Originally Published in The Washington Post
Opinion by Henry Olsen - April 22, 2021
This is White nativism, pure and simple. Before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, national quotas governed which immigrants to the United States were allowed in. The State Department’s historian explains that these quotas, established in 1924, “provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.” Since virtually all of the immigrants prior to that time were from Europe, the 1924 quotas ensured that the United States would remain ethnically European.
Moreover, the 1924 quotas tilted the immigration playing field sharply in favor of immigrants from Northern European countries such as Germany, Ireland and Britain. Mass immigration from Italy and Eastern Europe did not start in earnest until after 1890. By tying the quotas to an ethnicity’s share of the 1890 population, they effectively barred large-scale immigration from anywhere but White, mostly Protestant countries.
While those behind the caucus could argue that they did not mean to disparage these later European immigrants, the document’s praise of a “pause” in immigration belies that claim. The 1924 quotas and similar quotas passed in 1917 and 1920 are the only examples of legally enforced immigration “pauses” in U.S. history. Praising the quotas leaves the clear implication that severely limiting post-1924 mass immigration of Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians from Eastern and Southern Europe was essential to preserving America’s “unique culture.”
Taken together, the document suggests its authors believe only immigrants of Anglo or Northern European descent can be presumed to be good U.S. citizens. This slanders Americans whose ancestors were Italians, Slavs or Jews, not to mention Americans of Asian descent. It also presupposes that the tens of millions of more recent arrivals from Latin America or Africa — Cubans, Mexicans and host of others — came from suspect backgrounds. This once commonplace prejudice is now rightly seen as abhorrent and un-American.
The Republican Party rejected similar ideas at its birth. America’s first wave of mass immigration in the 1840s and 1850s gave rise to the nativist, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party. This cabal sought to limit the number immigrants and impose severe restrictions on their ability to become citizens. Abraham Lincoln, though, saw this evil for what it was and would have none of it. As he wrote in 1855, Know Nothings implicitly rejected the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that “all men are created equal.” “When the Know-Nothings get control,” he wrote, “it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ ” Lincoln wrote that he would rather emigrate to a despotic state such as Russia than endure the hypocrisy of such a warped belief.
Two centuries of American experience show that people from all racial or ethnic backgrounds can be loyal, productive and full Americans. Republicans today should reaffirm Lincoln’s creed and reject this hateful alternative.