While it has long been said that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," the impact of the foreign-born on American life has never been more pronounced than it was in the early years of the twentieth century. An enormous surge of immigration had begun in the 1880s and continued unabated for several decades, boosting the foreign-born portion of the nation's population to an all-time peak of 14.7% by 1910. That meant that more than one out of every seven Americans was an immigrant. The immigrant presence was even more pronounced in America's great cities, where the new arrivals from overseas congregated in disproportionate numbers. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, an astounding four out of every five residents of New York City were either immigrants or the first-generation children of immigrants. And in the years before World War I, America's immigrant surge showed few signs of slowing down; in early 1907, the federal immigration station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor set an all-time record by processing the entry of 11,747 newly arrived immigrants in a single day.15
While the great immigration wave of the early twentieth century might have been viewed as nothing more than a continuation of America's long immigrant tradition, many native-born citizens of the era did not see it that way. They saw, instead, something menacing, a new and different type of immigration that threatened to undermine American society. In 1907, the United States Senate responded to such fears by authorizing a special committee, under the leadership of Vermont Senator William Dillingham, to conduct a detailed investigation of the immigration problem. Four years later, the Dillingham Commission issued its report, a 41-volume behemoth incorporating thousands of pages of exhaustive research. Dillingham's conclusions were simple, and dire: around 1882, the commission reported, the character of American immigration had changed decisively for the worse. While the "old immigration" before that time had benefited the country, the more recent "new immigration" had not. In fact, Dillingham believed that the "new immigration" posed a grave threat to American culture and contributed significantly to the worst social problems afflicting the nation's teeming cities. The "new immigration," Dillingham argued, should be blocked entirely or, if that proved impossible, at least sharply restricted.
So what had changed in 1882? What differentiated the undesirable "new immigrants" from their supposedly less problematic "old" predecessors? For all the complex scientific and social research conducted by the Dillingham Commission, the report's conclusions now seem shockingly simple (and unscientific): the difference between "new" and "old immigrants" was race. Before 1882, the vast majority of immigrants to America had come from just a handful of Northern European countries. These "old immigrants" were mostly Britons, Irishmen, or Germans, with smaller numbers of Frenchmen and Scandinavians thrown in for good measure. These groups shared similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds; they were all, to use the pseudoscientific racial categories of the time, members of the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic races. After 1882, however, the source of America's immigrant population shifted dramatically toward Southern and Eastern Europe. Italians, Jews, and Poles became the three largest ethnic groups within the "new immigration," leading a heterogeneous movement that also included hundreds of thousands of Slovaks, Magyars, Croats, Greeks, Lithuanians, Finns, Ruthenians, Serbians, and Bohemians. None of these ethnic groups—which scientists at the time believed to comprise entirely distinct races—had ever formed a major portion of the American population before.
To many native-born Americans, these "new immigrants" seemed bizarrely foreign. They had strange names, spoke strange languages, wore strange clothes, ate strange food. They were, many suspected, not merely outlandishly different from native-born Americans and the earlier "old immigrants," but positively inferior. Thus E. A. Ross, one of the nation's most eminent social scientists in the early twentieth century, offered this raw assessment of the "new immigrants" in 1914: "Observe immigrants not as they come travel-wan up the gang-plank, nor as they issue toil-begrimed from the pit's mouth or mill-gate, but in their gatherings, washed, combed, and in their Sunday best.... [They] are hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality.... They simply look out of place in black clothes and stiff collar, since clearly they belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age. These ox-like men are descendants of those who always stayed behind."16 Ross's prejudiced conclusion—that the "new immigrants" were essentially uncivilized cavemen and therefore not likely to make good American citizens—was quite typical for the time.
