Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Need For a Humane Immigration Debate

Published in Law and Liberty on March 10, 2020


Last summer, I gave a talk at the National Conservatism Conference titled “Immigration and the Desire for Rootedness.” I argued that, when it comes to immigration questions, philosophical and ethical arguments matter, even if the end result is a reduction in the number of immigrants. While one side uses the ideas of tolerance and inclusivity to say we should allow anybody and everybody to come into this country and the other side wants to restrict immigrants either over concerns of economics or culture, I have for all intents and purposes said “a pox on both your houses.” Neither side looks at immigration from the human perspective, but instead reduces it down to a pure policy question. How did we get to the point where an Iraqi immigrant like myself—a soft restrictionist—has to defend the human dignity of immigrants against both the Left and the Right?

Today’s political parties and their ideas are the heirs of those that came before them. At the turn of 20th century, it was those who called themselves Progressive that wanted to restrict immigration. Today’s Progressives, by contrast, have swung to the opposite extreme of their political forefathers, desiring no restrictions whatsoever. Those on the Right—I hesitate to call them conservatives—have become either hard restrictionists or advocates for purely economic merit-based selection.

In The Guarded Gate, Daniel Okrent tells the story of an America that allowed its immigration policy to be driven by an evil philosophy: eugenics. Racism, religious hatred, and anti-Semitism played a role, of course, but they were all based on the same evil suppositions that “biological laws” dictate the difference between inferior and superior people, that character is heritable and as such can be bred out of humanity, and that the character of whole groups of people can be judged by appearance, genetics, and countries of origin.

An Ugly History

The book is the story of the Boston Brahmins and upper-class New Yorkers who built a campaign to limit immigration and eradicate unwanted and “inferior” groups from America. This campaign was directed by those inspired by Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and cousin of Charles Darwin. His followers included Charles Davenport, Henry Cabot Lodge, Madison Grant, Fairfield Osborn, and Prescott Hall, among others.

Eugenic doctrine did not stay within such elite circles, however. The organizations these figures built helped popularize the message which Okrent writes, “was both extensive and superficial.” Cartoon drawings, women’s magazines and journals, books, articles in the popular press, musical shows, scholars, educators, and even town fairs taught the average citizen to believe in genetic superiority. Even Willa Cather, Okrent writes, “published stories portraying Jewish immigrants as almost subhuman.”

Southern and eastern Europeans were called “half-Asiatic mongrels;” Jews were said to be “totally unfit physically,” and were depicted as Bolshevists and revolutionists. Jesus was not Jewish, it was insisted. “The Mediterranean people are morally below the races of northern Europe,” wrote Edward A. Ross (“the father of race suicide theory”) against the humanitarians of the day. “Poles were ‘uncleanly, intemperate, quarrelsome, ignorant, priest-ridden and hard on women and children,’” wrote Ross with what Okrent describes as “arguments saturated in the cruel, distorted, and scientifically problematic doctrine of negative eugenics.” The eugenicists wanted to limit immigration to the Nordics, people described by Madison Grant as “the white man par excellence.”

Okrent writes that the “signal moment in the legitimization of eugenic thinking took place at various London venues for six July days not a year after Francis Galton’s death,” when 400 delegates convened the First International Eugenics Congress. Arthur Balfour gave the opening address, and the head of the American delegation, Bleecker Van Wagenen, spoke of “sterilization and other means for eliminating defective strains from the human population.”

The work of American eugenicists became a model for Hitler and Nazi eugenicists. Okrent writes, “Hitler saluted the United States as the ‘one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of [citizenship] are noticeable’—among them, ‘simply excluding certain races from naturalization.’” A decade later the official Nazi Handbook for Law and Legislation would specifically cite American immigration law as a model for Germany. Hitler so admired American eugenics theories that a copy of Madison Grant’s The Passage of the Great Race was found in his bunker in Berlin when he committed suicide.

Eugenics and Immigration

The immigration restriction campaign based on eugenics lasted three decades, from 1895 to 1925 with Henry Cabot Lodge as the indefatigable driving force. In 1896 Lodge labeled “Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Asiatics” as “alien to the body of the people of the United States… [a] lower race.” In 1913, after President’s Taft’s veto of a bill that used a literacy test (first introduced in 1895) to restrict immigration, Prescott Hall responded, “To hell with Jews, Jesuits, and Steamships!” And Lodge, while giving a congressional speech in hopes of overriding Taft’s veto, remarked that “this country was settled and built up by the people from Great Britain and Ireland, from Scandinavia, from Holland, from Germany, and from France,” while the immigrants now were “offspring of a different civilization.” But debating the bill on the Senate floor, Elihu Root tried to avoid the language of superiority, arguing that his intention was only to bar “a continual stream of men whose minds are closed to the principles and the sentiments of our American institutions and our American civilization.” We hear echoes of this sentiment in today’s hard restrictionists.

