History of the Order of AHEPA 1922 - 1972

Opposition in America to Immigration

Page 69

Sometime after the depression of 1873, there arose opposition to further immigration and opposition to the immigrant in America. These opponents to immigration blamed any and all disorders in the country on the immigrant as the cause, whether they be criminality, intemperance, poverty, or disease, and Oscar Handlin describes this opposition in his book "The Uprooted":

The native wage earner knew that the immigrant did not directly compete with him for his job. But the children of immigrants were Americans who were not content with the places that went to foreigners. On the labor market the offspring of the newcomers jostled the sons of well-established families -- every now and then the advertisement would be seen "No Irish Need Apply!" The hurt would affect the offspring, but also the father. It would disclose to these immigrants, and to many who came later, the limits of their belonging to America. But during 1875 and later, the immigrants were still almost separate entities in the U.S. and had not been assimilated into the so called 'melting pot,' and become as one, which disturbed the native-born Americans. They were still recognizably Irish and German. And yet newer waves of immigrants were coming, and now the question was being asked more often “Was there any prospect that all these multitudes would ever be assimilated, would ever be Americanized?" A generation earlier such questions would not have been asked. Americans of the first half of the century has assumed that any man who subjected himself to the American environment was being Americanized. Now there were attempts to distinguish among the natives between those who really belonged and those who did not, to separate out those who were born in the U.S. but whose immigrant parentage cut them off from the truly indigenous folk. It was difficult to draw the line, however.

There was a half conscious quest for a term to describe those whose ancestors were in the U.S. before the great migrations – the New Englanders called themselves "Yankees" -- a word that often came to mean non-Irish or non-Canadian-the term Anglo-Saxon was used as a determining factor for 'English speaking people.'

Page 70

The immigrants were accused of non-conforming -- they were first accused of their poverty -- and benevolent citizens were reluctant to believe that such social flaws were indigenous to the New World and ascribed them to the defects of the newcomers, to improvidence, slovlenliness, and ignorance rather than to inability to earn a living wage. To those uptown, the ghettos were alien territory and the summation was 'You cannot make an American Citizen out of a slum.' The newcomers were accused of congregating together in their own groups and of an unwillingness to mix with outsiders. Everywhere, the strangers persisted in their strangeness and willfully stood apart from American life. A prominent educator sounded the warning: 'Our task is to break up their settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people and to implant in them the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law, and order.

The American social scientists approached their subject through the analysis of specific disorders; criminality, in temperance, poverty, and disease. Everywhere they looked they somehow found immigrants involved in these problems. They put the blame for these disorders then, on the immigrants, as an easy way out. Many concluded that the immigrants were incapable of improvement. Two college presidents announced that 'the immigrants were beaten men from beaten races, biologically incapable of rising, either now or through their descendants, above the mentality of a 12 year old child.' A famous social scientist expressed his opinion that 'race differences are established in the very blood. Races may change their religions, their form of government, and their languages, but underneath they may continue the Physical, Mental, and Moral Capacities and Incapacities which determine the Real Character of their Religion, Government, and Literature.' The fear of everything alien instilled by the First World War brought to fullest flower the seeds of racist thinking. Three very popular books of the time revealed to hundreds of thousands of horrified Nordics how their great race had been contaminated by contact with lesser breeds, dwarfed in stature, twisted in mentality, and ruthless in the pursuit of their own self-interest! Those ideas passed commonly in the language of the time. Although Americans realized and believed in the validity of American tradition of equal and open opportunities, of the Christian tradition of the brotherhood of man, yet enough believed the racist conceptions so that 5 million could become members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920's!

The war of 1914 brought all the forces of xenophobia together and cast over them the aura of patriotic necessity. In the years when every citizen faced a running demand for proof of his '100 per cent Americanism' it was dangerous to champion the cause of the foreign-born. In 1917, over President Wilson's veto, the literacy test for immigration was passed and enacted into law, requiring reading ability for entrance into the U.S. The sponsors of this measure had not been interested simply in selecting the more intelligent and rejecting the less intelligent, but were more interested in a means of barring the southern and eastern Europeans without excluding those from the northern and western parts of the continent where the facilities for elementary education had become common by 1917.

