
Already is our land o'er run
With toiler, beggar, thief and scum.

After over a century of mostly open borders, in which tens of millions of European immigrants became Americans, members of the WASP establishment decided in the 1920s that the United States could no longer accept what they denounced as "beaten men from beaten races." In terms that will sound familiar today, they claimed Jews, Italians, and others were incapable of assimilating into a country based on private property, limited government, and hard work.

In 1924, the restrictionists won a massive and long-lasting legislative battle with passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which completely prohibited immigration from Asia and sharply limited immigration from Europe based on the country of origin. Under the new law, for instance, just 4,000 Italians were allowed to enter the country each year, down from an average well over 200,000 in each year of the preceding decade. National origins would remain the basis of U.S. immigration law until 1965.

The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America, a new book by Daniel Okrent, looks at the ways xenophobia and pseudoscience combined to fundamentally alter immigration policy at the start of what became known as the American Century. Okrent was the first public editor of The New York Times and is the author of Last Call, a history of Prohibition. He sat down with Reason to talk about how old debates over immigration and America's national character are newly relevant to contemporary politics.

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  1. So which specific policies of Trump’s are comparable to the immigration laws existing from the 20s to the mid-60s?

    1. Trump wants fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more from places like Norway

      Norwegians are good Aryans (often) with blonde hair and blue eyes. Case closed!

      1. Sounds good to me, the Norwegians that settled in Minnesota became pretty good Americans. The Somalis, not so much.

        1. You are just gonna jump straight into the racism, eh? At least you are honest about it.

          1. I’m pretty sure that Norwegian and Somali are nationalities, not races.

            But I’m not surprised you jumped straight into the racism.

            1. Oh, please, cut the shit. The members of those nationalities are members of different races. But may be you genuinely didn’t know that?

              1. Those nations have people of many races in them. Communities from those nations display different cultural norms not based exclusively on race. But we already know chipper is a dumb fuck racist.

              2. Look, dimwit, “racist” and “racism” actually have meanings,, they’re not content free epithets. If you can’t use them right, maybe you should stop using them.

                Trump gave these examples not because of the correlation between the nationalities he cited and race, but because these two different societies are functionally different; One is peaceful and successful, the other a “shithole”.

                Why? Is it something in the water? Radiation from the ground? The melanin content of the inhabitants’ skin? No, of course not. It’s because of the people in those two different countries have different cultures, and some cultures just work, while others just turn countries into “shitholes”.

                You could take the populations of Norway and Somalia, and swap them, and in ten years Norway would have become a “shithole”, and Somalia would be a peaceful, productive country.

                Well, guess what: When people immigrate here, they don’t get their brains erased at the border, and then reformatted with American culture. They bring their cultures with them. And if they bring with them a culture that produces “shitholes”, guess what they’ll make the US more like?

                1. You could take the populations of Norway and Somalia, and swap them, and in ten years Norway would have become a “shithole”, and Somalia would be a peaceful, productive country.

                  No they wouldn’t. Norway isn’t Norway *solely* because of the people who live there. Norway is the way it is today because of a huge number of factors, including economics, geography, history, AND cultural values.

                  If you were to swap the populations of Norway and Somalia, BOTH PLACES would turn into dysfunctional states because they would be full of people who hadn’t adapted to the circumstances of their surroundings.

                  Can you honestly tell me, Brett, that if the US had had the same trajectory of independence from colonialism that, say, Haiti had, that the US would be at exactly the same place that it is today?

                  Or, that if Plymouth Rock actually turned out to be just one point on a tiny island, instead of a vast unexplored continent, even with the exact same people emigrating here, that the US would have turned out exactly the same?

                2. This “cultural essentialism” argument is nonsense because it tries to reduce human beings down to one single variable: their culture. This is how complaints about a person’s “culture” are so similar to racists’ complaints about a person’s race. They are both based on the flawed premise that one single variable can explain the entirety of a human being’s worth.

                3. Furthermore, both racism and “cultural essentialism” are forms of bigotry, insofar as they seek to judge individuals based on group characteristics rather than on individual merit. Not sure why someone would be proud of saying “oh I’m a bigot all right, just not THAT kind of bigot”.

                  1. What you don’t want to admit is that while it might take more than 10 years… Somalia WOULD become a paradise. It would be tough at first, but the Norwegians would get it all figured out and turn Somalia into a paradise.

                    Ever heard of South Africa? Why was it the only basically 1st world country in Africa? Because it had more Dutch and English people than anywhere else.

