Skip to main content

This is the fifth installment in a special seven-part series “A Brief History of Nativism: Anti-Immigrant Bigotry in the American Past”, providing an overview of these major movements, as well as the accompanying shifts in American immigration policy and their consequences. 

A Brief History of Nativism: Part V – Re-Birth of the (White) Nation: Eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan

Following World War I, anti-immigrant activism increased back at home. Many feared that in the wake of the war, during which immigration had been limited, pent up demand would lead to a flood of immigrants to America in its wake. A resurgent fear of “foreign agitators” reached epidemic proportions and culminated in a red scare that swept the United States. The backlash against “foreign” labor agitation culminated in the Palmer Raids of 1920, in which the FBI deported “alien subversives” without trial.

Scientific racism also played an integral role in the nativist movement of the period. The widely-popular eugenics movement embraced the theory that intelligence, self-control, and a capacity for self-governance were genetically determined. If genetically determined, it was argued, then such traits—the precise capacities crucial for citizenship in a democratic state—were heritable. If heritable, then the biological “stock” of the nation could be improved through selective breeding, in much the same way that dairy cows can be bred to produce more milk by artificial selection.

And if it was not politically possible (regrettable, from the eugenicists’ point of view) for the government to prescribe optimal marriages, it could at least restrict the “least fit” from breeding at all, either through disincentives or sterilization—actively practiced in many states. The eugenicists argued that real progress could most easily be made simply by excluding immigrants considered defective from entering the country.

The most effective way to police the borders for defectives, the eugenicists contended, was through a blanket exclusion of those known to be descended from “inferior” groups. That is, since intelligence and self-control were believed to be inherited traits, it was only a small step to the conclusion that some populations—“races” in the language of the eugenicists—had them in higher degree and more common circulation than others. America could in effect prevent its genetic degeneration by excluding the unwanted Italians, Poles, and Jews—not to mention, of course, the non-white peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America.

It is important to remember that eugenics were part of the mainstream in early twentieth century United States. Works like Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race were best-sellers. Grant extolled the superior qualities of the Nordic race, a people of “rulers, organizers, and aristocrats” whom he claimed were responsible for every great civilization that ever existed. These civilizations degenerated, Grant argued, because of the deterioration of the Nordic population through warfare and intermixture with other races of people. Grant warned that the Nordic stock in America was similarly threatened by racial intermixture with blacks and inferior immigrant groups which inevitably produced children of the “lower” types. Grant’s book was praised by Theodore Roosevelt and cited by legislators during congressional discussions on immigration.[1]

Eugenicists advocated compulsory sterilization to prevent reproduction by people who they judged were likely to produce defective offspring. They advocated for restrictions on the immigration of “inferior races” as another means of protecting the nation from “genetic contamination.” They also opposed immigration on the grounds that the children of certain immigrants, “our home-grown foreigners,” remained “foreign stock” despite birth on U.S. soil. Assertions about immigrants’ high fertility levels were also popularized by eugenicists. Several studies purported to show that immigrants were reproducing faster than native Anglo-Saxon Americans, generating hysterical predictions of imminent “race suicide.”[2]

In this climate, anti-immigrant social movements re-emerged. Groups like the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), of which Madison Grant was a vice president, attracted prominent politicians like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The Immigration Restriction League’s charter stated:

To advocate and work for the further judicious restriction, or stricter regulations, of immigration, to issue documents and circulars, social facts and information, on the subject, hold public meetings, and to arouse public opinion to the necessity of further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character.[3]

Anti-immigrant forces including the IRL were able to overcome the veto of President Wilson to pass an Immigration Act mandating a literacy test for immigrants in 1917. Though the IRL largely disappeared by the end of World War I, the nativism they helped promote continued to rise.

In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation, screened for Supreme Court members in chambers and in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, helped mark a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s new agenda, which added anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism to the traditional hatred of blacks, helped attract as many as four million members. The second era Ku Klux Klan garnered significant Congressional support, and “aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism” influential in the passage of immigration restriction legislation in the 1920s.[4]

Nativist groups formed close bonds with eugenics organizations during this period. In 1911, leaders of the Immigration Reduction League and the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) formulated plans to influence Congressional debate on immigration. They developed a strategy that included a survey to determine the national origins of “hereditary defectives.”  The research was to be managed by ERO colleague Harry Laughlin.

In 1920, Laughlin appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization on the “Biological Aspects of Immigration.”[5] Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and a survey of foreign-born persons in jails, prisons and reformatories, he argued that the “American” gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants – primarily from eastern and southern Europe. After his testimony, the Chair of the Committee appointed Laughlin as a congressional “expert eugenics agent.” For the next decade, Laughlin’s research would carry a government imprimatur, with his reports published by the Government Printing Office.

While eugenics “experts” crafted racially exclusionary public policy in Washington D.C., Klan leaders back home pushed politicians to support immigration reduction with meetings and letter-writing campaigns.[6] Warmly-received testimony to Congress by eugenicists like Laughlin, combined with the influence of Klan leaders and eugenic lobbyists, lead to the passage of legislation that solidified the “national origins” laws of the nineteenth century. Congress responded by passing a series of laws, beginning in 1921 and culminating in the 1924 National Origins Act, which set blatantly discriminatory immigration quotas.

The National Origins Acts set yearly quotas according to the make-up of the population in 1890.[7] White immigrants from northern and western Europe were thus favored, while southern and eastern European immigrants who began to arrive after the 1880s were excluded (as were those from other non-European countries).  The 1924 Act virtually cut off immigration of Poles, Italians, Slavs, and eastern European Jews.[8] Congress also explicitly prohibited Japanese immigration. Meanwhile the Supreme Court upheld a ban on citizenship to Asian immigrants, reasoning that the Naturalization Act of 1790 was intended “to confer the privilege of citizenship upon a class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified.”[9]

Upon signing the National Origins Act, President Calvin Coolidge commented, “America must remain American.” His words would become a rallying cry for anti-immigrant activists until after World War II.

