OT: One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965

For those who would like to know more about asylum, the basic law is United States Refugee Act of 1980. It complies with the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 on refugees. Wikipedia has a complete list of US immigration laws. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_immigration_laws

“One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle over American Immigration, 1924-1965,” by Jia Lynn Yang, WW Norton, NY, 2020. This 324-page hardback tells about US immigration law—and especially the conflict in Congress to make changes. The 1924 law created quotas by nationality. That was changed to a system that favored family relationships under LBJ in 1965. Immigration reform has always been controversial. Baked in are eugenics, antisemitism, and racism. The quota system favored immigrants from northern Europe to the disadvantage of those from southern or eastern Europe. This was a significant problem for those fleeing N@zi Europe and displaced persons after World War II. The book does not present the details of immigration law (almost as complex as tax law). Coverage here is at the level of newspaper headlines.

Congress authorized an immigration station on Ellis Island in 1890. Between 1905 and 1914, 10MM immigrants came to the US, a major increase from previous decades. After a brief pause during World War I, the surge resumed. These were not the Germans, Scandinavians, British and Irish that had come before. Now they spoke Italian, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian.

Mannie Celler, a German Jew, was a key player in immigration law. He lived in Brooklyn; his grandparents had immigrated after the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany.

Henry Ford had done well in Detroit but in 1920 took out a badly timed loan. He blamed his troubles on Jewish bankers. In 1918 he purchased the Dearborn Independent. It became the vehicle for his invective against Jews. It was distributed everywhere through his network of dealers.

This was the era of K-K-K. They spread from the South into the Midwest and north peaking in 1923. They opposed Jews, Catholics, and immigrants who they believed brought moral rot to the nation. The movie “The Birth of a Nation” released in 1915 glorified the K-K-K. With the assistance of public relations they had 4MM members in 1924 and headquarters in Washington, DC. They made money from dues and sales of Klan life insurance and gear that included their robes and pointed hats. Their membership included 16 senators, dozens of Congressmen, and eleven governors.

Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was a vigorous opponent to immigration. He strongly favored English roots and Anglo Saxon heritage. He was member of the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) which wanted literacy testing. The proposal passed Congress in 1898, 1913, and 1915, but was vetoed by the president. In 1891, Congress allowed removal of immigrants who were hospitalized, imprisoned, or public charges within the first year. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. It blocked Chinese laborers but exempted students, teachers, merchants, and diplomats. In 1917, Congress extended the exclusion from Istanbul through the Middle East to India and Southeast Asia. President Wilson vetoed the law but Congress overrode the veto. The literacy test failed to slow immigration.

The eugenics movement became popular. It held that some blood lines had better genes. Under the N@zis, the idea was discredited but it became a basis for decisions. In 1913, twelve states authorized sterilization of those with bad genes. Virginia sterilized seven thousand people over five decades. In 1927, the Supreme Court agreed.

Jewish, Italian and Polish organizations were infuriated by the idea that people from southeastern Europe would mongrelize America. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was signed by President Coolidge on May 26. It used a quota system based on the1920 Census that allowed 84% from northern and western Europe and 16% from southern and eastern Europe. The law also required visas from American consulates before arrival.

Franklin Roosevelt had a working relationship with Jews in New York. He had denounced antisemitism as governor. Some called his New Deal the “Jew Deal.” Hitler became chancellor of Germany 33 days before FDR took office. After World War I, the US was strongly isolationist. During the Great Depression, Mexican immigrants and their children were deported en masse. In his popular radio broadcast Father Coughlin called for hatred of Jews.

In 1930, Hoover reinterpreted the law excluding those likely to become wards of the state. This blocked many Jews who had lost their jobs in N@zi Germany. In 1935, Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Laws stripping Jews of citizenship. In 1936, 6300 Germans mostly Jews immigrated. After re-election in 1937, Roosevelt loosened Hover’s rules. Immigrants reached 10,000.

After Kristallnacht in November, 1938, FDR held a news conference to express his concern. When asked about increased admissions he said his hands were tied by the US quota system. The British offered use of their unused 65,000 slots but were refused.

In 1939 the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg for Havana with 900 refugees who had arranged admission to Cuba. Cuba decided not to accept them. The US immigration quota for Germany-Austria that year–27,370, was already filled. They were accepted in Belgium, Britain, France, and Netherlands but 254 died mostly in N@zi camps. Senator Wagner of New York proposed to allow 20,000 refugee children above the quotas. Opposition from the American Legion and the DAR blocked the bill.

China was an ally against the Japanese in World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Reports of the Holocaust reached officials in 1944. In January a report examined the State Department’s efforts to block Jewish immigrants. The president established the War Refugee Board to rescue Jews. It delivered relief supplies to concentration camps and helped evacuate refugees.

