Is It 1920 or 1964 for Immigration to the U.S.?

Observers have likened 2020 to 1918 (a time of pandemic), to 1929  (a time of economic catastrophe), and to 1968 (a time of social unrest). However, for those who are concerned about U.S. immigration policy, a question arises: Is 2020 going to be more like 1920 or 1964?

1920

1919 and 1920 were years of trauma and change in the U.S. World War I had ended in November of 1918, and millions of American troops returned from European battlefields, with the last troops arriving home in early 1920. The influenza pandemic ended in the summer of 1919 after killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.   1919 America also experienced economic hardship, labor strikes, and racial violence. In 1920, women were guaranteed the right to vote, Prohibition took effect, the Palmer raids resulted in the arrest of thousands of alleged radicals, the Ku Klux Klan was revitalized, and the economy entered a depression.  

1920 also was a presidential election year. The Republican Warren Harding ran against the Democrat James Cox. Daniel Okrent, in The Guarded Gate, writes that Harding’s “1920 campaign rested on an advertising slogan that would reverberate politically for the next century: ‘America First.’” (p. 265) Harding also advocated a policy of limited immigration. 

Harding won the election, and shortly after his inauguration he “… called Congress into special session to pass new limits on immigration, which he then signed into law.” This law put an unprecedented ceiling on the number of European immigrants allowed entry each year and limited the number of entrants from individual European countries, which was intended to reduce immigration from southern and eastern Europe and which favored immigration from northern Europe. According to Okrent (p. 288):

The consequences of the 1921 Emergency Immigration Act were immediate. The 3 percent rule cut immigration from Poland by 70 percent, from Yugoslavia by 74 percent, from Italy by a breathtaking 82 percent… 28,503 Greeks arrived in 1921 but only 3,457 were allowed through the gates in the first post-quota year.

The law was followed by another in 1924 which further restricted European immigration and which was signed by Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s vice president and successor after Harding died in 1923. The 1924 law also barred almost all immigration from Asia.

Although it is difficult to determine Cox’s position on immigration, and although the 1920 Democratic Party platform supported the continued ban on immigrants from Asia, it is possible that had Cox prevailed, he and Congress might not have followed in the restrictionist footsteps of Harding and his congressional allies. The Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) had vetoed restrictionist legislation twice during his tenure, perhaps largely based on the desire to gain the support of voters of southern and eastern European descent. (Okrent, p. 190 and p. 220) Cox may have continued Wilson’s stance on immigration policy.

Beyond his immigration policy, as president Hardingsurrounded himself with individuals who were later accused of misconduct” and “Harding himself allegedly had extramarital affairs and drank alcohol in the White House, a violation of the 18th Amendment.” 

With regard to Harding’s views on race, some claim that Harding was a “racially enlightened” president for the time, noting his support for anti-lynching legislation and a speech in Alabama in which he “argued for full economic and political rights for all African-Americans.” (See also here.) At the same time, some of his remarks on race are abominable. It has been noted that in the Alabama speech he asserted that “segregation was also essential to prevent ‘racial amalgamation,’ and social equality was thus a dream that blacks must give up.” In addition, Okrent states that Harding endorsed the book The Rising Tide of Color Against the White World-Supremacy by the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, in which Stoddard sought “… to persuade his readers that worldwide catastrophe was in the offing, and that the central conflagration would be ignited by race.” (Okrent, pp. 264-265) (This endorsement apparently occurred during the same Alabama speech.) Moreover, Harding signed the 1921 immigration legislation, which “represented the culmination of decades of racial and religious-motivated bigotry against newcomers from southern and Eastern Europe and Asia.”

1964

1964 was a key year in the civil rights movement. After years of peaceful activism demanding the equal treatment of African Americans, the movement helped achieve the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Beyond civil rights, one journalist states that 1964 “… was the year American culture fractured and eventually split along ideological lines — old vs. young; hip vs. square; poor vs. rich; liberal vs. conservative — establishing the poles of societal debate that are still raging today.” 

The 1964 presidential election offered stark choices. Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic incumbent, had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and promoted the Great Society, a group of government policies meant to end poverty and address other societal ills. His opponent, Barry Goldwater, opposed Johnson’s domestic agenda and as a senator had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, presaging the harnessing of white racial grievance by future Republican presidential candidates, although Goldwater personally “loathed segregation.” 

Although it has been noted that immigration policy was not a major issue during the 1964 presidential contest, Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address included this statement“We must also lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country.” It is unclear what Goldwater’s vision was for immigration policy, although he apparently supported increasing immigration from Mexico. 

After Johnson’s re-election in 1964, his administration worked hard to overturn the immigration laws that had been enacted in the 1920s. Daniel Tichenor of the University of Oregon writes that “Johnson recognized that failing to spearhead an immigration overhaul would significantly undercut his civil-rights, social-justice, and geopolitical goals.” The end result was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which “… ended a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority.” Referring to the Statue of Liberty at the signing ceremony for the legislation, Johnson stated that “the lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today–and the golden door that she guards gleams more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all the countries of the globe.” (Okrent, p. 394)

The 1965 act led to more diverse immigration and higher overall levels. (Also see here and here.) The impact was significant: “… in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.” As of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, “fifty years after passage of the landmark law that rewrote U.S. immigration policy, nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the United States, pushing the country’s foreign-born share to a near record 14%.” Today about 33 million immigrants legally reside on a permanent basis in the U.S. and come from countries around the world.

