Nativism, An American Perennial

Alan M. Kraut
University Professor and Professor History
American University

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/L.M. Glackens/Infrogmation

Nativism, An American Perennial

Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States is an international story these days. During the question and answer session following a lecture on the history of migration to the United States that I recently delivered to an international group of educators, I was struck by how many of them expressed puzzlement and alarm at the nativist rhetoric that has become a prominent theme in American political discourse this presidential campaign season. Not surprisingly, many of their questions focused upon Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks last summer about Mexican migrants, whom he characterized as drug dealers and rapists, as well as his more recent call for a complete ban on Muslim migration to the United States. Do many Americans really support Trump’s position, my audience wanted to know. Is this new and unprecedented? In a nutshell, my answers were “yes” and “no.”

Certainly there is evidence that many Americans share Donald Trump’s opinions. According to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey, among all voters 46 percent favor a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, while 40 percent are opposed. Fourteen percent are undecided. As for the broader immigration issue, 59 percent of voters believe it too easy for foreigners to legally enter the United States. Only 10 percent believe it is too hard, while 23 percent say the level of difficulty is appropriate.1

Likewise, while from abroad, the United States, this nation of nations, often appears to be the “gold standard” of generosity toward those in need of someplace else to go, the truth is more complicated. An old immigrant saying formulated in the nineteenth century goes “America beckons, but Americans repel.” Even as the promise of affordable land and abundant jobs lured foreigners, native-born Americans, some only a generation or two themselves from arrival or even less, sought to slam shut the door in fear of job competition, the distortion of their cultural values, challenges to their religious beliefs, or even the dilution of their gene pool by amalgamation.

Suspicion, even hostility, to newcomers, has been a dimension of American culture and is expressed most vociferously in times of crisis, especially economic downturn. In his classic volume on American nativism, Strangers in the Land, Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1955), the late John Higham identified three genres of anti-immigrant sentiment: anti-Catholicism, racial nativism, and anti-radical nativism.2 In a later publication he added anti-Semitism as a separate and unique genre.3

My own work, Silent Travelers, Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace” (1994), sought to expand the categories still further to include a kind of medicalized prejudice, a fear of the foreign-born as those who might be transmitting deadly or debilitating diseases from abroad or crippling the United States with their inferior genetic configurations.4

Contemporary anxiety about Muslim newcomers echoes the virulent anti-Catholicism of the mid-nineteenth century, triggered by the large Irish Catholic and German Catholic immigration of the antebellum era. Newcomers competed with native-born Americans for jobs. Their Catholic faith posed a threat to a society that sprang from twin roots: the European Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. There was an abundant anti-Catholic pulp literature that played upon the stereotypes of the day. Monasteries and convents were portrayed as dens of sin and sometimes burned to the ground. The Vatican was characterized as the epicenter of a worldwide conspiracy against freedom. The pope was seen as a foreign prince bent on subverting democratic governments.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Catholic nativism found political expression in the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. The Know-Nothings elected governors and Congressmen although never a president. They hoped to limit the influence of the foreign-born and curb immigration altogether. The modern Republican Party, born in 1854, absorbed most of these nativists. However, the second presidential candidate of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, completely rejected the nativist agenda. In 1860, Lincoln ran on a platform that opposed “any change in our naturalization laws, or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”5 Still, Lincoln was not speaking for the majority of his own party or the nation.

Because immigration policy was left largely in the hands of the states prior to the Civil War, the federal government did nothing to bar the arrival of Roman Catholic immigrants, but following the war in many parts of the United States, Roman Catholics were excluded as much as possible from public life. In the twentieth century, Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith’s defeat in the election of 1928 has largely been attributed to his religion and as late as 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a war hero and senator from Massachusetts, was asked on Sunday morning news shows whether his Catholicism might not impede him from obeying and defending the Constitution of the United States should he be elected.

