USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Dynamics of Immigration and Nativism in the United States from the 1920s to the Great Depression

Immigration was a, of not the, major factor in the growth, development, and diversification in the American economy and society between the end of the “first great depression” in 1893 and the beginning of WWI. Despite this (or because of it), all was not peaceful in the realm of immigration. Increasingly, as urban centers swelled to capacity and then beyond, as labor movements harnessed the power of the new workers, as economic fluctuations like the panics of 1893 and 1907 created social uneasiness, the call for limits on immigration became louder. This call increased during the war, largely as a result of stoked up patriotism, anti-German sentiment, and most importantly fears of Bolshevism, inspired by the Russian Revolution. Additionally, new philosophies and “sciences” continued to gain influence. Social Darwinism, for example, the idea that human societies reflected Darwinian notion of natural selection, started to gain a wide following. Sociologists and others began to argue that certain immigrants “harmed” the country in the same way that organisms (germs) harmed the body. Others claimed that the addition of “lesser” races weakened American society in general and pointed to groups like Italians, Slavs, and Jews as examples. Already in the late nineteenth century, such anti-immigrant sentiment had led to deeply discriminatory laws against Chinese Americans in California and the virtual cessation of Chinese immigration to the West. Added to the Social Darwinist and racial arguments against immigration were voices on the left, who believed that immigrants suppressed wages and undermined the strength of organized labor. These influences created the context for the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which set maximum numbers for immigrants of each nationality per year to enter the United States, of course allowing higher numbers of “desirable” groups than the “undesirable”, like Slavs (including Russians), Jews, and Italians. In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act that limited total immigration even more severely (to 150,000 per year) again based on country of origin. This marked a fundamental shift in U.S. social policy and a triumph for so-called “Nativists,” or those who wanted to “protect” the ethnic and racial makeup of the country. It is no coincidence that Nativism and the re-constituted Ku Klux Klan were parallel movements and often spoke in very similar terms. Together, movements like the Klan, the Nativists and even anti-radical groups like the American legion, contributed to the myth of an idyllic nation under siege from “degenerate” or “foreign” forces. This rhetoric was useful for them to describe what a “real” American was: for them, this meant white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Discrimination in the 1920s was the rule, not the exception. Jews, Catholics, Black Americans, Italians, Slavs, Chinese: these groups and many more faced both formal and informal obstacles to social advancement. These social tensions would become more acute as demographic shifts took hold, bringing southern black people, for example, into the northern industrial cities. Though these issues go well beyond that of immigration, I would argue that we see the lines of debate crystallize around the immigration issue. Even language, heretofore a private matter, became grounds of political contest. In 1919, as an example of the English-language-only sentiment of the time, Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” It should be said that this movement was aimed not only at the “lesser” immigrant groups, though it certainly was primarily aimed at them, but also during WWI and its aftermath at the very strong German American culture.

The primary engine of the transition in the United States from a multilingual society to a stubbornly monolingual one was the public school system. From a system that contained schools of many languages, the public schools system became a monolingual bastion. Teachers who taught in languages other than English were fired. Materials in other languages were removed from curricula. Whole schools lost government support if they continued in their traditional mode. Nebraska, for example, passed a law that forbade the teaching of foreign languages before the eighth grade, a law that was eventually declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1923 decision Meyer v. Nebraska. We are seeing here just how intertwined are all of the themes in U.S. history: anti-radicalism, anti-immigration, Nativism, national identity, and public education. Contrary to the popular image of the sanguine and booming 1920s, the United States in the 1920s was rent with social, cultural, political, ethnic, religious, and racial conflicts as acute as in any other period of its history.

These divisions and conflicts were nowhere more acute than in debates over immigration from Mexico in the aftermath of the First World War and the brief but significant economic downturn in the early 1920s. The history of the Mexican-American borderlands is complex and embedded in a long colonial history. In any case, as anti-immigration laws passed in the early and mid-1920s, no quotas were placed on Mexican immigration (or on any immigration from the Western Hemisphere). This exclusion of Mexicans from the immigration quotas was primarily driven by large agricultural and industrial/corporate interests in the West, hoping to preserve a reliance and cheap source of labor on sugar beet farms, cotton plantations, and so on. These interests, which were by no means friendly to Mexican workers, squared off with political forces, both regional and national, that sought to exclude Mexican migratory workers and immigration from the United States. The reasons the opposition to Mexican immigration by these restrictionists were largely of two kinds. The first was blatant racism, often based on specious eugenic theory. This was pure white-power nativism. The second force that sought to exclude Mexican workers from migrations across the border was organized labor, which saw in these labor migrations a corporate ploy to depress wages. The former, the racist and intolerant arguments against Mexican migration, was the much stronger current. Though agro-business interests succeeded in blocking quotas, the restrictionists nevertheless were able to push through other measures that worked to block legal border crossings. These included raising visa fees, enforcing literacy tests, and increasing other types of exclusions based on notions of "protecting" the public good. Such practices did not stop labor migration, but it did shift what was largely a flow of legal migration increasingly into illegal channels. The growth of illegal immigration across the southern border, thus, was created by conflicting U.S. policy in the 1920s. Nonetheless, the rising "illegality" of Mexican labor in the U.S. was seized on by restrictionist advocates, who were intent on portraying Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) as a lesser race, as dangerous, and as potentially criminal. By the late 1920s, restrictionist emphasis turned away from policy and quotas and toward border enforcement, policing, violent, and deportation, utilizing agents of the U.S. Border Patrol (formed in 1924). The consequences for Mexican communities in the border states were disastrous. When restrictionist racism was paired with the social consequence of the Great Depression, the deportation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans reached massive heights. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were deported from the late 1920s to the late 1930s. Families were torn apart, children separated from parents, lives destroyed.   

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