My father arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1938. But he was the wrong kind, because he was a Jew. Although thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were able to enter the United States, the State Department put so many barriers in the way of Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany that the official yearly quota of immigrants from Germany was not filled from 1933 to 1938. That quota itself was part of the long American history of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” immigrants based on race.
There were no immigration restrictions in the new American republic, but only white people could become citizens. Slaves were excluded from citizenship by the Constitution. In 1790, Congress restricted new citizenship to “any Alien being a free white person.”
Blacks who were already free were barred from entering the Southern slave states. Whites in Illinois, like many northern states, did not want African-Americans either, so they not only denied citizenship rights to blacks already in Illinois but also discouraged slaveowners from freeing slaves in Illinois.
A new kind of bad people began to pour into the United States in the 1840s, 2 million Irish fleeing the famine. About the same number of Germans immigrated to America in the middle of 19th century, but the Germans were good Protestants and the Irish were bad Catholics. In 1849, a secret society of Protestant men in New York called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner sought to recreate an America of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism” by fighting off the Irish hordes under the banner of patriotism. They became the American Party, often called the “Know Nothings.”
In 1857, the Supreme Court pronounced what it hoped was a definitive statement about bad immigrants in the Dred Scott case: descendants of slaves could never become citizens, because black people were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That ruling lasted only until Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the states passed the 14th Amendment 150 years ago.
Almost immediately another dangerous foreigner threatened white America, Chinese laborers imported to construct the transcontinental railroad in the West. California laws prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, and popular sentiment labeled the Chinese sexual predators taking jobs from white Americans. Congress in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Racist immigration restrictions are typically fearful reactions to changes in actual immigration. At the end of the 19th century, floods of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including millions of Jews, brought a backlash of demands to stop such bad immigrants. In 1924, a comprehensive quota system favored good immigrants from western and northern Europe; not-so-good immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were limited, and all Asians were barred. The quotas were designed so that 86 percent of immigrants came from northwestern Europe and Scandinavia.
The Immigration Act of 1924 remained in force through World War II, although extralegal restrictions had to be employed to prevent too many Jews from Germany from entering the United States. This and the entire history of immigration restrictions accurately represented American public opinion, at least among the white majority, where racist stereotypes of dangerous non-white foreigners mixed with fears of job competition.
A Gallup poll in November 1938, two weeks after the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes, and sent 30,000 Jews to concentration camps during Kristallnacht, asked Americans: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” Seventy-two percent said, “No.”