President Trump’s reported suggestion that the United States needs fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more from those like Norway revives an argument made vigorously a century ago—though in less profane terms—only to be discredited in the decades that followed.
In 1907, alarmed by the arrival of more than a million immigrants per year, Congress established a commission to determine exactly where people were coming from and what their capacities were. Over the next four years, under the leadership of Republican Senator William Dillingham of Vermont, the commission prepared a 42-volume report purporting to distinguish the more and less desirable ethnicities.
The commission’s “Dictionary of Races or Peoples” laid out its key findings. Slavs demonstrated “fanaticism in religion, carelessness as to the business virtues of punctuality and often honesty.” Southern Italians were found to be “excitable, impulsive, highly imaginative, impracticable.” Scandinavians, the commission concluded, represented “the purest type”—the notion of favoring immigration from Norway did not originate with President Trump.
Largely in response to the report, Congress enacted a new immigration law in 1924 establishing country-by-country quotas. The main author was Representative Albert Johnson of Washington state, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Immigration. His key adviser on immigration policy was Madison Grant, an amateur eugenicist whose writings had given racism a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. In his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, Grant separated the human population into Caucasoids, Mongoloids, and Negroids. Not surprisingly, he ranked Caucasoids as the superior group, though he subdivided them into three more groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans, ranking Nordics as the most elite.