Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration

Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration

Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration

Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration

Synopsis

In a book of deep and telling ironies, Peter Schrag provides essential background for understanding the fractious debate over immigration. Covering the earliest days of the Republic to current events, Schrag sets the modern immigration controversy within the context of three centuries of debate over the same questions about who exactly is fit for citizenship. He finds that nativism has long colored our national history, and that the fear--and loathing--of newcomers has provided one of the faultlines of American cultural and political life. Schrag describes the eerie similarities between the race-based arguments for restricting Irish, German, Slav, Italian, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants in the past and the arguments for restricting Latinos and others today. He links the terrible history of eugenic "science" to ideas, individuals, and groups now at the forefront of the fight against rational immigration policies. Not Fit for Our Society makes a powerful case for understanding the complex, often paradoxical history of immigration restriction as we work through the issues that inform, and often distort, the debate over who can become a citizen, who decides, and on what basis.

Excerpt

It’s long been said that America is a nation of immigrants. But for closely connected reasons, it’s also been a nation of immigration restrictionists, among them some of the nation’s most honored founders. Indeed it would be nearly impossible to imagine the first without the second. And since we were to be “a city upon a hill,” a beacon of human perfection to the entire world, there were fundamental questions: Would America be able to refine all the imperfect material that landed on our shores, or would we have to determine what was not perfectible and shut it out? And what would happen when the once-unpopulated continent that badly required large numbers of settlers—unpopulated, that is, except for the Indians—began to fill up?

Our contemporary immigration battles, and particularly the ideas and proposals of latter-day nativists and immigration restrictionists, resonate with the arguments of more than two centuries of that history. Often, as most of us should know, the immigrants who were demeaned by one generation were the parents and grandparents of the successes of the next generation. Perhaps, not paradoxically, many of them, or their children and grandchildren, later joined those who attacked and disparaged the next arrivals, or would-be arrivals, with the same vehemence that had been leveled against them or their forebears

As a German-Jewish refugee from Hitler, I’m personally familiar with a slice of this story, having spent time on both sides of the nativist divide. In the late 1930s my parents and I were on the short end of . . .

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