American Nativism and Exclusion: The Rise and Fall of the Immigration Restriction League, 1894-1921
Jones, Keith Allen
In the 1890s, a political movement was slowly gathering steam in the United States to restrict immigration qualitatively, via literacy tests, and quantitatively, through restrictive federal legislation. Leading the charge was the Immigration Restriction League, a Boston group that drove a nationwide campaign for requiring literacy tests for new arrivals. Unlike the Know-Nothings, the anti-Irish nativists of the 1850s, the League's members were Harvard-educated elitists who feared the influx of undesirables from southern and Eastern Europe. They worried that America was becoming the world's dumping ground for paupers, criminals, and madmen fleeing the Old World. Presidents Taft, Cleveland, and Wilson, however, vetoed the League's literary test provision three separate times. President Cleveland described it as illiberal, narrow, and un-American. Additionally, the proposal failed to acknowledge the high illiteracy rates of native-born Americans, particularly in rural areas and the South, and the fact that illiterate blue-collar Americans were hardly considered undesirable. Moreover, the literacy provision failed to recognize that previous exclusionist laws were ineffectual. The Chinese Exclusion Act had failed to stifle Chinese immigration on the West Coast, giving rise to the first great wave of commercial human smuggling. The Exclusion Act froze the Chinese population in 1882, but undocumented migration commenced from the southwestern borderlands, and after The Great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the false-papers industry thrived. During the Progressive Era (the 1880s through the 1920s), American nativism ebbed and flowed; by the end of the Great War, the Roaring Twenties had ushered in an era of openness and optimism. In general, an easygoing faith in freedom and liberty had returned. In the background, however, lurked a nativistic fear and loathing toward the strangers in the land. In the midst of the emerging pseudoscience of eugenics, the growing fears of a few insecure yet influential Yankee intellectuals, such as Henry Cabot Lodge and the Immigration Restriction League, began to shape immigration legislation in the 1920s. These laws laid the framework for restrictions that lasted until the 1960s. This legislation cemented the immigration system in dependency on quotas and overall ceilings, rather than flexibility with business cycles, labor market demands, and family reunification needs.
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