Page 71

Such a differentiation was desirable because it conformed to the racist assumptions of the restrictionists, and it was also strategic since it might earn the (political) support of those foreign-born groups that would not be adversely affected. However, when commercial shipping resumed after the War, the flow again began from southern and eastern Europe in as great a proportion as before the law was passed, with no effect on total numbers from these areas.

In 1911, Senator Dillingham had suggested as an alternative to the literacy test a new restrictive technique that would narrow the number of admissions from any country to a percentage of its natives already resident in the U.S. Congress adopted the scheme, and for Europeans the acts of 1921 and 1924 set up quotas which sharply curtailed the volume of immigration and which assigned to each nationality a number of places proportionate to its contribution to the American stock as then constituted. The new laws put an end to a century of free movement. They more than fulfilled the fondest hopes of their enactors; even the tiny quotas were not taken up thereafter and there were years when the number of departures exceeded the number of admissions. England, Ireland and Germany, which had the largest number of openings, by now had stationary or declining populations and no longer suffered from the displacements that had earlier set the peasant on the way. Italy, which felt most keenly the need forrelief of its landless agriculturists, had a quota of 5,800 a year. But even those five thousand would not come; the process of securing a visa and of meeting all the requirements of entrance was so hazardous that few would risk their lives on the chance of getting through. Probably the whole 25 year period after 1925 saw fewer newcomers to the United States than the single year 1907. But for the immigrants the results of restriction were more direct and more immediate. As the purport of the deliberations in Congress became clear, the foreign-born could not escape the conclusion that it was not only the future arrivals who were being judged but also those already settled. The objections to further immigration from Italy and Poland reflects the objectors' unfavorable opinions of the Italians and Poles they saw about them. The argument that Greeks and Slovaks could not become good Americans rested on the premise that the Greeks and Slovaks in the U.S. had not become good Americans. In the halls of the Capitol, they seemed to be saying: 'We won't admit any more the strangers who came to strip our land of money; they have taken enough.'

Page 72

The newcomers could not but feel estranged. In 42 volumes, under the guise of science, the government had published the record of their 'shortcomings.' Learned men had told them they were hardly human at all; their head shapes were different, their bodily structure faulty, the weight of their brains deficient. If they were Italians, they were not really like the Italians who had a claim to the mantle of Rome; if they were Greeks, they were not genuine Greeks descended from the Hellenes. Restriction intensified the group consciousness of the immigrant peoples. The number of associations and the scope of their activity continued to increase. These still served the old functions of sociability and insurance. But in addition, they became instruments of defense against the overt hostility of the society that rejected their members. Indeed, in some men the awareness of not being wanted stirred up the sentiments of offended pride into an inverted exclusiveness. Others had compassed them about with words of hatred and had fought against them without a cause. Well, they would accept the glaring ultimate result, that they were not wanted by, did not belong with the other Americans, and they would make a virtue of it.

The fixity now imparted to their separateness and the imputation of their inferiority drove some immigrants into a defiant nationalism of their own. Since they would not be 100 per cent Americans by the definition of the Klan, they contrived a patriotism of their own, found a refuge of sorts within their groups from the offensive rejections on the outside. Usually it was those who had come closest in adjustment to native society whom the slurs of restriction shook most violently. Pride in their own stock compensated for the rebuffs. The vainglorious sentiments that now crept into the pages of the press and into the perorations of the orators were the products neither of the peasant heritage nor of the conditions of immigrant settlement in the U.S. These sentiments were not of a kind with the older romantic glorification of folk heroes. Nor were they like the earlier nostalgic urge to extend the right of self-determination back to the European homelands. They were rather the equivalents of the narrow feelings that swayed the member of the Klan. The Zionist movement of the Jews received greatest impetus during this period, for the Jews began to think that America might not be a permanent home for the Jewish immigrants and all Jews, and they thought of what was transpiring in Germany under Hitler. A direct general result of restriction drew many immigrant peoples into an intense nationalism of a kind with that of their native contemporaries, and drew them together."