After the death of FDR, Truman was asked to look into the refugee situation in Europe. In June, 1945, Earl Harrison from University of Pennsylvania went to Europe to investigate. Officials told him the sites had been burned and there was nothing to see. He found 14,000 people, mostly Jews, held behind barbed wire in former N@zi camps. He visited 30 such camps. Food and clothing were in short supply. The Allies had no plan to assist displaced persons.

Truman had a working relationship with the Jewish community. His partner in his haberdashery was Jewish. Harrison recommended sending 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine. Truman agreed and presented the idea to British PM Clement Attlee (who replaced Winston Churchill). The DAR, American Legion, and VFW favored a five to ten year ban on immigration from Europe. They feared it would bring Communism to the US.

By Christmas Truman issued an executive order giving preference to displaced persons with highest priority to orphans. Social welfare groups could sponsor refugees to overcome the “public charge” requirement. After an incident in Poland, Jews decided not to rely on the Communist government for protection. More then 100,000 left Poland and became displaced persons. The Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons took up changing US law. They asked for 400,000 over four years. The law allowed 100,000 over two years and required the DPs be in American, French or British zones on December 22, 1945–excluding many. It gave preference to agricultural workers and those from eastern Poland and the Baltic States, areas annexed by Russia. Truman signed it on June 25, 1948.

Truman was nominated at the 1948 Democrat convention. He called for a better law to replace the antisemitic, anti-Catholic law passed by Congress. He won in a close election and Democrats took control of the House and Senate. Mannie Celler became chair of the House Judiciary Committee. An improved bill was offered but strongly opposed by Sen. McCarran, a Democrat from Nevada. The Displaced Persons Act passed April 5, 1950. It allowed admission of 400,000, extended the cutoff date, and eliminated preferences for agriculture and Baltic states.

Truman also sought universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, comprehensive civil rights legislation, a federal anti-lynching law, protection of the right to vote, and a ban on poll taxes and racial discrimination on trains and buses crossing state lines.

The McCarthy crusade against Communism sought to dismantle the New Deal by weakening labor unions and derail expansion of the welfare state and corporate regulation. In 1950, McCarren introduced the Internal Security Act requiring Communist organizations and their front groups to register with the attorney general. Communists would be banned from government work. Members of Communist organizations would not be allowed to immigrate. The president could detain anyone involved in espionage or sabotage. Citizenship could be rescinded. In the House the bill was championed by Richard Nixon, Congressman from California. Truman vetoed the law, but was overridden. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

In 1952, revision was suggested. One idea would double the annual quota of 154,000 immigrants (to allow for declining birth rate) and redirected unused country allocations to political refugees. McCarren’s proposal would give preference to those with special skills but only a small increase from 154,000. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 passed. Truman vetoed it but was overridden.

In response, Truman commissioned a study of immigration law. It was released in 1953 as “Whom Shall We Welcome.” It called for elimination of quotas based on national origin, race, creed or color and instead called for the right of asylum, reuniting families and the needs of the country. McCarran died of a heart attack in 1954; the McCarthy era ended later that year.

In 1955, Lyndon Johnson as Senate Majority Leader attempted a revision that allowed immigrants from Italy on the unused quota from England, and accepted 40,000 immigrants from Communist countries. It also cancelled previous loans that borrowed slots for DPs from future allocations. In spite of best efforts it failed.

President Kennedy took up the cause. In 1957, the Anti-Defamation League asked him to write “A Nation of Immigrants,” a pamphlet about immigration history. It was part of a series funded by Jacob Kaplan of the Welch grape juice company. It was expanded and reissued in 1964, after Kennedy’s death.

Kennedy was unsuccessful in advancing his legislation. It was LBJ who got Kennedy’s ideas enacted.

In both 1917 and 1924, AFL had supported immigration limits. The CIO was more accepting of immigrants. After their merger in 1955, AFL-CIO supported more liberal immigration laws. Bobby Kennedy resigned as Attorney General to run for Senate in New York. In 1964, LBJ was elected in a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. He began liberal initiatives under the Great Society banner. That included healthcare for the elderly, voting rights for African-Americans and immigration reform. Bills began Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 followed much maneuvering. When finally passed on September 30, the bill limited immigrants to 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere. Three-fourths of visas were for reunifying families. Spouses, minor children, and parents of US citizens were exempt from caps. LBJ signed the bill at the Statue of Liberty. More recent laws include the United States Refugee Act of 1980 and the Immigration Act of 1990.

Readers will learn much about the complexity of immigration law. Yet there is little about asylum, green cards, or H1-B visas, often the subject of current news. Index. References.