Nativism and Immigration Restriction


Anti-immigrant sentiment had been prevalent in the United States since at least the 1840s. It had many sources. Nativists played on fears of violence and of the diversity of thought, belief, and custom represented by European radicalism and religion. Reformers blamed immigrants for municipal corruption. Workingmen's organizations claimed that immigrants kept wages low. Militant Protestants called Catholic immigrants pawns of Romanism. The popular press blamed them for political turmoil. Even those who sympathized with immigrants condemned them for their poverty and their peasant habits; housing reformers, for example, decried the unsanitary conditions of their overcrowded lodgings, which lacked plumbing and heating.

In the aftermath of the labor upheavals of the 1880s, nativism fed on fears of foreign-born radicals. Seven of the eight accused conspirators in the Haymarket affair of 1886 were immigrants. In response, the press spouted nativist rhetoric, and anti-immigrant groups formed across the country. Three weeks after Haymarket, a railroad attorney organized the American Party in California, declaring that Americans must exclude "the restless revolutionary horde of foreigners who are now seeking our shores from every part of the world.

The United States had restricted immigration for the first time in 1882, through the Chinese Exclusion Act and a law denying entrance to paupers and convicts. In 1891 a new immigration law gave the federal government complete authority over immigration and created national administrative mechanisms for its control. The law made it illegal for employers to advertise abroad for workers, and it excluded people with contagious diseases. It created provisions for expelling undesirable aliens, requiring that steamship companies return rejected immigrants to Europe. On January 1, 1892, the Ellis Island immigration depot opened. Medical inspections were performed there, but only for steerage passengers; those who paid for first- or second-class passage received perfunctory inspections in their cabins.

American nativism often took the form of anti-Catholicism. In 1887 the American Protective Association (APA) organized to drive Irish Catholics out of American politics and soon claimed a half-million members, all of whom took an oath never to vote for a Catholic. The APA explicitly blamed the depression on Catholics, asserting that immigrants had taken the jobs of native-born Americans. It endorsed political candidates in 1894, but it broke apart when its members could not agree on establishing a third party or supporting the Republican ticket in 1896.

Immigration restriction was one highlight of the Republican platform of 1896, which called for laws to exclude those who could not pass a literacy test in their native language. Such tests would discriminate against peasants from eastern and southern Europe. Such laws, the platform claimed, would protect the United States by defending American citizenship and "the wages of our workingmen against the fatal competition of low-price labor."

The idea of a literacy test had been advanced by the Immigration Restriction League, a forum for nativism founded in 1893 by a group of Harvard graduates from old Boston families. For them, the flood of foreign poor dramatized and symbolized the problems raised by the expanding urban working class. The League drew a line between "old" and "new" foreigners. Like many other native-born Americans, its members regarded the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as racially distinct from old-stock Anglo-Saxons. This distinction became the linchpin of the anti-immigration crusade.

Most advocates of restriction were Republicans, but nativism and nativist racism permeated all corners of American politics. Anti-Semitism was strong among Populists, and labor activists seeking an explanation for the sudden sharp drop in their fortunes embraced anti-immigrant ideas. On the Pacific Coast, where the anti-Chinese movement flourished in the mid-1880s, labor organizations had long been advocates of immigration restriction. Building on white workers' fears of competition from Chinese immigrants, they lobbied actively for extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act when it came up for congressional renewal in 1892.


Employers were divided over immigration restriction. Before the depression many businessmen had supported free immigra­tion, although not necessarily out of tolerance or belief in a free market. New York's Journal of Commerce argued nakedly in 1892 that people, like cows, were expensive to produce; immigration represented a gift of a costly commodity. The desire for a cheap and steady labor supply, however, was some- times counterbalanced by the beliefs that immigrants brought labor strife, violence, and radicalism. The New York Tribune called "Huns" (Hungarians and Slavs) the most dangerous of labor unionists and strikers: "They fill up with liquor and cannot be reasoned with."

from Who Built America, Volume II (2000), pp . 146-149.