Page 73


One great advocate of "assimilation" of the immigrant into the American population, where all variances of different ethnic groups would become lost, fused into "one common nationality, having one language, one political practice, one patriotism and one ideal of social development," was Richard Mayo-Smith, who wrote in 1904:

The strength of this foreign element is disclosed if we take a typical state and study the makeup of its population more closely. Massachusetts is commonly thought of as peculiarly an American community, where the population is largely composed of descendants of the Puritans. It was found in 1885 that over 27 per cent of the inhabitants of that commonwealth were of foreign birth, and that over one-half of all the inhabitants were of foreign parentage. Nearly 30 per cent were of Irish parentage alone.

Another great fusing-force has been the dominance of one language-the English. In the great mass of cases the immigrant has found it necessary or desirable to adopt that language. Where he has not done it himself, his children have; and in many cases it has become the mother tongue if not the only tongue of the descendants. As soon as that happens, the man of foreign descent is irreparably separated from his former home. In some cases, thickly settled communities have managed to maintain the foreign speech and the old religion for several generations. But the disintegrating forces are at work all about them. The moment the young man ventures out into the world he is obliged to learn English. The moment he aspires to higher education or to political or commercial position he must recognize the prevailing tongue. The children learn it in the school. The parents recognize that it is desirable for the children if not for themselves. It is impossible to isolate the little community completely and it is gradually undermined. It is eminently desirable that it should be so. We must have one speech in this country. We must insist that English shall be taught in the schools and that it shall be the fundamental language of future generations. It must be everywhere the official language of future generations. German clergymen and educated men sometimes regret that the immigrant and their descendants should lose this connection with the old country and access to the great literature of the German tongue. But it is better that a man should have one country and not divide his allegiance. If we are to build up in this country one nationality, we must insist upon one speech.

The statistics on this point are not very encouraging to those persons who believe that mixture of blood in the United States will finally produce a race different from and superior to any of the older nationalities. It appears that where a particular nationality is concentrated in any one locality, the men choose wives of their own race. It is possible that the future generations of different blood may intermarry more freely. But even here it is seen how desirable it is to break up the concentration of immigrants of the same nationality in one place, so that by intermarriage with the natives and with people of other nationality this process of fusion and amalgamation may be hastened.

It is one of the favorite theories of social philosophers that mixed races are the strongest. And it is true as a matter of history that the most progressive peoples of Europe are mixed in blood. The American people of the future will be a race composed of many different elements, and it is possible that this mixture will have produced a people possessing the best characteristics displayed by these various elements. It seems, however, that there are two things that ought to be carefully considered. One is that the constituent elements of this amalgamation should themselves be of desirable quality. It is scarcely probable that by taking the dregs of Europe we shall produce a people of high social intelligence and morality. The second is that we must see to it that the opportunity for amalgamation is really given. Simply placing these discordant elements in juxtaposition will not make a compact and solid whole. On the contrary it will give rise to an atomistic weakness which will make any homogeneous and harmonious development impossible. A nation is great, not on account of the number of individuals contained within its boundaries, but through the strength begotten of common national ideals and aspirations. No nation can exist and be powerful that is not homogeneous in this sense. And the great ethnic problem we have before us is to fuse these diverse elements into one common nationality, having one language, one political practice, one patriotism and one ideal of social development.

Page 74

“The Passing of the Great Race"

Madison Grant, in 1916, predicted the end of the Nordic Race in America with the coming of vast groups of immigrants from the Mediterranean and the Balkans, in "The Passing of the Great Race.":

Race consciousness in the United States down to and including the Mexican War, seems to have been very strongly developed among native Americans and it still remains in full vigor today in the South, where the presence of a large Negro population forces this question upon the daily attention of the whites. The native American by the middle of the 19th century was rapidly acquiring distinct characteristics … The Civil War, however, put a severe, perhaps fatal, check to the development and expansion of this splendid type by destroying great numbers of the best breeding stock on both sides and by breaking up the home ties of many mOregon If the war had not occurred these same men with their descendants would have populated the Western States instead of the racial nondescripts who are now flocking there … The prosperity that followed the war attracted hordes of newcomers who were welcomed by the native Americans to operate factories, build railroads and fill up the waste space -- "developing the country" it was called.