Racism, also, has always undergirded American nativism, and much anti-Latino rhetoric today echoes that expressed in local and state laws limiting the rights of Mexicans in an earlier era. In Southwestern states, food shops routinely refused service to those of Mexican ancestry and students were segregated in schools. Churches held separate services “For Colored and Mexicans.”

Asians also fell victim to racist policies and were specifically targeted by restrictive immigration legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 dramatically curbed Chinese immigration to the United States. The act did not bar all Chinese, just laborers. Merchants, students, the immediate families of American-born Chinese and Chinese American citizens returning from abroad were not barred. However, newly arrived Chinese, whatever their income or status, were prevented from becoming citizens until 1943 when wartime exigencies compelled the United States to back away from this policy. Practically, this meant that the majority of Chinese who came to the United States before 1882 had no hope of bringing their wives and children to join them.

A so-called Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907 between the Emperor of Japan and President Theodore Roosevelt had much the same limiting effect on Japanese migration. It slashed the approximately 72,000 arrivals from Japan annually by a third. Because Hawaiian growers needed workers on the sugar plantations, the islands acquired by the United States in 1898 were exempt from the agreement. Nine western states and Florida acted to prevent those ineligible for citizenship from owning land in those states, and Japanese parents had to buy land in the names of their American-born children.

After the severe economic depression of the 1890s, the flow of immigration to the United States reached unprecedented proportions. Between 1871 and 1900, 11.7 million immigrants arrived; between 1901 and 1920, 14.5 million came. On the East Coast, most arrivals still originated from Northern and Western Europe. However, a gradual shift to Southern and Eastern Europe accelerated in the 1890s. Between 1890 and 1914, millions of Southern Italian Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Russians, Greeks, and Slavs arrived.

Even as the United States craved foreign-born labor for its factories and mines, nativists actively made newcomers feel unwelcome. Proponents of immigration restriction feared job competition from the new arrivals and members of the fledgling American Federation of Labor feared that cheap foreign labor would hamper the struggle for higher wages. Could these different-looking Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews culturally assimilate? Would their genetic traits, so unlike those of the Northern and Western European founders, permit integration into the American population without weakening the nation’s pioneering stock? These concerns were undergirded by eugenic assumptions about the superiority of particular groups. E.A. Ross, a nativist sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, published The Old World in the New in 1914.6 Ross regarded the new arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe as decidedly inferior to the older stock from Northern and Western Europe. Ross observed that, “it is fair to say that the blood now being injected into the veins of our people is ‘sub-common.’”7 He added, “To the practiced [sic] eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type.”8

Today, Mexicans and Muslims are depicted by Donald Trump and others as criminals and threats to the public order. Ross offered the same view of Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. “For all the great majority of the Italian immigrants are peaceable and industrious, no other element matches them in propensity for personal violence.”9 On the Jews he remarked, “The authorities complain that the Eastern European Hebrews feel no reverence for law as such and are willing to break any ordinance they find in their way.”10 Wrote Ross, “Most alarming is the great increase in criminality among Jewish young men and the growth of prostitution among Jewish girls.”11 Ross stoked fears of newcomers, talking of “race suicide” if immigration restrictions were not imposed.12

In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson- Reed Immigration Act, establishing a national origins quota system. Each nation was assigned a quota equal to 2 percent of the number of its nationals in the United States according to the 1890 Census. The use of the 1890 Census was an intentional effort to limit the number of Southern and Eastern Europeans eligible to enter the United States. The legislation reflected the desire of Congress to satisfy its racial apprehensions, its anti-Semitic prejudices, and its concerns about anarchists and communists entering the United States.

