Anti-Immigrant Racism in the United States: American as Apple Pie

by Justin Faulhaber

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

Extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric has sadly become commonplace in American public discourse. President Trump and his supporters have done their level best to erect barriers of law as well as steel to prevent immigrants from entering the country. Many are outraged at the abuses of immigration officials, of which the scandal over medical neglect and forced hysterectomies is only the beginning. Opponents point to the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants; they cry that this rhetoric does not represent not who we are. The truth is that anti-immigrant sentiment has been a festering cancer in American public discourse for generations. Anti-immigrant interest groups have long taken action to preserve a dominant ethnic makeup. Their goal was to create a “whiter” America. They failed. But their ideas still permeate right-wing ideology today, as racist anti-immigrant groups continue to influence policy at the highest level.

Bigotry from the Beginning

Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been a prominent part of U.S. history. In the 1840s and 1850s, a nativist political party known as the Know-Nothing Party rose to prominence on a xenophobic platform. The Know-Nothings detested the predominantly Catholic immigrants coming from Ireland and parts of not-yet-united Germany. They were also often referred to as the “Native American” Party, even at a time when native peoples were being killed or driven off their land. The tragic irony of such a name seems to have been lost on their supporters.

Public health workers checking immigrants arriving to the United States circa 1900. NIAID

Despite the prominence of the Know-Nothings and other anti-immigrant groups, for the first 100 years of America’s existence, management of immigration was left to the states. However, in the late 19th century, the federal government took control. One of the first groups to face discrimination were the Chinese, many of whom had come to the United States to work on railroads and other industries. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. As the name implies, this law barred nearly all Chinese people from entering the United States. The act represents the only time when a specific group was barred from the country on account of race. Chinese laborers were targeted since they were widely demonized for their willingness to accept lower wages and because they were supposedly taking the jobs of white Americans. Today, fears about immigrants “stealing” jobs remain.


Between 1880 and 1920, some 25 million people immigrated to the United States. These immigrants often came from Eastern and Southern Europe or the Middle East. Compared with previous waves of settlers and immigrants, these immigrants were more likely to be Jews, Catholics, or Orthodox Christians and often had darker features.

At this time, notions of racial hierarchy became accepted as scientific fact, supported by ideas like Social Darwinism, a misinterpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Within this “scientific” racism, humanity was divided into distinct races, each with their own characteristics, with the white race unquestionably superior to all others. It bears clarifying that, in contrast to today, an Italian Catholic or a Polish Jew, for example, would not have been considered fully white at this time. Combined with ideas of nationalism, such thinking allowed racism and anti-immigrant sentiment to reach a fever pitch. Many worried about the so-called “mongrelization” of America or that whites would be overrun by non-white immigrants.

Immigrants at Ellis Island circa 1902-1913. Photo by Edwin Levick

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was an accepted fact that, not only were there whites, Blacks, Asians, etc., but also distinct separations within each group. As The New York Timesexplained, “In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful. Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.” In his An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, Frenchman Joseph Arthur de Gobineau argued that only the Aryan race was capable of intellectual thought and that any civilization that arose anywhere in the world only did so because of members of the Aryan race who had somehow become mixed in that population. When those Aryan elements had become too mixed with other races, the civilization declined. Therefore, he warned, Europeans and Americans had to take care to ensure that the same fate would not befall them.

Similar to de Gobineau, one of the most influential authors of the anti-immigrant movement in America was Madison Grant. In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant gives voice to white fears of being replaced by other peoples, writing:

The result is showing plainly in the rapid decline in the birth rate of native Americans because the poorer classes of Colonial stock, where they still exist, will not bring children into the world to compete in the labor market with the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian, and the Jew. The native American is too proud to mix socially with them, and is gradually withdrawing from the scene, abandoning to these aliens the land which he conquered and developed. The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners, just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews…

For Grant and those with the same ideas, the United States stood to lose the advantages of its superior race. At stake was nothing less than the fate and future of the nation. Such an ignominious outcome was to be avoided at all costs.