These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of a Nordic race as were the earlier ones who came of their own impulse to improve their social conditions. The transportation lines advertised America as a land flowing with milk and honey and the European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy and hospitable America the sweepings of their jails and asylums. The result was that the new immigration ... contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos. Our jails, insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them. With a pathetic and fatuous belief in the efficacy of American institutions and environment to reverse or obliterate immemorial hereditary tendencies, these newcomers were welcomed and given a share in our land and prosperity.

Page 75

The American taxed himself to sanitate and educate these poor helots and as soon as they could speak English, encouraged them to enter into the political life, first of municipalities and then of the nation …

These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race … As to what the future mixture will be it is evident that in large sections of the country the native American will entirely disappear. He will not intermarry with inferior races and he cannot compete in the sweat shop and in the street trench with the newcomers. Large cities from the days of Rome, Alexandria, and Byzantium have always been gathering points of diverse races, but New York is becoming a cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.

One thing is certain: in any such mixture, the surviving traits will be determined by competition between the lowest and most primitive elements and the specialized traits of Nordic man; his stature, his light colored eyes, his fair skin and light colored hair, his straight nose and his splendid fighting and moral qualities, will have little part in the resultant mixture.


Professor Robert De C. Ward of Harvard was prominent in the restrictionist movement to limit or entirely cut out immigration into America, and his reasons for such a stand were written in 1919 as follows:

Our present Immigration Act, was passed over the veto of President Wilson by both Senate and House and became law on Feb. 5, 1917, about two months before this country declared war. It is by far the most comprehensive immigration legislation ever enacted in this country and if properly enforced would be of immense benefit to our future race. Its rigid enforcement will unquestionably result in an improvement in the mental, physical and moral qualities of immigrants even if not designed to reduce greatly their numbers. That a further real restriction of immigration is necessary for the best interests of American labor, and for the proper assimilation and Americanization of our heterogeneous population, has long been obvious to the large majority of those, both Americans and foreigners, who have impartially studied our immigration problems.

Page 76

It is 'ungenerous' of us, the custodians of future generations of our race, to permit to land on our shores mental, physical and moral defectives, who, themselves and through their descendants, will not only lower the standards of our own people, but will tremendously increase all future problems of public and private philanthropy. It is in the highest degree "un-American" for us to permit any such influx of alien immigrants as will make the process of Americanization any more difficult than it already is."


Authors Oscar and Mary Handlin describe the "Pattern of Seclusion" -- efforts to seclude immigrants or ethnic groups from taking full part in American life:

Social mobility has always been an important characteristic of the American scheme for living. A great deal of freedom in the economic structure has made room for the free play of talents and has permitted newcomers to make their way from the lower to the higher rungs in the occupational ladder. In the absence of hereditary aristocracy, social position has generally accompanied economic position. Those who occupied the higher places of course always resented the competition from those who climbed out of the lower places. More than a hundred years ago, newspapers were already carrying the injunction over their help-wanted ads, "No Irish Need Apply!" "But the democratic nature of American society made it difficult permanently to establish such barriers. In the 19th century these artificial restraints had always broken down beneath the pressure of the necessity for cooperation at all levels of the community. Furthermore, constant expansion in the economic and social structure of the nation made room for newcomers, without lowering the position of those already well established. In fact, it often happened that a rise in the level of the immigrants and their children lifted even higher the positions of all those above them. Exclusion (against Jews) was first prominently expressed in areas that involved the use of leisure time facilities, in vacation places, in clubs and in social groups of various kinds. Such activities were open to intimate personal contacts, and therefore felt the strangers' presence more sensitively. In the office or workshop, everyone dealt impersonally with each other, but social activities drew in the whole family.

At Saratoga Springs in 1877 Joseph Seligman was refused accommodations at the Grand Union Hotel, and in 1890's a large number of hereditary prestige societies appeared, basing membership upon descent from 18th century American ancestors, and which had the effect of excluding not only Jews, but abo descendants of immigrants who arrived after 1800. After 1910, the sons of immigrant Jews entered competition for professional and white collar places in the economic system, and the weight of such prejudice became formal and more open.

Page 77

Newspaper ads began to exclude Jews from consideration for certain positions. The American Jewish Committee was formed in 1906 and the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith was formed in 1913 to fight these trends, which became serious. In 1915, Leo Frank, a Jewish resident of Atlanta, was accused of murdering a 14 year old girl on the flimsiest grounds; his sentence was commuted by the Governor of the State, but the next day he was taken from jail and lynched by a mob. In the 1890's Italians in New Orleans and Irishmen in Boston suffered the harsh effects of mob violence.

