Looking Back at 1919: Immigration, Race, and Women’s Rights, Then and Now

Approaching the centennial of that suffrage amendment, American women are in the midst of another dramatic and rapid transformation of their political role. (Wikimedia Commons/The New York Times/Suffragists march in New York City)

Reading about immigration policy, religious and racial bigotry, and terrorism fears in America in 1919 offers an eerie sense of decades melting away and past and present blurring together.

The blend isn’t exact. Bigotry was expressed much more explicitly a century ago, not in code as it usually is now. Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of racial segregation in the rest of the country were seen by most white Americans as the normal state of affairs. In the national debate on immigration, the most inflammatory rhetoric was largely aimed at immigrants from Asia, not Latin America or the Middle East; Slavs, southern Europeans, and Jews from Eastern Europe also faced widespread hostility. Religious prejudice was typically directed at Jews and Catholics, not Muslims. Yet despite those differences, many of the underlying attitudes and the tone of the immigration argument 100 years ago were strikingly similar to those that roil our society today.

I haven’t read of anyone in 1919 saying “make America great again” or referring to unwanted immigrants’ homelands as “shithole countries.” But those exact ideas, if not precisely the same words, were commonly expressed a century ago. And some key words and phrases appeared then as now — referring to immigration as an “invasion,” for example, or disparaging immigrants as dirty, poor, and criminally inclined.

A pair of quotes illustrates the common thread, a widespread feeling in both eras that, after several decades of large-scale immigration, American identity itself was under threat.

In an article published in March 1919, the Immigration Restriction League, an influential anti-immigrant group, put it this way: “A preponderance of foreign elements destroys the most precious thing [a country] possesses — its own soul.” Fox News’s Laura Ingraham delivered exactly the same warning when she claimed in an August 2018 broadcast that immigration had contributed to “massive demographic changes” in the U.S. population, and that “in some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.”

Facing a wave of criticism, Ingraham unconvincingly denied that she was referring to racial or ethnic groups, but it’s impossible to find any other meaning in her words. The author of the Immigration Restriction League article was more straightforward, writing sentences like: “Races follow Gresham’s law as to money; the poorer of two kinds in the same place tends to supplant the better” and “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.”

By Arnold Isaacs for COMMON DREAMS

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