In addition to Grant, one group that lobbied heavily against this new wave of immigrants was the Immigration Restriction League, headed by Harvard lawyer Prescott Farnsworth Hall. Hall and his associates wanted to curb immigration by excluding what they considered to be undesirable peoples. He felt that this could be accomplished with a literacy test. Hall had the ear of influential congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, and, after many failed attempts, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. This act instituted a literacy test in which immigrants had to write a few sentences in their native language. Hall’s literacy test was, however, unsuccessful in weeding out many immigrants since education was on the rise in Europe, and thus most passed the test. This act also created the Asiatic Barred Zone, effectively prohibiting immigration from almost the entirety of Asia. Any Asians already here were considered “Aliens Ineligible for Citizenship.”

The Ku Klux Klan was also reborn in this era, bigger and stronger than at any time before or since. At its inception after the Civil War, the KKK was mostly concerned with imposing white supremacy over recently freed Black slaves. This time, they were also anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Jew—in short, anti-new-immigrants. The KKK and other groups felt that these peoples could never assimilate and become Americans. The Klan wielded considerable influence in many states and even staged two large parades in Washington in 1925 and 1926.

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1926. Library of Congress

The racist sentiments prevalent at the time reached all the way into the chambers of the Supreme Court. It is worth examining two similar and shocking cases as examples: Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). In Ozawa, the plaintiff was a Japanese-born graduate of a U.S. college, living in Hawaii, and was otherwise eligible for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906. While that law did not specifically mention race, the very first law passed on naturalization, the Naturalization Act of 1790, explicitly restricted citizenship to “free white persons.” The court held that, regardless of how assimilated or “civilized” a person was, “free white persons” meant only members of the “Caucasian Race.” In this case, the court used scientific racism, like that espoused by de Gobineu and Grant, to justify its argument.

Based on this ruling, Bhagat Singh Thind, a “high-caste Aryan” from Punjab, India, who had served with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War I, attempted to turn the idea of scientific racism to his benefit, arguing that northern Indian people were ethnographically and linguistically linked to European peoples. This time, the court ruled that “‘Free white persons’…are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood…” That is, Mr. Thind did not look like a white man and therefore was not white and not eligible for citizenship.

The hypocrisy here could not be more evident. Again, in Ozawa, the Court ruled that racial science was the determining factor. Only three months later, the Court ruled that scientific racism was unimportant and that the determining factor was whether or not someone “looked” white. The Supreme Court used this twisted logic in order to justify nativist laws and secure the so-called racial integrity of the country. Both of these rulings were unanimous, illustrating the power and spread of scientific racism and its role in shaping the laws of society.

The Culmination of Restriction

After World War I, the government decided to curb immigration once and for all and impose quotas on different groups. First, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Quota Act in 1921, which limited the numbers of new arrivals to 3% of the number of immigrants from that country residing in the U.S. based on the 1910 census. In this way, a hypothetical pie chart of ethnic origin of immigrants living in the U.S. in 1910 would look identical to the pie chart of the ethnic origin of incoming immigrants each year. The Emergency Quota Act was devastatingly effective. In the following year, the number of immigrants was less than half of what it had been before, falling from about 805,000 to 310,000. Even this was not enough for anti-immigration hardliners: for them, it was already too late by the 1910 census benchmark, as many people from “undesirable“ countries had already arrived.

Group of immigrants on Atlantic liner S.S. Patricia, December 10, 1906. Photo by Edwin Levick

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was even stricter than the previous legislation. It was based on the 1890 census, before large numbers of people from Eastern and Southern Europe had arrived. Additionally, the quota was set at 2% of the total population, not on the population of foreign-born individuals, thus favoring early-arriving northern Europeans. The Act performed as desired. The proportion of immigrants coming from Northern Europe increased dramatically, while the total number of immigrants arriving each year fell precipitously. During the mid-20th century, as the Johnson-Reed Act quotas remained in effect, the share of the U.S. population that was foreign-born dropped steadily from a high of 14.8% in 1890 to only 4.7% in 1970. It looked like the battle to create a whiter America had been won.