Such thinking permeated the entire Dillingham Commission report, which used its research to put a pseudoscientific gloss on nakedly racial (and, we would probably say today, racist) stereotypes about immigrant ethnic communities. As part of its work, the commission encouraged the government to classify all new immigrants according to ethnicity rather than nationality. (Previously, immigration agents would record a new arrival's country of origin but not his ethnicity; therefore there was no way to know whether a particular immigrant from Russia, for example, was ethnically Russian, Polish, Jewish, or Finnish.) To aid this effort, the commission produced a book-length "Dictionary of European and Other Immigrant Races or Peoples," a document the New York Times hailed as an "authoritative" work of "novelty and importance."17 In fact, the "Dictionary" peddled the crudest kind of racial stereotypes to argue that Southern and Eastern European immigrants formed an undesirable presence in American society. Thus the "Dictionary" described Southern Italians as "excitable, impulsive, highly imaginative, impracticable... individualists having little adaptability to high organized society." Slavs, meanwhile, were said to be prone to fanaticism "in religion, carelessness as to the business virtues of punctuality and often honesty... [and] periods of besotted drunkenness and unexpected cruelty." And, ugliest of all, the "Dictionary" suggested that Jews could be recognized by their distinct facial characteristics and their pursuit of "millions in wealth."18
To modern readers, such conclusions probably seem dangerously misguided. But at the time, they were quite well received. In 1911, the New York Times published a huge double-page spread heralding the publication of the "Dictionary," suggesting that it would offer "a good deal of a revelation to the ordinary American citizen, who talks vaguely of the 'melting pot,' but has no idea just what is being melted. He is disposed to think in a general way of immigrants as coming from Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, and perhaps a few other countries. It is only when his schoolboy son mentions the name of some playmate with an utterly unpronounceable and unspellable name, and he tries in vain to locate the nation to which that name belongs, that he gets an inkling of the inadequacy of his knowledge on that point... Such a man will get a better idea of the tremendous significance of that 'melting pot' phrase if he will study the 'Dictionary' when it comes out. He will get a clearer idea of what America is doing for the nations of the world-and of what they are doing to her. For the pot as well as the melted is going to be profoundly affected if not transformed." The Times' conclusion here hinted at the basic and widespread—if, we can see in retrospect, scientifically dubious—fears that drove the politics of exclusion in the early twentieth century. Americans had long cherished the notion that their society was a "melting pot," a crucible that could amalgamate individuals of diverse backgrounds into one American people—e pluribus unum. But what if the "new immigrants" proved so different, so inferior to native-born citizens and the "old immigrants," that they could never truly be assimilated into American culture and society? What if they caused a meltdown of the melting pot itself? The only way to avoid such a calamity, more and more native-born Americans came to believe, was to enact a more aggressive government policy of immigration restriction or outright exclusion.
Between 1882 and 1924, Congress enacted a series of revisions to American immigration law, preventing more and more categories of foreign "undesirables" from entering the United States. Reflecting native-born citizens' growing concerns over the "new immigrants" during the period, federal policy gradually shifted from an emphasis on blocking the entry of individuals with specific personal defects to the wholesale exclusion of entire classes of would-be immigrants based primarily on nationality and ethnicity.
The Immigration Act of 1882, the first significant act of federal regulation of European immigration in American history, barred criminals, "lunatics," "idiots," and anyone deemed "unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge " from entering the country. In subsequent years, Congress would add contract laborers, paupers, "persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease," polygamists, anarchists, prostitutes, unaccompanied minors, alcoholics, vagrants, stowaways, illiterates, epileptics, and "persons of psychopathic inferiority" to the ranks of the excluded. The government built giant immigration stations—most famously on New York's Ellis Island—to inspect all newcomers before granting them admittance to the country. Hundreds of thousands were summarily sent back where they had come from, their American Dreams shattered by unsympathetic immigration agents who judged that they fell into one of the many categories barred from entry.
But most immigrants got through. (More than 16 million, in all, entered the United States through Ellis Island alone between the facility's opening in 1892 and its closure in 1954.) The multitude of prohibitions against paupers, criminals, illiterates, and all the rest clearly were not enough to stem the rising tide of "new immigrants" from entering the country, so American nativists pushed for broader government controls to limit immigration strictly on the basis of nationality or ethnicity. In the early 1920s, aided by a post-Russian Revolution Red Scare in which foreign-born radicals were suspected of fomenting class conflict in American communities, the restrictionists finally achieved their goal.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921, soon followed by the more stringent National Origins Act of 1924, established a new federal immigration policy based on outright discrimination against "new immigrants." The National Origins system set a firm cap on the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States from any foreign country in a given year. Under the 1924 act, each country's quota was set at 2% of the number of people of that nationality residing in the United States at the time of the 1890 census. The year 1890 was deliberately chosen to serve as the quota system's benchmark because it preceded the bulk of the "new immigration"; since there had been few Italians, Poles, or Romanians in the United States in 1890, those countries received tiny quotas under the new system. On the other hand, since there had been millions of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, and Anglo-Americans present in 1890, the nations that had supplied the "old immigrants" received generous quotas.