                    Note that now that it is being run by blacks, it is descending BACK into being a shit hole. They still retain much of their flawed native culture in them, even after many centuries of being colonized. If you don’t want to blame it on the racial characteristics, then it is surely culture. So pick one.

        2. Even though they tend to vote Democrat? Dammit, Scots/Irish immigrants only or there will be no one left to vote for Trump!!!!11! Only let in people from Alabama!

        3. vikes had 400 years to assimilate.

          1. Yet they cling to their lutefisk.

            1. It’s sticky.

    2. Also this:

      ICE Agents Hurl Pregnant Immigrant Over Mexican Border To Prevent Birth On U.S. Soil

      1. Another amazing journalistic gem from… The Onion.

      2. Which hurts his credibility more? Vox or the Onion? It’s a tough call

  2. We Koch / Reason libertarians must emphasize one point above all — people who disagree with us on immigration aren’t simply misguided, they’re evil. Only a hateful bigot could oppose open borders, since every scientific study proves immigration has nothing but positive effects.


  3. And what did that limited period of time get us. Steadily increasing prosperity (with a bump in the 30s), and steadily increasing personal freedom for women and minorities.

    Now we’ve got people crapping in the streets in SF, Typhus in LA, SJW’s on the rampage and immigrants and their spawn, telling us just how hateful and awful this country us.

    1. We also got steadily increasing prosperity at the end of the 19th century, so I’m not sure that’s a good argument.

      1. It’s steadily increasing prosperity all the way down!

      2. Except the best, most stable, peaceful, and harmonious time in the nations history happened when we had the least immigration. Because the stew had time to simmer down and meld its flavors into a cohesive thing. Without a flood of cheap new labor, labor rates rose, poverty for the working class went down, etc. I’m not commie, but to a point, this type of stuff is not horrible. If you want open borders you need to accept that we will turn into a place like Brazil or Mexico where there will be a small elite, a tiny (by comparison) middle class, and a shit ton of horribly poor people.

  4. Mexican immigrants will ravage our women, destroy our neighborhoods, and taint our ethnic and cultural purity

    Thus Spake The Dotard.

    1. When Donald Trump claimed in 2015 that Mexican immigrants will ravage our women, destroy our neighborhoods, and taint our ethnic and cultural purity

      Of course, that was never said. Nick started with what he projected Trump said and went downhill from there. And the Plug, being covered in feces, followed along.

      1. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in the same speech. “They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

        Liar, liar, leather jacket on fire.

        1. Well, he did say THAT, as opposed to what SPB claimed. I don’t see anything objectionable about what he actually did say.

        2. It’s true? Most illegal immigrants ARE NOT from the Mexican middle class. They’re perfectly happy living it up in Mexico.

          Most illegals range from the criminal class to the lowest rungs of working class. In other words it’s like only having immigration from trailer parks and ghettos… Not everybody in the trailer park is a bad person, but proportions wise they’re a lot more likely to be dysfunctional than the people in the middle class neighborhood.

  5. I’m not sure that irrational xenophillia and pseudoscience* are any better, actually. But that seems to be what’s on offer with Trump’s opponents.

    *”Neener neener” doesn’t actually refute the Bell curve.

    1. Even without philia/phobia left/right, the title is very scientistic.

      Like if we get the right scientists eventually they’ll tell us the exact amount of money, to the penny, that can legally be taken from natives and given to some of the right kinds of foreign nationals or, assuming the contra position, the exact value in free labor and portion of the debt the unproductive natives should be allowed to extract from brown people.

    2. Okay, so let’s suppose that it is an indisputable fact that people belonging to certain races (even presuming that the term “race” can be defined rigorously enough) are, on average, inferior to others belonging to other races.

      So what?

      Does that alone justify denying people’s freedom of association rights to associate with whom they choose?

      Where in the dicta of libertarian philosophy does it specify that rights should be proportional to IQ?

      1. Where in the dicta of libertarian philosophy does it specify that rights should be proportional to IQ?

        Did he espouse a libertarian philosophy? Seems to me like he just pointed out a rather cogent fallacy with the (title of the article that espoused a) policy that you agree with.

        True science would be border agnostic as the law can define the border down to lengths undetectable by scientific aparatus and recognize that the desirability of people one way or the other has nothing to do with the border itself.

