The story is familiar but too often forgotten. We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, and frequently we have welcomed newcomers. During and immediately after the carnage of the Civil War, states such as Kansas, Missouri, and (yes!) Iowa, all short of workers, created bureaus of immigration to recruit settlers from Europe. Some states sent emissaries abroad.
But almost from our first settlements, we also regarded large classes of people, in the words of Massachusetts Bay Gov. John Winthrop in 1637, as "not fit for our society." In a new continent, as someone famously said, "we wanted workers, but we got people." In big city and small town, when times got tough or the new complexions, languages, and habits became too strange, we tried to shut them out.
In the 1830s, the Rev. Lyman Beecher, perhaps the nation's most celebrated churchman of his time (and the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe), issued dark warnings that the Vatican was plotting to flood the country with Catholic immigrants and take over the American West. In 1834, a nativist mob in Boston broke into and torched an Ursuline Sisters' convent and school. In the years following, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic riots occurred in Lawrence, Mass., Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia, where the most vicious violence killed an estimated 45 people and wounded 145, most of them rioters shot by militia.
In the 1850s, scores of Know-Nothings won election to Congress and high state offices espousing tight restrictions on (Irish) immigration and a law barring immigrants from voting until they had been here at least 21 years.
In 1911, a national commission concluded that 63 percent of schoolchildren with a southern Italian background were "retarded" — meaning that they were two years behind their classmates; these youngsters were exceeded in failure only by the children of Polish Jews, at 67 percent, and, as always, by blacks. In a 42-volume report, the commission called for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers and those who "by reason of their personal qualities or habits" would least readily be assimilated and make the least desirable citizens.
In 1917, Congress drew a line on the globe and declared the region from the Middle East to Southeast Asia an "Asiatic Barred Zone" from which the United States would accept no immigrants.
Throughout most of our history, the U.S. based its reception policies on two sets of criteria. One was economic; the other was that catchall, "race." Were the immigrants "white"? That is, how close were they in ethnicity, religion, language, culture, and national origin to the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who came before them?
A century ago, a Detroit newspaper asked a black factory worker whether he worked with any whites. "'No, I don't work with no whites," he responded. "There's some Polacks, but no whites." In 1909, Armenians had to go to federal court to be declared white and thus entitled to naturalization.