The Long History of Xenophobia in the US

The infamous 1921 “Close the Gate” cartoon depicting immigrants as terrorists. (fair use of public domain image)

Sometimes, listening to politicians in the “developed” world, one gets the impression that hordes of barbarians are at the borders. These politicians tell us to be very concerned about the threat of immigrants. What these barbarians are accused of isn’t exactly clear; the message is vague beyond “be afraid.” These reactionaries make it seem that hostility against immigrants is greater than ever. History records otherwise.

In a previous article, I mentioned the implied meaning of the term “expat” — a privileged attitude held by people who emigrated to a new country maintaining separation from the inhabitants previously there. There’s a whiff of that attitude in the anti-immigrant sentiments throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada. Many people feel a need for separation from those different from them, especially when that separation has an air of superiority to the others. Immigrants can easily be cast in that role of separate inferiors, though most people who look down on immigrants prefer those immigrants remain in their countries of origin.

Separateness has long been a justification for national pride, however false and perverse. The British can be slightly (only slightly) forgiven because the slender channel of water between England and France has given the British a sense of separateness. The rest of Europe still suffers from the “fear of the Turk” mentality, but it has been centuries since that threat was real. Cultural habits sometimes only fade away slowly.

American Exceptionalism

Some might suggest that the Atlantic Ocean gave people in the US and Canada a sense of separation that explains some of the resistance to immigration. The problem is that, except for the long-suppressed indigenous population of the Americas, everyone living in the US and Canada is a descendant of immigrants.

Keppler’s 1893 cartoon pointing out that every American slamming the door on new immigrants is only in America because they or their immediate ancestors were immigrants. (fair use of public domain image)

Focusing on the US, from its founding, the US has been a nation of immigrants who want to shut the door behind them—generation after generation of “expats” who want to be the new elites and keep out the “riffraff” of the next generation of immigrants.

“Riff Raff” cartoon by Louis Dalrymple, 1903. (fair use of public domain image)

By 1903, the hyperbolic depiction of immigrants as subhuman vermin infecting American shores was commonplace. These vicious characterizations were reactionary responses to the increasing cultural diversity of the immigrant populations that had been arriving since the 1870s. “Close the gates” and “shut the doors” weren’t just sentiments from 1921, 1903, or 1893 (much less 2016) — those demands to exclude new immigrants have always been woven into the fabric of the US, even though the cloth was made of immigrants.

Let’s go back even further in US history. The first anti-immigrant laws were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In addition to establishing “alien” as the definition of immigrants, these laws gave the government broad powers to deport immigrants deemed “dangerous” and to ban speech and publications deemed “false, scandalous, and malicious.” These laws were passed only seven years after the First Amendment was ratified that forbade the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The double standard of American ideals and laws not applying to new immigrants began in the country’s infancy.

Slamming the Door on the Germans and the Irish

European immigration to the US started to escalate significantly around 1840, when millions of Irish and German Catholic people began arriving. Largely because of anti-Catholic bigotry, there was significant resistance to these immigrants.

In 1844, an anti-Catholic group led by Lewis Charles Levin founded a new political party to fight what they alleged was a Catholic plot to take over the US. They first called themselves the “Native American Party” (apparently unaware of the irony), eventually shortened to the “American Party.” This political party invented the term “nativist,” a term still used to describe anti-immigrant political parties. Xenophobic and bigoted, they spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about immigrants and Catholics; established a secret fraternal society; and sponsored paramilitary gangs who harassed and terrorized perceived enemies, including burning down Catholic churches. In many respects, the American Party had all the attributes we would now say are indicative of a fascist movement. (See the American Party’s anti-immigrant cartoon in this article.)

When the 1846–1852 potato blight devastated crops in Europe, especially in Ireland, desperate refugees came to the US. They were met with an established anti-Catholic movement that attempted to demonize the Irish people. From the 1840s to 1890s, Irish people were subjected to violence and abuse, libeled as drunks and violent ingrates.

Irish portrayed as monkey-like.
Irish portrayed as violent, ungrateful drunks. (fair use of public domain images)

In the 1860s, the language in job postings of, “No Irish need apply,” was so common it inspired a popular song. Despite widespread hostility, Irish immigrants thrived in many areas, eventually becoming part of the establishment in cities like Boston and Chicago.

A sharp increase in German immigration occurred in the 1860s and 1870s. A large number of people from what is now southern Germany immigrated in response to the unification of most German-speaking lands under Prussian dominance. Germans soon became the largest immigrant population in the US Their numbers and the reality that they were mostly Catholic (by 1890, there were an estimated two million German Catholics in the United States) sparked anti-German hostility.

The prohibition movement of the time attempted to capitalize on anti-German sentiments by targeting the German practice of consuming alcohol on Sundays. Oh, the horrors. As too often is the case, people with different customs unnerved other people who lacked an open mind. The earlier generations of immigrants wanted to shut the door behind them.

Slamming the Door on the Chinese

In the 1860s, immigrant laborers from China built the West—in particular, the railroads. Other laborers of other ethnic heritages, mostly immigrants, also contributed, but the Chinese were singled out for hostility. This was likely because Chinese immigrants were even more foreign to the Anglo-American ideal than were the Irish and German immigrants.

Chinese immigrants were refugees fleeing wars in China in the 1850s and early 1860s. They were hired en masse by the railroad corporations to work on the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869. Many Chinese immigrants settled in the new West Coast states, especially California.

