In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

4

'The Gravest Menace?' American
Immigration Policy

The time will come when this country will have to face, more courageously than it has at the present time, the matter not only of race and of individual quality, but also of pedigree or family stock, and we will have to face boldly and courageously the matter of race. It is a matter of conservation of nationality. After the Chinese exclusion act, the greatest step that the American people took in relation to the nationality of race was, of course, the quota laws of 1921 and 1924. It is now clear that the country has in its recent legislation entered definitely upon the biological basis, a farsighted policy, of immigration control.— Dr Harry Laughlin. 1

I HAVE identified the criterion of 'liberal reason' as one of the sources of illiberal social policy. To be a full member of a liberal democracy, there is an expectation about citizens' possession of the requisite mental and reasoning powers. In the United States, concern about the 'mental fitness' of potential members arose powerfully as a political issue in the opening decades of the twentieth century when the question was raised in respect of prospective immigrants some of whom, it was alleged, failed on this criterion. Immigration was salient politically and eugenists found themselves (willingly) articulating the basis of a restrictionist policy in terms of immigrants' mental (and physical) suitability. The restrictions eventually enacted in the national origins system (in 1924) remained in place until the mid-1960s, despite criticisms from a string of presidents including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy. Social policy thus contributed decisively to limiting citizenship in the USA rather than expanding its terms of inclusion.

From broadly accepting all comers in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century American immigration policy became restrictive and selective. The change began in 1882, 100 years after the Republic's founding. In this chapter 2 I use archival research to examine the policy's

____________________
1
'The Eugenical Aspects of Deportation', Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, HR 70th Congress, 1st Session, 21 Feb. 1928, pp. 20-1.
2
The leading scholarly study remains Higham (1988, first published in 1955), to which I am indebted. While Higham discusses the influence of eugenics on US immigration policy

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