The Literacy Test

In 1902, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, came out strongly in favor of an educational test, or "literacy test" to be given all immigrants before allowing them to enter the country:

The strength of this country is in the intelligence and prosperity of our working people. But both the intelligence and the prosperity of our working people are endangered by the present immigration. Cheap labor, ignorant labor, takes our jobs and cuts our wages. The fittest survive, that is, those that fit the conditions best. But it is the economically weak, not the economically strong, that fit the conditions of the labor market. They fit best because they can be got to work cheapest. Women and children drive out men, unless either law or labor organization stops it. In just the same way the Chinaman and others drive out the American, the German, the Irishman. The Nashville Convention of the American Federation of Labor by a vote of 1,858 to 352, pronounced in favor of an educational test for immigrants. But the flood of cheap labor is increasing, and its effect at the slightest stagnation in industry or in any crisis will be fearful to the American workman.


In 1917, the U.S. Congress did pass some restrictive immigration measures over the veto of President Wilson, upon which Oscar Handlin comments as follows:

The policy that put an end to the immigration movement was adopted after a quarter century of agitation. The action finally taken was shaped by two factors: First, by the nationalistic sentiments of the war years and after; and also, by the restriction is tic ideas developed and spread in the long debate since the question was first raised. Several distinct elements coalesced in the restrictionist campaign. The West Coast anti-Oriental battle had a profound influence, for it was there the notion took hold that there were categories of humanity altogether unfit to become Americans and therefore altogether to be excluded. In the 1870's and 1880's the Chinese were the predominant target; in the years after 1900, the Japanese.

Page 78

The restrictionists could also draw upon the support of religious prejudice. Among American Protestants there had long been latent the fear that the bulk of the immigrants, Catholic or Jewish, by heritage, might subtly undermine the traditional American religious forms. It was no coincidence that the years in which the new immigration legislation was enacted were also the years in which the Ku Klux Klan was building up its membership of 5,000,000. The developing conception of racism added further strength to the drive for closing the gates. In the early years of the 20th century many sociologists and anthropologists had accepted the idea that mankind was divided into biologically distinct races, that any intermixture was undesirable, and that Americans ought to aim at a population that was pure and Aryan.

Through most of the campaign the argument revolved about the literacy test that would have barred any immigrant incapable of reading in any language. It was hoped such a measure would cut down the total numbers and select the superior applicants. The Immigration Restriction League, an organization particularly strong in New England, sponsored the measure in the hope that it would allow the English-speaking groups to retain their predominance. The proposal was also aimed to attract the support of the 'old' immigrants from northern and western Europe who were sedulously courted with the assurance they were different from and better than the "new" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In addition, the literacy test drew the support of the organized labor movement anxious to retain its favored position in the American economy. Enactment of the measure in 1917 did not end the restrictionist movement. Indeed, the Immigration Restriction League was spurred by its initial success to renewed efforts toward a more complete restriction. And it could draw upon the dark hatred and fears of wartime for support.

These articles have shown the development and growth of distinct anti-immigration forces at work, with unfounded and irrational arguments based on mentality, health, economy, religion, race purity, morality, etc.

Every human frailty in American life was blamed upon the immigrant, and every possible prejudice surfaced in anger and attack against the immigrant, who was blamed for the ills of the country. There were, however, those who viewed these discriminatory attacks with alarm, and who wrote on the subject with a more rational and intelligent approach.

The immigrants were in the middle of this battle, sometimes bewildered, but always working to support their families, educate their children, and slowly improving their social and economic status in their communities.  


© Copyright Order of AHEPA

George J. Leber's book is copyright protected. However, any portions of this book may be quoted at length, provided that proper credit & acknowledgement is given to the book, author, publisher, and pages.


Leber, George J. History of the Order of AHEPA 1922 - 1972. Washigton DC, Order of AHEPA, 1972.

Previous Chapter One - The History of Immigration to America
Next Chapter Three - Arguments for Immigration and Immigrant National Identity