The Great Depression of the 1930s heightened the desire of many Americans to exclude newcomers who likely would compete with the native-born for jobs. And, the restrictive legislation of the 1920s was little modified to accommodate the refugees seeking to escape Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The art of public opinion polling was in its infancy in the 1930s, but those polls taken offer insight into the public’s view of admitting more foreign-born. When pollsters asked respondents about refugee admissions in 1938, 67 percent advocated keeping them out. The Wagner Rogers Bill of 1939, which provided for the admission of 10,000 refugee children from Germany per year for two years, met robust opposition. Laura Delano, the wife of immigration commissioner James Houteling and Franklin Roosevelt’s first cousin, was quoted as saying that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”13

Polls suggest that anti-Jewish feelings were traceable to personal qualities that many American Christians attributed to Jews. A 1938 poll determined that “greed,” “dishonesty,” and aggressiveness were the three qualities that America most objected to in Jews.14 Fully 41 percent of those questioned in March 1938 thought Jews had “too much power in the United States.”15 A poll two months later revealed that one-fifth of those sampled wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States” as a means of reducing their power. Almost one quarter (24 percent) wanted to keep them out of government and politics, while 18 percent would have restricted them in business.16

Just as American Muslims today are associated in the popular mind with the radical Islamists who brought down New York’s World Center in 2001, so Jews were associated in the popular mind with a specter of radicalism that might bring about the destruction of the United States. In the spring of 1938, a report commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, Confidential Report on an Investigation of Anti-Semitism in the United States, was released. The survey was conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation which did field work for the Gallup Polls. One question asked was, “Do you think they [Jews] tend to be more radical in politics than other people?” Of the respondents, 43 percent said yes (24 percent had no opinion). Only about a third thought not.17 During World War II, some thought that Jewish refugees might constitute a kind of subversive fifth column in the United States.

At times national security fears have been compounded by a prevailing anti-Asian racism. Anti-Japanese nativism, especially on the West Coast, caused Americans to press Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066 providing for the internment of over 110,000 residents of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, many of whom were American citizens. They had to abandon their homes and most of their possessions. After the war the federal government inadequately compensated Japanese internees for what their properties had been worth. The justification for isolating these Japanese Americans was offered by General John L. DeWitt, the commanding officer in charge of protecting the West Coast of the United States, who proclaimed that, “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized’ the racial strains are undiluted.”18

Following the conclusion of World War II, there were more than 11 million displaced persons (DP) in camps throughout Europe. Many were returned to their home countries, but those who could not return or chose not to return needed a safe haven. The United States continued to have in place the highly restrictive immigration policy passed in 1924 and did not institute a generous post-war DP policy largely due to fears that too many of the DPs were Jewish and might bring radical ideas with them. A Gallup poll in October 1946 asked specifically whether respondents favored “allowing more Jewish and other European refugees to come to the United States to live than are allowed under the law now.” It drew a 72 percent negative response. Only 16 percent answered affirmatively and 12 percent had no opinion.19 While, in reality, most of those in DP camps were not Jews, contemporary polls indicate that Americans believed the opposite. Much to the dismay of President Harry Truman, Congress responded to the prevailing negative public opinion: Two DP acts, one in 1948 and another in 1950, admitted by 1957 a total of only 400,000 DPs, of whom 137,450 were European Jews.20

Aside from the struggle over refugee admission, the United States began to reassess the status of over two million Mexicans who had entered the United States to work during World War II under the Bracero Program launched in 1942. By 1954, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, with the blessing of President Dwight Eisenhower, launched Operation Wetback to begin returning many thousands of Mexicans to their homeland by rounding them up and forcibly ejecting them in a manner not unlike some wish to adopt today. In the first year alone there were 1,078,681 apprehensions. However, expulsions dropped and the US Border Patrol had difficulty keeping up both with those whom they sought to deport and with new unauthorized migrants who entered the United States to find work. Border Patrol agents often abused the migrants they apprehended. Between 1954 and 1964 when the work program ended, there were over 11,000 formal complaints from braceros who had come to the United States legally.21

