Evolution or Regression? Nativism and Immigration Since WWII


The issue of immigration occupies an interesting space in American political life. Attitudes of Americans towards foreigners entering the nation often fluctuate in a pendulum like manner, the direction of which is often determined by national circumstances.

Nativism–the belief that only Americans of white, Anglo Saxon ancestry were “true” Americans—was pervasive throughout much of the nineteen century, During the 1920s, however, this body of thought became more focused on the exclusion of people from the southern and eastern Europe. Fears of the dissolution of the country’s them more homogeneous racial mix led to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization which traditionally held anti-black views, but soon adopted stances against both immigrant Jews and Catholics.

The disruption created of World War II did two things: it sharply reduced European immigration and temporarily set aside many of the anti-immigrant sentiments among Americans, due to the nation’s revulsion over the racist policies of Nazi Germany and the urgent need of the armed services for millions of able bodied individuals.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement awakened the nation’s conscience regarding the rights of minorities and also lead to a more enlightened view towards immigration, culminating with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In 1986, the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to some two million undocumented immigrants—but what was especially noteworthy was the bipartisan nature of the Act. Sponsored by Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democratic congressman Romano Mazzoli the bill was passed by a solid majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, which was then under Republican control. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill on November 6, 1986.

Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration and Control Act of 1986.
Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration and Control Act of 1986.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to view the political atmosphere of the 1980s as more tolerant and less polarized than todays.

The political climate of today has shifted the ground considerably. Currently comprehensive immigration reform is stalled in the Republican controlled House. According to an insightful report by the Brookings Institution, a resurgence of American nativism is responsible. The article makes the claim that the GOP has abandoned its traditional emphasis on fiscal conservatism (immigration reform would arguably save the government money) in deference to the political weight wielded by the Tea Party:

“The Republican Party is 89 percent white, and 97 percent of Republican House districts in the 113th Congress have white majorities. Moreover, 67 House Republicans won seats with the support of the Tea Party. And people who are highly identified with the Tea Party are anxious about Latino immigrants taking over “their” country. In some instances, Tea Party groups are leading the charge against comprehensive reform. Nativism enjoys a strong presence in the Tea Party Caucus among House Republicans. Indeed, according to the most recent data gathered by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR), approximately 70 percent of the House Tea Party Caucus overlaps with the anti-immigrant House Immigration Reform Caucus.”

When it comes to our political will regarding immigration, are we moving backward or forward as a nation? One could argue that today’s political negativity toward immigrants is simply a result of the temporary relevance of the Tea Party, and will dissipate as political time moves forward. On the other hand, a revival of such nativism could stymie our crucial steps toward acceptance and tolerance as a nation, leaving America – once a refuge for the “huddled masses” – on the wrong side of history.


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