Donald Trump and a Century-Old Argument About Who's Allowed in America

U.S. presidents as far back as Harry Truman denounced entry policies based on nationality, calling them discriminatory and un-American.

President Trump, waving, boards Marine One.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

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.

The national-origins quota system enacted in 1924 reflected the ethnic and racial prejudice of its designers. More than 50,000 immigrant-visa slots were reserved each year for Germany. The United Kingdom got the next biggest allocation, with 34,000. Ireland, with about 28,000 slots, and Norway, with 6,400, had the highest quotas as a share of their populations. Each country in Asia had a quota of just 100, while Africans desiring to immigrate to America had to compete for one of about 1,000 visas set aside for the entire continent.

These quotas remained in effect for the next four decades, even as criticism of their racialist character increased. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act made it slightly easier for Asians to immigrate to the United States, but, over the objections of then-President Harry Truman, it preserved the quota system. In a message explaining his veto of the legislation, Truman noted that the quota policy “discriminates, deliberately and intentionally, against many peoples of the world.” Congress dismissed his critique, however, and overrode his veto.

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy also challenged the national-origin quotas, but it was Lyndon Johnson who made their elimination a top priority. “A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission, ‘What can you do for our country?’” he said in his 1964 State of the Union speech. “But we should not be asking, ‘In what country were you born?’” His administration proposed a reform that would put all nationalities on a roughly equal basis, with immigrant visas awarded largely on the basis of whether the candidates had skills and education considered “especially advantageous” to U.S. interests.

Opposition to the elimination of the quota system came largely from the same Southern Democrats who were opposing civil-rights legislation at the time. During a Senate floor debate over Johnson’s proposal, Democrat Spessard Holland of Florida asked, “Why, for the first time, are the emerging nations of Africa to be placed on the same basis as are our mother countries—Britain, Germany, the Scandinavian nations, France, and the other nations from which most Americans have come?” (In fact, the 1960 Census showed that Americans of African descent outnumbered Scandinavian Americans by a margin of two-and-a-half to one. And there were more African Americans in the United States than there were Americans whose origins lay in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland combined.)

Democrat John McClellan of Arkansas echoed Holland’s criticism, observing that the proposed reform would shift the immigrant flow “from those European countries that contributed most to the formation of this nation to the countries of Asia and Africa.” In language strikingly familiar to complaints about immigrants raised by the current president, McClellan asked whether opening the United States to immigrants from Africa and other developing regions would lead to “still more ghettos and thus more and more acts of violence and riots?”

Support for Johnson’s immigration reform came largely from moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats, and it gained momentum after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had pushed for the abolition of national-origin quotas throughout the 1950s as a U.S. senator, tied the promotion of immigration reform to the civil-rights movement.

“We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people.”

The reform passed Congress by a large margin in September 1965, though only after a key change. Conservatives, led by Democratic Representative Michael Feighan of Ohio, insisted that immigrant candidates with relatives already in the United States be given priority over those with “advantageous” skills and education, as the Johnson administration had originally proposed. That change, which eventually led to the phenomenon of “chain migration” denounced by Trump, was seen at the time as a way to preserve the existing ethnic profile of the U.S. population and discourage the immigration of Asians and Africans, who had fewer family ties in the country. But the new law did away entirely with quotas based on national origin alone.

“This system violated the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man,” Johnson declared as he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. “It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country. Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.”

The debate over superior and inferior nationalities, it seemed, had been resolved. Johnson, who as a senator had voted to uphold national-origin quotas over Truman’s veto, predicted the system would “never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

Fifty-two years later, with a president who apparently prefers some national origins over others, Johnson’s promise may be in jeopardy.