Eugenics, Anti-Immigration Laws Of The Past Still Resonate Today, Journalist Says

The Statue of Liberty, which stands on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, was the America's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954.
The Statue of Liberty, which stands on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, was the America's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954.
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Nearly 100 years ago, Congress passed a restrictive law that cut the overall number of immigrants coming to the United States and put severe limits on those who were let in.

Journalist Daniel Okrent says that the eugenics movement — a junk science that stemmed from the belief that certain races and ethnicities were morally and genetically superior to others — informed the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted entrance to the U.S.

"Eugenics was used as a primary weapon in the effort to keep Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country," Okrent says. "[The eugenics movement] made it a palatable act, because it was based on science or presumed science."

Okrent notes the 1924 law drastically cut the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks and Eastern Europeans that could enter the country. Even during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and dying, access remained limited. The limits remained in place until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act ended immigration restrictions based on nationality, ethnicity and race.

Okrent sees echos of the 1924 act in President Trump's hard-line stance regarding immigration: "The [current] rhetoric of criminality, the attribution of criminality — not to individual criminals but to hundreds of thousands of people of various nationalities — that's very similar to the notion of moral deficiency that was hurled by the eugenicists at the Southern and Eastern Europeans of the 1910s and '20s."

Okrent's new book is The Guarded Gate.


Interview highlights

On what immigration was like at the turn of the 20th century, before the Immigration Act of 1924

Ellis Island opens in 1892 and within a few years it becomes one of the busiest port spots anywhere in the U.S. Ellis Island was a teeming hive of activity as hundreds of thousands — in some years more than a million — immigrants came pouring through. [It] was a very, very busy place and a very alienating place for a lot of people, because of the examination that people had to go through, particularly for tuberculosis, trachoma and other diseases. But once through the line, and then onto the ferry boat that took people to Manhattan, it was really a wonderful place to have been.

On the Immigration Act of 1924, and the quotas set up to restrict immigration

First, there is an overall quota. At various times it was 300,000 people, then it got chopped down to ... 162,000 people. ... The second part is where did these people come from? And it was decided that, well, let's continue to reflect the population of America as it has become, so we will decide where people can come from based on how many people of their same nationality were already here. ...

If 10 percent of the current American population came from country A, then 10 percent of that year's immigrants could come from country A. Except — and this is probably the most malign and dishonest thing that came out of this entire movement — they didn't do this on the basis of the 1920 census, which had been conducted just four years before, or the 1910, or even the 1900. But those numbers were based on the population in 1890, before the large immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe had begun. So to any question about whether there was any racist or anti-Semitic or anti-Italian intent, this established there clearly was. ...

So if you take the Italians, in the year before the first of the quota laws went to effect, more than 220,000 Italians came into the U.S. And the year after, under the quota, it was fewer than 4,000 — and similar numbers stretched across Eastern and Southern Europe. Suddenly the door has slammed in the faces of those people who had been coming in the largest numbers, based not only on bogus science, but based on a manipulation of American history itself.

On how eugenics began

The origin of eugenics was in England in the latter half of the 19th century. It really comes out of Darwin in a way, out of some very good science. Darwin upsets the entire balance of the scientific world with his discovery and the propagation of the ideas of evolution. And then, once you establish that we are not all derived from the same people — from Adam and Eve — which was the prevailing view at the time, then we learned that we are not all the same. We are not all brothers, if you wish to take that particular position. And the early eugenicists believed that and thought that we could control the nature of the population of a nation — the U.K. at first, or the U.S. — by selective breeding. Let's have only the "good" breed with the "good," and let's not let the less-than-good breed.

On how eugenicists believed morality was an inherited trait

You find some very well-established scientists, [Henry] Fairfield Osborn, the head of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, he outright declared that it is not just intelligence, it is also morality that is inherited, and criminality is inherited. It's really stunning to think that people who are very, very well-credentialed in the natural sciences could believe these things. But if you begin your belief by thinking that certain peoples are inferior to other peoples, it's very easy to adapt your science to suit your own prejudice.

On the evaluations to determine which ethnic groups were the smartest

There were any number of tests in various places, almost all of them of equal unreliability to determine whether people were of sufficient intelligence. One of the most famous ones was the so-called "Alpha Test" that was given to nearly 2 million soldiers in World War I by Robert M. Yerkes, who is now memorialized in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, a federal facility.

Yerkes gave tests that included questions that were almost [like] Jeopardy questions, although in reverse. A question like: "Is Bud Fisher a (choose one): outfielder; cartoonist or novelist?" If you've just been in the country for five years and you don't speak English terribly well, how are you possibly going to answer a question like that? But it was taken seriously as a measure of intelligence.

On how Trump's hard-line position on immigration echoes the anti-immigration and eugenicist sentiments of the early 1900s

I think that one could say that today's Central Americans and today's Muslims ... are the equivalent of 1924's Jews and Italians, or ... the Jews and Italians then were treated and regarded as these Latin American and Muslim nationalities are today. When you choose your immigrants, when you choose your next door neighbors on the basis of their ethnicity or their race rather than the nature of the individual him- or herself, you're engaged in, in this case, official legal discrimination.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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