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, there was a great need for refugee resettlement. Over 2.5 million refugees needed assistance, many in flight from Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam. The United States resettled 1,287,399 between 1975 and 1997. While the resettlement did not result in a large-scale backlash with reverberations in national politics, there was often resistance on the state and local levels to the influx of Asian newcomers needing medical services that they could not afford and educational opportunities for their children.22

Recent data suggests that undocumented migration from Mexico and Central America is at its lowest point since 2003.23 Still, nativist rhetoric strikes a chord with many Americans who have yet to recover from the recession of 2008. Moreover, sweeping charges that all Muslim refugees must be turned away because some may pose a national security threat wins applause rather than rebuke in some quarters. A religious criterion for admission to the United States, though constitutionally impractical, has acquired a sympathetic audience in the current atmosphere of national insecurity.

Even as some Americans seek to repel specific groups of immigrants or refugees, millions of newcomers arrive each year, heeding the beckoning call of opportunity and freedom. They are welcomed by those who realize that the United States needs the talents and energies of newcomers today even as it was nourished by them in the past. On the country’s farms foreign-born workers plant and harvest food that feeds the world. However, many of today’s newcomers possess education and skills equal to their hosts. The United States issues more patents — evidence of innovation — than any country in the world, and immigrants have received about a quarter of them in the past decade. At Intel, the world’s largest maker of semiconductors, 40 percent of the patents are for work done by Chinese or Indian immigrants. Immigrants create patents at twice the rate of native-born Americans because they disproportionately hold degrees in science and engineering. In the middle of the past decade, foreign-born students received 40 percent of science and engineering doctorates and 65 percent of computer doctorates in the United States.

Nativism is old wine in new bottles that perennially quenches the thirst of America’s fearful and suspicious. However, immigration is far more popular among those who pursue the nation’s well-being. It is the elixir that continues to bring cultural enrichment and economic energy to a country that yearns for both.

Alan M. Kraut is University Professor and Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC and a Non-Resident Fellow of the Migration Policy Institute. He serves on the editorial board of the International Migration Review.  


  1. Rasmussen Reports, “Voters Like Trump’s Proposed Muslim Ban,” December 10, 2015. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/immigration/december_2015/voters_like_trump_s_proposed_muslim_ban.
  2. John Higham, Strangers in the Land, Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955).
  3. John Higham, Send These to Me, Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 106-15.
  4. Alan M. Kraut, Silent Travelers, Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace” (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
  5. Thomas Hudson McKee, “Republican National Platform of 1860” in The National Conventions and Platforms of All Political Parties, 1789-1900, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: The Friedenwald Company, 1900), 115.
  6. Edward Alsworth Ross, The Old World in the New. The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York: The Century Company, 1914).
  7. Ibid., 285.
  8. Ibid., 286.
  9. Ibid., 106.
  10. Ibid., 150.
  11. Ibid., 155.
  12. Ibid., 299-304.
  13. Jay Pierrepont Moffat Diary, May 25, 1939, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  14. Charles Herbert Stember, et al, Jews in the Mind of America (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1966), 54.
  15. Ibid., 121.
  16. Ibid., 123.
  17. “Confidential Report on Investigation of Anti-Semitism in the United States in the Spring of 1938,” American Jewish Committee Archives, Chronological File, folder for September-December, 1938.
  18. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 6.
  19. Gallup poll as quoted by Leonard Dinnerstein, America and Survivors of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press), 115.
  20. Ibid., 273-290
  21. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 143.
  22. Wikipedia, “Indochina Refugee Crisis.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indochina_refugee_crisis.
  23. Robert Warren, “US Undocumented Population Drops Below 11 Million in 2014, with Continued Declines in the Mexican Undocumented Population,” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4(1):1-15 (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.14240/jmhs.v4i1.58; Jerry Markon, “U.S. Illegal Immigrant Population Falls Below 11 million, Continuing Nearly Decade-long Decline, Report Says,” Washington Post, January 20, 2016.
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Alan M. Kraut

Date of Publication February 8, 2016

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