As massive numbers of Americans migrated from the eastern states to California, they clashed with the already established Chinese people. As is so often the case in anti-immigrant bigotries, the newcomers insisted that the Chinese people “did not belong” there. In Los Angeles in 1871, a mob attacked the Chinese neighborhood, killing 19 Chinese people. Similar to the racist attacks on Black Americans in the Deep South, riots, pogroms, and legalized racial segregation and exclusion were inflicted on people of Chinese heritage across western states.

Local, state, and even federal laws were enacted denying equal rights to Chinese people. The Naturalization Act of 1870 granted citizenship to former slaves of African descent but specifically denied any possibility of US citizenship to Chinese immigrants. That act was part of a series of laws passed that targeted Chinese people for discrimination, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned most Chinese people from entry into the US It remains the only law in US history that specifically banned people from a particular nation. The earlier generations of immigrants wanted to shut the door behind them.

Anti-Chinese cartoon, 1905, exploiting other ethnic stereotypes. (fair use of public domain image)

Slamming the Door on Southern and Eastern Europeans

A massive increase in immigration to the US began in the 1870s. New was the increase in people coming from Italy and Eastern Europe. This change gradually shifted the focus of anti-immigrant ire away from the Irish and Germans, who by the time of the Immigration Act of 1924 had become the more desirable, or less undesirable, immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 set entry quotas for all other nations, but the primary impetus for the quotas was to curtail immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

NY Times 1924 infographic. (fair use of public domain image) “To preserve racial type as it exists here today”—a major driver of anti-immigrant attitudes then and now.

Although not as fierce as it was against the Chinese, the prejudice against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe was strong. These people were demonized as subhuman undesirables.

“Direct from the Slums of Europe” cartoon by Louis Dalrymple, 1903. (fair use of public domain image) The figure in the upper left is William Jennings Bryan, who, despite having no connection to immigration legislation, was blamed by right-wingers because he was a progressive politician.

Italian immigrants were stereotyped as violent degenerates, assassins, brigands, and mafiosi. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, Slavs and Jews, were stereotyped as diseased and impoverished vagrants.

1891 cartoon portraying immigrants as vagabonds, paupers, socialists, and brigands. (fair use of public domain image)

That most immigrants did not have great wealth was not surprising. Those well-connected in Europe’s class hierarchy had less reason to leave to seek better opportunities in the US. The American Calvinist notion that poverty was a sign of immorality enhanced the xenophobic bigotry against immigrants. By the 1890s, berating immigrants as vermin was commonplace—again, children of immigrants wanting to close the door behind them.

1895 anti-immigrant cartoon by Frank Beard.

Slamming the Door on War Refugees

After the end of World War I, anti-immigrant anxiety took on the double fears of people displaced by the war and the specter of Bolsheviks. The displaced persons fell under the stereotype of impoverished vagrants. The now well-worn paths of discrimination and exclusion applied to these new immigrants, leading to the previously mentioned entry quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924.

The Bolshevik question was a different matter. The overthrow of the Tsar in Russia unsettled many throughout the Western world, especially capitalists and business owners. The stereotype of immigrants as criminals blended easily with the new anxiety that immigrants from Eastern Europe would be similarly minded revolutionaries. How real the threat was has never been clear, but the fear was palpable.

The US had seen violence from anarchists since the late 1880s, mostly small-scale riots, sabotage, and bombings. The most significant incident was when an anarchist, and child of Polish immigrants, assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. The irony, of course, was that riots, bombings, and killings of Blacks, Catholics, and Chinese by nonanarchist whites were socially acceptable.

In 1919, a wave of coordinated anarchist bombings shook the US, mainly perpetrated by a group of Italian immigrants who for the previous five years had engaged in a terrorist campaign of more scattered bombings. They weren’t Bolsheviks or Marxists, but in the political environment, it was easy to blame “The Reds.” The First Red Scare of 1919–1920 was a propaganda campaign that targeted leftists; labor unions; and, of course, immigrants. People, being lazy thinkers unwilling to distinguish differences, found it was easier to tar them all with the same brush.

The “Close the Gate” cartoon at the top of this article, smearing all immigrants as violent extremists, was typical of this period. To be a foreigner was to be an enemy. The xenophobia of “they hate our liberty” entered the political conversation.

Alley 1919. “They hate our liberty.”

The Classist Component

There has long been a classist component to the anti-immigrant sentiment. No one much minded the wealthy immigrant. The working-class immigrant was suspect because all working-class people were suspect. It was an ancient prejudice that in America blended well with nativist bigotries. That new immigrants were “coming to steal our jobs” had some truth to it, but it is a hypocrisy that the land of immigrants sought to punch down on new immigrants.

The anti-immigrant movements described coincided with the rise of the American industrialists and robber barons. The wealthy right wing in the US exploited fears of immigrants to advance their own agendas to keep control over commodity trusts and laborers. It was easy because the press they controlled (right-wing dominance of newspapers from 1870 to 1920 was far greater than control of media today) linked the growing labor union movement with undesirable immigrants, anarchists, and Bolsheviks; the political rhetoric we hear today is nothing new.

An excellent history of the classist labor conflict in the late 1800s published by Stanford University Press:

Capital and Labor
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 heralded a new era of labor conflict in the United States. That year, mired in the…

Today, politicians, all descendants of immigrants, are slamming the door on Latin Americans, Muslims, and South Asians. This is the xenophobia with which we are most familiar today. But at its rotten roots lie the same bigotries that have long festered in the US.

Signs from the country of genocide, slavery, and segregation. (fair use of public domain images)





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