The entire system was designed to allow immigration from Northwestern Europe to continue to flow freely, while slowing the influx from Southern and Eastern Europe to a trickle. Immigration statistics demonstrate the law's discriminatory effect with dramatic clarity: under the 1924 act, for example, Italy received an annual quota of just 3,845. But in the early twentieth century, Italians had been migrating to the United States at a rate of nearly 220,000 a year. The National Origins system thus imposed, in effect, a 98% reduction in Italian immigration. By contrast, Germany received a huge quota of 51,227 persons per year. Since by 1924, fewer than 40,000 Germans were actually arriving in America each year, the new law imposed no real limitation at all on immigration from that country. The quota's disparate effect on Italian and German immigrants epitomized the new system's discriminatory impact. In the decade preceding the imposition of the quota system, 63% of all European newcomers to the United States had been "new immigrants" from the nations of Southern and Eastern Europe. But those countries received just 11.2% of the total quota under the 1924 legislation, while 86.5% went to the nations of Northern and Western Europe.19 By granting huge quotas to countries that couldn't fill them and tiny quotas to countries overflowing with emigrants, the new Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 did exactly what they were intended to do: they helped to end the greatest immigration surge in American history. (The Great Depression, which began soon after the quota system took full effect, finished the job, as America's failing economy ceased to lure migrants seeking a better quality of life. During some years of the 1930s, the United States actually experienced a reverse migration, with more people leaving than arriving on these shores.)
Ironically, at almost the exact moment that the great wave of "new immigration" came to a close, it began to become clear that the fears that had driven the early twentieth-century immigration restriction movement had been misguided. The "new immigrants," it turned out, had not been so different from the "old immigrants" at all. Apart from superficial differences—like the "utterly unpronounceable and unspellable names" that so bothered the New York Times—the immigrant experience of the "new" Southern and Eastern Europeans mirrored that of their Northwestern European predecessors. Like the "old immigrants," the newcomers had been driven to migrate across the Atlantic mainly by social dislocations in their homelands unleashed by the coming of the Industrial Revolution. (Southern and Eastern European migration to America trailed that of Northwestern Europe by a generation or longer because the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and spread only slowly to the South and East.) Like the "old immigrants," the newcomers had trouble learning the English language and assimilating to mainstream American cultural norms. But the immigrants' bilingual second-generation children, born on American soil, were able to move comfortably between the Old World cultures of their parents and the New World society they lived in. And the immigrants' grandchildren were almost always fully assimilated Americans, rarely even learning their grandparents' native tongue. That tri-generational pattern had held for the Germans in the eighteenth century and the Irish in the nineteenth, and it held, by and large, for the "new immigrants" of the twentieth.
By the 1920s and '30s the insular ethnic communities that had been founded by "new immigrants" in American cities began to break down under the assimilating onslaught of popular culture. Hollywood cinemas displaced neighborhood foreign-language movie houses. English-language radio broadcasts displaced foreign-language newspapers as the predominant source of news. Multiethnic labor unions displaced ethnic fraternal groups as the key institutions of worker solidarity. At the same time, citizens of Eastern and Southern European ethnicity moved into mainstream American politics. In 1931, Anton J. Cermak—who had immigrated to the United States with his Czech parents at the age of one—became the first "new immigrant" mayor of a major American city when he was elected mayor of Chicago. During the campaign, Cermak's opponent, incumbent mayor William Hale Thompson, mocked Cermak's name and ethnicity, calling him "that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is."20 Cermak coolly replied: "He doesn't like my name... Of course we couldn't all come over on the Mayflower... But I got here as soon as I could, and I never wanted to go back, because to me it is a great privilege to be an American citizen."21 Cermak won 58% of the vote. The "new immigrants" had become, simply, Americans.