      2. Jeff. You dont believe in freedom of association. See business owners. Stop fucking lying.

      3. Indeed, so what? So, why the enormous effort to deny it, and punish anyone who doesn’t go along with the denial, if it doesn’t really matter in the end? The effort put into suppressing the Bell Curve and all related science says that somebody thinks it DOES matter.

        Well, actually there is one significant implication: Disparate impact is a bunch of hooey. Disparate statistics are only evidence of discrimination if you can safely assume all else is equal. If all else is known not to be equal, they scarcely rise to the level of a screening test. If all else isn’t equal, the only way to get equal outcomes is to ditch meritocracy and impose quotas.

        The belief that all groups are factually, not just morally, equal, is about as pseudo-science as it gets, and its endemic among open borders advocates.

        As for freedom of association, it doesn’t apply across borders. You’re no more entitled to have somebody immigrate to this country because you and they feel like associating, than you’re entitled to break somebody out of prison for the same reason.

        1. Guess what,
          1. The science isn’t settled, and
          2. Most of the time, the people demanding to know the information aren’t doing so for innocent purposes. The sad state of humanity shows what tends to happen when bigotry is justified by a thin veneer of pseudo-scientific bullshit.

          And since knowledge of which group of people is supposedly inferior to which other group of people won’t and shouldn’t form the basis for any public policy, who gives a shit?

          UNLESS, knowledge of group differences WILL form a basis for state-sanctioned discrimination.

          No one believes that you are “just asking questions” about which group is inferior to which other group. Everyone knows that you want to take those conclusions and then say “…based on this, group X should be treated differently than group Y. Because science says so.”

          1. Low IQ jeff, arguing with his own fantasies- as usual

          2. Would it be racist to only allow in people with a 110 IQ or higher? If it wasn’t based on race?

            So like smart blacks, Indians, whoever could immigrate here… But not people with borderline retard IQs?

            I would be fine with that, because every single problem in society pretty much stems from low IQ people. In effect requiring higher education levels effectively achieves this, which is why I am okay with allowing in skilled immigrants from wherever.

  6. Think about how much better looking and smarter the women would be if we hadn’t restricted Asians.

    1. Oops! That was directed at the article, not at you. Sorry!

    2. But that’s rational xenophilia. (My wife is Asian!)

      My ideal immigration policy is cream skimming. We have an enormous advantage in that a lot of people want to come here. That means we can be selective, and improve our nation by taking just the best of them.

  7. Honk! Honk!

  8. In the 19th century, surgeons scoffed at germ theory.

    Ergo, surgeons today are idiots.

  9. And this is where the same people, just a few articles ago who were bemoaning and denouncing the use of police state tactics when they’re used against Trump, will happily endorse and encourage police state tactics when they’re used against foreigners. Or even against citizens, who deign to exercise their freedom of association with foreigners.

    1. And this is the same thread where Jeff ignores the fact we have a welfare state, will refuse to look at federal percentages of foreign prisoners, deny the right for a nation to exist or have borders or orderly migration policies, and espouse other dumbfuck strawman arguments because Jeff is pretty dumb.

      1. deny the right for a nation to exist

        Does Ohio “cease to exist” because it permits free migration with Pennsylvania?

        Here is a clue: People have rights, nations don’t.

        P.S. Your entire schtick is to throw sand in the air, to obfuscate and muddle the conversation, and then insult people.

  10. Why is it anti-immigration policy opposed to immigration policy? I’m pretty sure the first is not a policy.

    Every country in the world has a immigration policy that dictates who can migrate to their country legally and how.

    1. Every country in the world has X, therefore, X is right and proper and libertarians should get on board?

      Every country in the world has an income tax, therefore, Libertarians For Income Taxation?

      1. X = borders
        Are us suggesting we should not have borders?

        1. No, X is not “borders” in this case. Try again!
          Hint: Do the State of Ohio and the State of Pennsylvania have borders? Is there free migration between these two states?

          1. Good jobs for good Ohioians!!! Keep Penna turd-workers and their products OUT!!!!

          2. What do states borders have to do with borders of a country?

            There is free migration between states, but not countries.

            1. The free migration between the states is an example of how it’s possible to have free migration but yet still have borders.

              There is free migration between states, but not countries.

              If there were free migration between, say, the US and Canada (which there essentially is now anyway), would the two nations’ borders somehow instantly dissolve? Answer: no, and the free migration between the US states proves it.

              1. Well, shit! If our current immigration policy is ‘free migration’ you might have turned me completely around on the subject! Why didn’t anyone say that the US’s (im)migration policies represented relatively free migration before?