Given the law’s connection to Johnson’s civil rights and social justice goals, which Goldwater did not emphasize, it is difficult to imagine that Goldwater would have helped orchestrate this transformation of the nation’s immigration laws. (While the 1965 law is preferable to those of the 1920s, it continues to be the foundation of today’s immigration enforcement regime, which inflicts enormous harm on both immigrants and Americans.)

2020

America in 2020 rhymes with America in 1920 in a number of ways.  The U.S. is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and, although the influenza pandemic had ended a year earlier, memories of it must have been fresh. New rights were granted to groups in both years, with women gaining the suffrage in 1920 and LGBT individuals gaining new protections in 2020. Economic downturns characterize 2020 and a century ago. 1920 was bookended by pogroms against African Americans in 1919 and 1921, and 2020 has been characterized by continued violence by police and others towards African Americans. As in 1920, America today is home to an emboldened white supremacist movement.  

Moreover, like 1920, 2020 is a presidential election year in which one of the candidates has used the slogan “America First,” whose administration is scandalous (in Harding’s case, would be scandalous), and who is hostile to immigration, particularly immigrants who are not white Christians. (See here and here for more parallels between Harding and Trump. Like Harding, Trump also has made comments on race that are deplorable.) Julia Young of the Catholic University of America writes that

… the Trump administration has made it very clear that its vision for American greatness is a nativist one. In this nativist vision, the time period to which we return is one in which immigration is sharply restricted by national, ethnic, and religious criteria. Perhaps we have an answer, then, to the unanswered question within ‘Make America Great Again’: Trump’s America is looking more and more like the America of 1920.  

2020 also echoes 1964 in some ways. As I have noted, after years of activism, the passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act (the same legislation on which the Supreme Court based its 2020 decision granting employment protections for LGBT individuals) provided new protections for groups that had experienced discrimination, including African Americans. Similarly, widespread protests in 2020 against police mistreatment of African Americans have led to government initiatives at the federal and local levels to prevent further injustices. 

As in 1964, this year’s national election offers Americans two very different choices. However, unlike during the 1964 campaign, the outcomes of this year’s election for immigration policy are clearer. As I noted in a previous post, Trump and his Republican allies seek to diminish the flow of legal immigrants into the U.S. The Trump administration has used the current pandemic as an excuse to ban, ostensibly temporarily, almost all immigration. (See also here.) Trump’s re-election, combined with Republican control of Congress, could lead to a dramatic reduction in legal immigration.

A Biden victory, combined with Democratic control of Congress, would likely liberalize immigration policy. The Biden campaign website refers to immigration as “an irrefutable source of our strength” and states that “immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, our core values, and our aspirations for the future.” It notes the significant economic contribution of immigrants. It acknowledges the trauma inflicted by deportations, “including under the Obama-Biden Administration.” It notes the “moral failing” of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies, claiming that Biden will stop practices such as separating parents from their children at the southern border, forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for weeks before being allowed to apply for asylum, and raiding workplaces to arrest undocumented workers.   

Like Johnson, a President Biden would  “… commit significant political capital to finally deliver legislative immigration reform to ensure that the U.S. remains open and welcoming to people from every part of the world…” Among other proposals, he would work with Congress to enable the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to acquire legal status and eventually citizenship. He would back legislation that would provide agricultural workers who have long worked on U.S. farms an opportunity to gain permanent resident status. He would support legislation that would reduce wait times for family-based immigration. He would support creating new visas that would allow localities to petition for additional immigrant visas to support local economic growth, a topic that was addressed in a previous post. He would increase the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. He also would reinstate DACA and “… explore all legal options to protect their families from inhumane separation.”

Even if all of Biden’s immigration policy proposals were actually enacted, the results would fall far short of the aspirations of open borders advocates. In terms of increasing the number of immigrants admitted each year, it apparently fails to reach even the levels contained in the 2013 bill which passed the SenateHis platform also repeats the conventional and impossible intention to “uphold our laws humanely.” Nonetheless, the Biden policy would create more opportunities for immigrants and cause less suffering than that of Trump.

It is difficult to predict public support for Biden’s immigration policy.  Polls conducted in late 2018 and early 2019 suggest that most Americans think immigrants strengthen America and believe immigrants have positive attributes. In addition, “the percentage of Americans who said they want immigration levels to be reduced is at the lowest level, in two different polls, since that question was first asked going back to 1965 (in Gallup’s poll).” However, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and the journalist and author Charles C. Mann observes that “pandemics.. have long-term, powerful aftereffects.”  He notes that the 1918-19 flu pandemic “inspired fear of immigrants and foreigners…” With the coronavirus having spread to the U.S. from abroad, it is conceivable that the pandemic could lead to an increase in xenophobia in the U.S.

So will it be 1920 or 1964 for American immigration policy? In 2020, will Americans elect a nativist candidate, or will they choose a liberal who views immigration as essential to the country and welcomes immigrants from around the world? A Trump victory could doom the opportunities for many people to immigrate to the U.S. (or to legalize their status), as Harding’s victory did, and ensure the continuation of an exceptionally abusive immigration enforcement system. A Biden administration could increase the flow of immigrants into the U.S., as the Johnson administration did, eliminate some of the cruel elements of the Trump administration’s enforcement regime, and allow many unauthorized immigrants to gain permanent residency. We will know the answer soon.

 

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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