Most people are aware of the exclusion acts that prevented or limited people of certain ethnicities and races from coming into the United States. Sometimes these exclusionary acts were blatant in their target group: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did not allow Chinese to immigrate into the United States. However, many immigration acts, such as the Immigration Act of 1924, were not so obvious about who was not allowed into the country. We’re led to believe that such acts were created to decrease the number of immigrants into the country every year. Although limiting immigration numbers is an important component to understanding immigration policies, another incredible influence in immigration policy of the 20th Century was the Eugenics movement.
Eugenics can be thought of simply as a pseudo-science that aims to create a perfect society by identifying the superior qualities of people and encouraging the reproduction of these fit people while also ridding society of anyone who is deemed “unfit.” In practice, this meant that those deemed unfit were isolated in hospitals and sterilized to prevent inferior qualities from mixing with superior ones. With hindsight after World War II, it’s easy to see why eugenics is no longer a positive thing. However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Eugenics was considered extremely positive and progressive for the United States.
But who has been deemed unfit? According to the U.S. Congress, in 1917, this meant:
- All idiots
- Feebleminded persons,
- Insane persons
- Persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority
- Mentally or physically defective
One might notice the vague language used to define the unfit. To tie these very subjective and vague characteristics to an identifier that is more obvious, leading eugenicist Harry Laughlin argued in 1920 that “the American gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants—primarily from eastern and southern Europe.” Essentially, Laughlin attributed the vague characteristics of the unfit to certain ethnicities.
Harry Laughlin’s eugenic research later led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which was designed to prevent mainly “defective” Italians and Jews from entering the United States. This act was followed by sentiments of United States nationalism and nativism, especially during World War II. Acts such as this were the beginnings of anti-immigrant sentiment based on race. However, even though the Eugenics movement is no longer thriving (at least not under the name of “Eugenics” anyway), anti-immigrant sentiments have still prolonged.