              2. “”If there were free migration between, say, the US and Canada (which there essentially is now anyway), “”

                No it’s not. We have to show papers to cross into Canada.

              3. LOL

                Would that still work for Canada if Americans were free to go up there, use their “free” socialized healthcare system, and then book it back to the USA when it suited them?

                NO. Well, America has lots of free shit… And poor immigrants don’t pay enough in to support their use. Nearly half of native born people don’t either! So piss off.

          3. Do the State of Ohio and the State of Pennsylvania have borders?


            Is there free migration between these two states?

            No. Or possibly, migration maybe mostly… *im*migration not exactly. If Pennsylvania closes its border to Ohio does the constitution automatically side with Pennsylvania? What if we consider a more concrete example where the city of Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana prevented people, both native Louisianans as well as federal aid workers, from crossing in to city limits? Do national emergencies not count?

            1. Sure, states and cities *could* close their borders. Because – hey, guess what – they still maintain jurisdiction over the territory within their borders. Under most circumstances, the borders are not closed, the migration is free, and the borders still remain.

              The decision to recognize free movement of people across borders does not eliminate the borders.

              1. Because – hey, guess what – they still maintain jurisdiction over the territory within their borders. Under most circumstances, the borders are not closed, the migration is free, and the borders still remain.

                So, what you’re saying is, internal borders can and do enjoy greater leeway or freedom because of policies enforced at an external border? Or are you suggesting that you don’t really care about the policies put in place internally in any given jurisdiction as long as migration can, however vaguely, be described as free? Or are you bemoaning an immigration policy that doesn’t let you give you your invisible pink unicorn?

          4. Wow. Jeff demonstrates a complete ignorance to the pact between travel of the states in the constitution and agreement of a federal government. Are you this fucking stupid Jeff?

            1. Oh look, it’s Jesse with his argument by insult and argument by vague allusion.

              1. The borders are open because the states agreed to cede control over the movement of people across those borders to a higher governmental authority.

                Are you suggesting we form a supra-national government with Mexico? If not, then your analogy to state borders if fallacious

                1. Movements of people is complex, especially when socialism encourages poor folks to come to rich nations. So set that one aside for now…

                  On the other hand, free flow of goods should be a no-brainer for those who know basic economics. USA is MUCH richer, due to early adaptation (at the Fed level) of freedom of interstate commerce agreements. We kept that, and mostly kept it simple, and reaped tremendous rewards.

                  Similarly, WTO (World Trade Agreements) with some teeth, would stabilize businesses… Who can run a business very well with random tariffs yanking all over the place?… And allow everyone to do what they do best. The world would prosper, as the USA has prospered, when free trade is enforced.

                  Free trade would mean richer people everywhere, and would reduce their temptation to migrate to richer nations.

  11. that Okrent looks like he’s not from around here

    1. Looks like a damn Hunky to me.

  12. GOP-Held Senate Approves Sixth Trump Nominee to Ninth Circuit, 41st Overall

    It’s time, once again, to hail the important and historic progress being made in the Republican-held United States Senate on the judicial confirmation front.

    McConnell knows the score. Here he is applauding the confirmation of the 41st circuit court judge of the Trump presidency, marking the sixth Trump appointment to the infamously left-wing Ninth Circuit Court of appeals.

    Winning! I likes it.

    1. Even better, Democrats are spinning their wheels trying to get Trump’s tax returns and preparing for an impeachment that would only hurt Democrats.

  13. Reason understands that it is nonsense to argue against historical arguments to invalidate modern arguments?

    1. Apparently not.

    2. But, see, the arguments are the same: it’s progressive elites trying to impose their vision of the world on all Americans. Back then, they wanted to forcefully sterilize some races and keep them out, these days, they want to beat down some races and flood the US with welfare recipients and incipient socialists, always ostensibly “for the good of society”, though actually motivated by a greed for power and money.

      With progressives, it’s always about dividing people up by race, gender, and class and telling everybody how to live their lives.

  14. Xenophobia and Pseudoscience Shaped U.S. Immigration Policy

    Just like in recent years, socialism and pseudoscience have been shaping US immigration policy, courtesy of progressive elites.

    Not surprising, the responsible a–holes were Democrats and progressives then and are still Democrats and progressives today. Yes, Reason, I include you in that.

    Then as now, the real motivations behind those policies are crony capitalism and a lust for power (increase the size of government and deny people freedom of association and private property rights).

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