The Ku Klux Klan concurred with Coolidge. Their newspaper, the National Kourier, proclaimed “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence was white, and patriotism meant keeping things that way.”[10] The Imperial Wizard hailed the passage of the new immigration-restriction law as one of the Klan’s most important triumphs. As their agenda was absorbed into the American body politic, fractious infighting took place within the Klan, leading to its rapid organizational decline. Membership plummeted to less than 30,000 by 1928.

An unintended consequence of these restrictive immigration quotas was an initial rise in immigration from Mexico. In 1921, agriculture lobbyists had rallied to block the attempt to include Mexican immigrants in the immigration restrictions. While these changes halted the flow of many immigrant groups, in 1924 more than 89,000 Mexicans came into the United States on permanent visas to fill the void.

That year, Congress also created the U.S. Border Patrol to enforce immigration policy. Border stations were established to admit Mexican workers and collect taxes on each person entering. Strict enforcement of the 1917 adult literacy law led to a decline in Mexican immigration in the late 1920’s. This decline continued through the Great Depression when only about 33,000 Mexicans entered the United States.

The 1930s brought heightened discrimination against Mexican immigrants. Nativist groups like the National Club of America for Americans emerged, tracking the cost of giving aid to Mexicans and crafting local “anti-alien” ordinances.[11] Anti-immigrant activists portrayed them as a drain on the American economy because they held many low-paying jobs while other, “true” Americans went unemployed. In response to anti-immigrant agitation, the U.S. and Mexican governments cosponsored a repatriation program that returned hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants to Mexico.

The program was intended to encourage voluntary return, but thousands including many who were U.S. citizens were deported against their wishes. Many were placed in detention camps, where they were mistreated by government officials. Of the approximately 3 million people of Mexican descent living in the United States in 1930, as many as one million were deported or repatriated during the decade.[12] In addition to the intense difficulties of repatriation, Mexican immigrants also suffered strict segregation across the Southwest.

Stirred by hate preachers like Gordon Winrod, Gerald L.K. Smith, and Father Coughlin, in this period anti-Semitism was also rampant in the United States. Anti-immigrant forces attempted to prevent any further immigration of European Jews. Seeing them as “slow to assimilate,” Harry Laughlin, for instance, specifically opposed any special immigration provisions for “Jews persecuted in Germany.”[13]

As institutional interest in eugenics began to wane, Laughlin became the first president of a charitable foundation which came to be known as the Pioneer Fund (originally named the Eugenics Fund). Founded in 1937, based on the monetary endowment of Wickliffe P. Draper, the Fund was created to help purify the American gene pool by encouraging the descendants of white colonialists to procreate. Even before its official incorporation, the Pioneer Fund actively promoted “applied eugenics”, as in use in Nazi Germany. Towards this end, they distributed a propaganda film entitled “Eugenics in Germany” to high school students.[14] According to professor William H. Tucker, “To Laughlin, the Nazi regime provided a beacon, lighting a path that he hoped the United States would follow.”[15] Such open admiration of the Nazi eugenics program lead many in the mainstream to distance themselves from the eugenics movement after the onset of hostilities in Europe in 1939.

When World War II began in the Pacific with the attack on Pearl Harbor, antagonism toward Japanese immigrants and their children skyrocketed. In 1942, fear and prejudice combined to confine nearly 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and aliens alike, in internment camps.

Though many of the nativist groups, including the Pioneer Fund, would go quiet during World War II, they did return. In fact, the Pioneer Fund would go on to become “the primary resource for scientific racism.”[16] They would also become a primary source of funding for contemporary anti-immigrant groups.

US immigration policy of the period, as crafted by anti-immigrant eugenicists, had terrible impacts for the victims of war.  When millions fled the horrors of war as Hitler expanded across Europe, no alteration was made in US law to accommodate refugees until well after the war—when Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.

Previous Installments


[1]. William H. Tucker, The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund (Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 11.

[2]. Miriam King and Steven Ruggles, “American Immigration, Fertility, and Race Suicide at the Turn of the Century,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20 (Winter 1990), 348. King and Ruggles discovered that the combined fertility of immigrants and their children was actually lower than that of native-born women of native parentage: “the much-heralded ‘breeding power’ of ethnics at the turn of the century was an illusion.”

[3]. Constitution of the Immigration Restriction League, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Immigration Restriction League (U.S.) Records, Series VII: 1151.

[4]. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, 2nd ed. (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 321.

[5]. Harry S. Laughlin, “Biological Aspects of Immigration,” Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, US House of Representatives, Sixty-Sixth Congress, second session, April 16-17, 1920.

[6]. Higham, Strangers in the Land (1971), 321.

[7]. Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1952); John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, (Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955).

[8]. For example, the law (as eventually amended) permitted 65,721 immigrants from Great Britain annually, but only 5,802 from Italy and 2,712 from the entire Soviet Union.

[9]. Ozawa V. United States, 260 U.S. 178, 195 (1922).

[10]. David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: the History of the Ku Klux Klan (Chicago: Quadrangle Publishing, 1968), 283–284; Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); William Peirce Randel, The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965).

[11]. Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s rev. ed.  (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press 2006), 83–87, 98.

[12]. Balderrama and Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal, 195.

[13]. Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 45–47.

[14]. Stephan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 49.

[15]. Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 47.

[16]. Tucker, Funding of Scientific Racism, 9.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

More posts by Devin Burghart