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250 Years of Backlash

Bennett Baumer Apr 16, 2006

Even before the United States declared independence, anti-immigration sentiment was part of the American fabric. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin declared, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them.”

The movement opposed to the entry of immigrants has often been described as “nativism,” initially referring to white Protestants opposed to Catholic immigration.

In the first half of the 19th century, a secretive group known as the “Know Nothings” exploited fears of a “foreign invasion” of Irish and German immigrants.

The Know Nothings flourished in the mid-1850s under the banner of the American Party and demanded that only the native born be allowed to hold public office and the naturalization period be increased from 5 to 21 years.

Divided over slavery, the Know Nothings collapsed after the election of 1856 and anti-immigration sentiments subsided until the 1870s when a backlash developed against Chinese workers.

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, suspending all immigration of Chinese for 10 years and forbidding any court to naturalize Chinese. The act was not repealed until 1943.

White fright focused on the Japanese as well. Congress passed the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, which froze Japanese immigration, and California passed a state law prohibiting Japanese people from owning property.

Anti-immigrant sentiment surged after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 and even more after the Russian Revolution that October.

Wartime repression culminated in the Palmer Raids (1918- 1921), which featured warrantless searches and seizures targeting Eastern Europeans and Jewish emigrates with leftist leanings, as well as anarchists, socialists, communists and unions in general. More than 10,000 were arrested in January 1920 alone and hundreds of non-naturalized immigrants were deported.

After WWI, the Quota Act restricted immigration to three percent of a nationality’s presence already in the country, further penalizing Asians.

Many boosters of the Palmer Raids also supported America’s fascist movements that spread anti-Semitism and sympathized with the Axis Powers in the 1930s. These attitudes influenced President Roosevelt’s decision in 1939 to bar S.S. St. Louis from landing in the U.S. Carrying 937 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, the ship was forced to return and many eventually died in concentration camps.

Current anti-Latino immigrant sentiments are rooted in a 1942 guest worker scheme. In place until 1964, the Bracero Program brought in more than 4.5 million Mexican farm workers on a temporary basis. The program was expanded during a labor shortage created by the Korean War, but an economic recession led to wave of anti-immigration sentiment and the launching of “Operation Wetback” in 1953. The INS claimed that 1.3 million Mexicans were deported or fled in fear.