Immigration and Nativism in the 1920s

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Why did American nativist groups oppose free, unrestricted immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

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Nativist groups had a very narrow understanding of what it meant to be an American. As far as they were concerned, being an American meant that you were a white, Anglo-Saxon, God-fearing Protestant. Anyone who didn't fit into this category was thereby automatically excluded from being regarded as truly American.

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Nativist groups had a very narrow understanding of what it meant to be an American. As far as they were concerned, being an American meant that you were a white, Anglo-Saxon, God-fearing Protestant. Anyone who didn't fit into this category was thereby automatically excluded from being regarded as truly American.

Yet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this restricted concept of Americanism found itself under sustained challenge by a vast influx of immigrants, most of whom did not fit the nativist template of what Americans should look like or sound like. Many of the newcomers were Jewish or Catholic; a large number didn't speak English. To white nativists, these immigrants weren't "real" Americans at all, and so they resented their presence in the United States.

Nativists responded to mass immigration by agitating for severe restrictions on who should be allowed into the country. Though the rise of nativism in America is often associated with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, its biggest and most lasting effect was the passing of national legislation that placed tough restrictions on the numbers of immigrants allowed into the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was the single most explicit endorsement of the nativist position, limiting immigration through the imposition of national origins quotas. The underlying purpose of the Act was to preserve the radicalized notion of "100% Americanism" to which nativist groups had long adhered.

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There were many reasons that nativist groups opposed immigration during the late nineteenth century. Some of the reasons were xenophobic--they centered around a dislike of Jews, Catholics, and people of Eastern Orthodox faith. Some of the reasons centered around economics. People worried that these new immigrants would join an already-saturated labor pool for factory jobs, thus driving wages even lower. Indeed, many of these immigrants who did not speak English were used as strikebreakers by factory owners who were looking to stifle growing labor movements. There were also political concerns, as many associated immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe with Marxism and anarchism. Nativists feared that these new immigrants would join the United States and overthrow the government.

All of these concerns centered around the nativist notion that these new immigrants would not be able to assimilate into the Protestant mainstream of the United States. Many of these immigrants settled in enclaves in major cities and maintained a lot of their native language and culture upon arrival to the United States. Nativist fears were only increased at the onset of WWI in 1914 when nativists feared that these new groups would feel more allegiance to their birth countries than the United States.

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Opposition in the late nineteenth century was a result of the fact that the immigrants who came to the U.S. during this time were largely from Eastern and Southern Europe, namely Poles, Russians, Jews, Italians, Greeks, etc. These groups did not readily assimilate into U.S. culture; instead they tended to retain their old world customs and even language. They primarily settled in big cities and lived in neighborhoods with people of their own background.  They also tended to be fiercely Roman Catholic, at a time when anti-Catholicism was still extant in the U.S.

Opposition after World War I (the twenties) was partly due to the horror of the war, and new ideas about genetic purity, such as Madison Grant's Passing of a Great Race, which claimed that the great race of Nordics from Northern Europe was being threatened by the Latin and Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. Also popular at the time was The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, who argued that European civilization had entered an inevitable state of decline, and would be superseded by a yellow race. There also was a very popular false science known as Eugenics, which held that human race could be controlled by controlling humanity.

These factors, and continued anarchism in Europe led many Americans to conclude that all people of eastern European ancestry were potential anarchists. The end result was the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 which severely limited immigration from all areas except the Americas, and completely excluded people of Asian ancestry. This last was a blunt insult to the Japanese, and did not help matters when war clouds began gathering in the Pacific.

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The reason for this is that many people believed that the "New Immigrants" of this time period were going to destroy America.  People believed that too many of the New Immigrants were coming over and that they could or would never become true Americans.  Because of this, they pushed for restrictions on immigration such as the Immigration Act of 1924 (see link below).

The New Immigrants were largely from Eastern and Southern Europe where previous immigrants had been from Western and Northern Europe.  The new immigrants were often Jewish or Catholic where many previous immigrants had been Protestant.  Racial ideas of those days held that Eastern and Southern Europeans were racially inferior to "real" white people.  For all of these reasons, people looked down on the new immigrants.

Because there were so many of the new immigrants, and because they were so different (people thought) than "native" Americans, nativist groups wanted to restrict immigration.  This was done by various laws in the 1920s.

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