News about the caravan of Honduran and Guatemalan migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty to seek refugee status in the United States has been splashed across television screens for more than a week.
President Trump and members of his administration declared, with no evidence, that Middle Eastern terrorists are embedded in the crowds, hoping to infiltrate the United States. Their fearmongering is challenged by images of individual migrants, usually with children, that emphasize the humanitarian crisis the caravan represents.
These dueling interpretations — threatening vs. vulnerable — reflect a far deeper debate, one that dates back to the country’s founding, about whether Americans should be bound together by a national identity built around shared civic ideals or through common ancestral, religious or racial background. They also reflect longtime debates about whether we ought to focus on border security or whether, by keeping refugees out, the United States is failing to fulfill its promise to be a haven for the oppressed.
Our current moment has parallels with the immigration-restriction debates of the first decades of the 20th century. The United States received a record number of immigrants, mostly coming to work in the growing industries. Unlike earlier immigrant streams from more Protestant nations of northern and western Europe, the vast majority of these immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe. Many Americans welcomed them and saw their immigration as a sign of American vitality, but others worried that the fundamental character of the nation was under threat.
The onset of World War I sharpened Americans’ focus on the place of immigrants in the United States. In a 1916 speech, former president Theodore Roosevelt decried “hyphenated Americans” who clung to the traditions of their nation of origin. He accused these immigrants of having “divided loyalties” and committing “moral treason.” Roosevelt insisted that unless an immigrant “became a good faith American, and nothing else, he is out of place in this country, and the sooner he leaves, the better.”
Immigrants and their supporters pushed back at the anti-hyphen argument. Peter Lambros, editor of the Greek Star of Chicago, maintained that staying faithful to the land of their birth enhanced immigrants’ loyalty to the United States, “for he who is loyal to his parent country is bound to become loyal to any other land, and he who is not loyal to the land that gave him birth is bound to be a disloyal and undesirable citizen in other lands.”
Yet while Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen crusade was coercive, challenging the loyalty of immigrants and forcing conformity, it also had an optimistic side. If immigrants rejected former loyalties and fully embraced the ideals of the United States, they could become full members of the nation. He argued that “the salvation of our nation lies in having a nationalized and unified America, ready for the tremendous tasks of both war and peace.”
Though assailed by immigrants and their allies, Roosevelt did not go far enough for those who viewed immigrants as fundamentally unassimilable. The members of the Immigration Restriction League had spent decades promoting the idea that southern and eastern European immigrants were not just undesirable, but a racial threat who could never be integrated into the nation. Madison Grant, author of “The Passing of the Great Race,” tried to convince Roosevelt that he was wrong to advocate for unity between immigrants and native-born Americans. Grant singled out Jewish immigrants for particular disparagement. “You can walk down Fifth Avenue,” he told Roosevelt, “and see literally hundreds of dwarfed and undersized Jews totally unfit physically, even if they had the moral courage, for military service.”
The leaders of the Immigration Restriction League lobbied for the government to adopt a literacy test as a means of judging whether immigrants should be admitted. This was a thinly veiled attempt at keeping out immigrants from southern and eastern European nations, most of which had higher rates of illiteracy.
As Europe descended into war, immigration to the United States declined sharply, but the leaders of the league argued that the test was more urgent than ever. In a 1916 article for Scientific American Monthly, league member Robert DeCourcy Ward argued that “the weakling fathers … and the improperly nourished, overworked and harassed mothers of Europe are handing on to their children who are now being born an inheritance of physical and mental unfitness which will mark not only this generation but future generations.” Considering this, Ward saw it as critical for “our future race” to keep out to the greatest extent possible the “mental and physical derelicts of the war.”
This logic did not go unchallenged. In a 1916 article, Grace Abbott, director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, sarcastically referred to those who promoted “fear of the ‘inferior peoples’ who are coming to ‘dilute the old American stock,’ and to ‘destroy the old American ideals.’ ” She insisted that this belief was self-defeating because it divided the nation just when the United States needed to serve as a model for a “democracy not of nationalism but of internationalism.”
Abbott declared that the United States needed to serve as a beacon to the world, showing that “all the races of the earth” could live together harmoniously and respectfully. By showing that immigrants from all the warring powers could live together in peace, America could not only promote an expansive democracy at home, but also “urge that the terms of peace which shall end this war.”
The men of the Immigration Restriction League fired back. Yale sociologist Henry Pratt Fairchild countered what he considered misguided idealism by highlighting “the right of every nation to protect its interest as against the interests of any individual.” He embraced eugenic reasoning, declaring that “we cannot render our highest service to mankind by hastily and inconsiderately yielding to the demands of a specious humanitarianism and dissipating to-day what should be the heritage of future generations.”
The Immigration Restriction League’s logic gained momentum as the United States drifted closer to entering World War I. In early 1917, Congress passed a literacy test bill over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. Many in Congress used the racial reasoning the league promoted to justify their vote. For instance, William Kent, a representative from California, declared that he would “rather have a test of blood and race, and confine our immigration to northern Europe, but failing that, the literacy test.”
The demand for immigration restriction grew after World War I. In 1919, Prescott Hall, director of the league, wrote to Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, reaffirming that the league wanted “to stand … for a white man’s country” by promoting a plan that would place stringent limits on southeastern European immigration and totally exclude immigrants from Asia. In 1924, this vision became law when Congress passed the National Origins Act, the most restrictive immigration legislation in the nation’s history.
Then, as today, debates about immigration restriction exposed as much about how Americans saw themselves as how they saw those who want to immigrate to our country.
The caravan story will soon disappear from the headlines, but the questions it raises about the fears and promise of immigration will continue to be contentious. When we respond to phenomena like the caravan, we stake our claims about which men and women deserve to become part of the nation. More than that, though, we make a case for what kind of vision should shape the nation we are becoming.