Regarding the American black population, Okrent writes that “many of the immigration restrictionists—and almost all of the scientific racists—were far more concerned with the possibility of black-white “interbreeding” than they were with the status of blacks themselves. The inferiority of African Americans, they believed, was a settled question, but their potential multiplication through miscegenation was not.” So although the southern senators were in favor of more open immigration so as to continue the flow of cheap labor, they were persuaded to vote for the immigration restriction bill out of fear that southern and eastern Europeans “have not the same objections to interbreeding with the negroes that northern races have,” and therefore would cause “an increase in negro half breeds.”

Several immigration restriction bills went through Congress during those three decades, but Grover Cleveland vetoed one in 1897, William Howard Taft vetoed one in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson vetoed one in 1915. As yet another immigration restriction bill was making its way through Congress in 1920, Good Housekeeping published an essay by Calvin Coolidge (“a New Englander of Norman stock”), who was about to become Vice President. Okrent quotes from Coolidge’s essay:

It is a duty our country owes itself to require of all those aliens who come here that they have a background not inconsistent with American institutions… It would be suicidal for us to let down the bars for the inflowing of cheap manhood… There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend…the dead weight of alien accretion stifles national progress.

On May 19, 1921 Warren G. Harding signed a bill that set an immigration ceiling—355,000 per year—and imposed a nation-by-nation quota. The 1917 Immigration Act refugee exemption was gone and in its place was a quota based on “3 percent of the number of people born in that country who were already in the United States in 1910.” The 1910 census was used because the 1920 census included more immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

Then finally came The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), the one that “the anti-immigrant forces had wanted all along.” The Johnson-Reed act, signed by Coolidge, based the quota of immigrants on the 1890 census. It was because of that law that the MS St. Louis could not dock in a US harbor and 900 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away and returned to Europe. Today we know this story as the “Voyage of the Damned.”

It wasn’t until 1965 that Representative Emanuel Celler, who in 1924 had called the Johnson-Reed Act “the rankest kind of discrimination…set up against Catholic and Jewish Europe,” finally brought a bill that abolished the quotas and established “a nationally-blind system of immigration.”

Thinking About Immigration Today

The immigration restrictionists at the turn of the 20th century were driven by eugenic doctrine, and they built their arguments on racial theories. So what do we do today with this legacy of the immigration restrictionists of old? We cannot ignore it. Rather, we must learn from it and think through immigration issues and the mass movement of people, building our ideas on a correct understanding of the human person, human identity, and our ethical obligations and responsibilities—to both citizens and immigrants. This is why I told the audience at the National Conservatism Conference (contra Amy Wax and other hard restrictionists whose language often channels Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood”) that it is wrong to think of immigration primarily as a problem to solve—as an “it” when it is really a “he,” “she,” and “they.” When we talk about immigration, we are talking about souls, and like all souls, they have a need and a desire to be rooted. Rootedness is something due to every human being as part of their human dignity. Without it, man is cut off from the very elements that make him who he is.

The type of immigrants Wax and other modern restrictionists want are the very type Madison Grant and his fellow eugenicists desired. Even though I do not believe Wax and her fellow hard restrictionists are racists, I also do not believe their ideas and policies would create a better, more cohesive, or more conservative America. Rather, they would create an America that is radically progressive and self-destructive. I say this because the type of immigrants these folks would prefer are similar to those Marshal Grant called the “Nordic type,”—educated Western Europeans. I think it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Western Europe is de-Christianized and even further on the progressive path than we are at the moment.

But how do we square the need of a nation to set fair immigration limits with the existential reality of the mass movement of people due to war, famine, persecution, violence, and other circumstance that crush the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of the human person?

Well, the first thing we must do is to recover a Christian anthropology by overcoming a positivist, humanist, anti-Christian, and antimetaphysical anthropology. Eugenics, race thinking, and other heresies and ideologies destroyed and continue to destroy the fundamental dignity of every human life. The only way to recover it is to proclaim, teach, and live out a Christian humanism.

This is required of us by justice and charity. In the words of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, we must work for the “development of the whole man and of all men,” to lift people “from less than human conditions to those which are more human.” How can we possibly overcome our pressing human frame of reference in order to accomplish such a transcendent vision? By accepting, with Pope Benedict XVI, that “everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.”

I hear the reader thinking, “We need to live in the real world; we need laws and policies; we need actions, not just talk of God’s love!” To that I respond, I am only a vessel proclaiming the truth of the God of this universe and the humanity incumbent upon us as part of that universe; there are many examples of the consequences of faithful people who shamelessly proclaim this truth. That is my hope and my strength. There may not be one single immigration policy that follows from this vision of man, but a humane one will be just to both the citizen and the immigrant. It would take into account not just the immigrant’s right to migrate, but also his right to his own homeland. It would lead to an immigration policy that safeguards the needs of a nation and its people while taking up the responsibility to care for those without a home.

Francis Galton and his American heirs, the northeastern aristocrats with their Ivy League education, had money and influence and could, therefore, accomplish much. But even they had to work for 30 years to convince the American people that human beings are not created equal in dignity, that there are people in this world that are so defective as to be subhuman. How much more then, can we accomplish with a truer understanding of our shared humanity?

Luma Simms, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written on the life and thought of immigrants for First Things, the FederalistPublic Discourse, and many other publications.

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