Notions of whiteness began to change during World War II, when European-Americans found themselves serving and fighting together. Ethnic tensions between what we would now consider white Americans mostly evaporated. Within academia, perhaps in order to distance the United States from the extreme racism of the Nazi regime, ethnographers and anthropologists erased the old distinctions within races, and refocused their attention between races. As TheNew York Times explains, “There was one Negroid race, one Mongoloid race, one Caucasoid race. Everyone considered white was the same as everyone else considered white. No Saxons. No Celts. No Southern Italians.”

Immigration laws finally began to shift in the 1950s and 60s, culminating in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act. This act, amended by subsequent legislation, remains the basis of immigration law today. The modern system still relies on quotas, but they are not driven by desires to maintain or promote a certain ethnic heritage. Because of the provisions of this act and increases in undocumented immigration across the Southern border, the proportion of the U.S. population who are foreign-born is approaching 14%.

Immigration Today

Just as it was over 100 years ago, there are many today who are opposed to immigration. Consider the anti-immigrant think tank known as the Center for Immigration Studies, founded in 1985; the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled them a hate group, notes “the organization has a decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists.” Beyond think tanks, racists who desire a “whiter” America have reached the highest levels of government. They whip up their base with racist fears about the fact that the U.S. is becoming increasingly less “white,” and that whites will no longer be an absolute majority of the population by around 2050.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than the rise of Stephen Miller, an anti-immigrant hawk who has risen to become a senior advisor to President Trump. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has exposed, Miller regularly consorts with white nationalist groups and has been behind many of the administration’s most controversial and draconian immigration policies, such as arrest quotas, the Muslim ban, and family separation.

President Trump’s own tactless words leave little doubt about his feelings toward certain immigrants. At a meeting in 2018, he said of undocumented immigrants, “These are not people. These are animals.” He also infamously referred to Haiti and other nations as “shithole countries.” Most notoriously, he began his 2016 presidential campaign by saying of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” In a feeble attempt to moderate his remarks, he added “And some, I assume, are good people.” I doubt many were fooled by that change of pace. In fact, Time has compiled a list of all the times he has disparaged Mexico. It is clear that President Trump’s ideas towards immigrants are rooted in race. People like Madison Grant and Prescott Farnsworth Hall would be proud of President Trump and the new administration.

Trump visits the border wall in Yuma, Arizona, June 23, 2020. US Customs and Border Protection

To be sure, the immigration system in this country has been broken for many years. Some Americans wonder why modern immigrants do not come in the legal way, as previous waves of immigrants had done. The modern system effectively means that, for many hopeful immigrants, this is impossible. While they are an improvement over the Johnson-Reed Act, the current laws do not provide a path for many people to enter the country, and there are few ways for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status once here, leading to our current situation.

There are approximately 10-12 million of these undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. Many have been here for the majority of their lives, have paid taxes, worked to support their families and the economy, and have no criminal record. Deporting each one of these people leads to heartbreak for those they leave behind in the U.S. Additionally, it is harmful to society from an economic standpoint as taxpayers and workers are lost. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau has admitted that the population will fall without immigration. The harsh measures of this administration therefore serve no one but racist hardline anti-immigrant ideologues and only make a bad system worse.

As anti-immigrant rhetoric has increased over the past several years, those wishing to oppose this agenda of hatred should arm themselves with the knowledge that racism against immigrants is hardly anything new. As we have seen, the United States has a long history of racism against immigrants, and the Trump administration is only the latest chapter.

Justin Faulhaber is currently enrolled in a dual degree program in Law and European International Relations (MAGES) at Georgetown University. Prior to this, he worked as an immigration law paralegal in Cleveland for two years and currently resides in Washington, D.C.

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