The Statue of Liberty, which stands on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, was the America's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images hide caption
The Statue of Liberty, which stands on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, was the America's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954.
Nearly 100 years ago, Congress passed a restrictive law that cut the overall number of immigrants coming to the United States and put severe limits on those who were let in.
Journalist Daniel Okrent says that the eugenics movement a junk science that stemmed from the belief that certain races and ethnicities were morally and genetically superior to others informed the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted entrance to the U.S.
"Eugenics was used as a primary weapon in the effort to keep Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country," Okrent says. "[The eugenics movement] made it a palatable act, because it was based on science or presumed science."
Okrent notes the 1924 law drastically cut the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks and Eastern Europeans that could enter the country. Even during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and dying, access remained limited. The limits remained in place until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act ended immigration restrictions based on nationality, ethnicity and race.
Okrent sees echos of the 1924 act in President Trump's hard-line stance regarding immigration: "The [current] rhetoric of criminality, the attribution of criminality not to individual criminals but to hundreds of thousands of people of various nationalities that's very similar to the notion of moral deficiency that was hurled by the eugenicists at the Southern and Eastern Europeans of the 1910s and '20s."
Okrent's new book is The Guarded Gate.
Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America
by Daniel Okrent
On what immigration was like at the turn of the 20th century, before the Immigration Act of 1924
Ellis Island opens in 1892 and within a few years it becomes one of the busiest port spots anywhere in the U.S. Ellis Island was a teeming hive of activity as hundreds of thousands in some years more than a million immigrants came pouring through. [It] was a very, very busy place and a very alienating place for a lot of people, because of the examination that people had to go through, particularly for tuberculosis, trachoma and other diseases. But once through the line, and then onto the ferry boat that took people to Manhattan, it was really a wonderful place to have been.
On the Immigration Act of 1924, and the quotas set up to restrict immigration
First, there is an overall quota. At various times it was 300,000 people, then it got chopped down to ... 162,000 people. ... The second part is where did these people come from? And it was decided that, well, let's continue to reflect the population of America as it has become, so we will decide where people can come from based on how many people of their same nationality were already here. ...
If 10 percent of the current American population came from country A, then 10 percent of that year's immigrants could come from country A. Except and this is probably the most malign and dishonest thing that came out of this entire movement they didn't do this on the basis of the 1920 census, which had been conducted just four years before, or the 1910, or even the 1900. But those numbers were based on the population in 1890, before the large immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe had begun. So to any question about whether there was any racist or anti-Semitic or anti-Italian intent, this established there clearly was. ...
... in the year before the first of the quota laws went to effect, more than 220,000 Italians came into the U.S. And the year after, under the quota, it was fewer than 4,000 ...
So if you take the Italians, in the year before the first of the quota laws went to effect, more than 220,000 Italians came into the U.S. And the year after, under the quota, it was fewer than 4,000 and similar numbers stretched across Eastern and Southern Europe. Suddenly the door has slammed in the faces of those people who had been coming in the largest numbers, based not only on bogus science, but based on a manipulation of American history itself.
On how eugenics began
The origin of eugenics was in England in the latter half of the 19th century. It really comes out of Darwin in a way, out of some very good science. Darwin upsets the entire balance of the scientific world with his discovery and the propagation of the ideas of evolution. And then, once you establish that we are not all derived from the same people from Adam and Eve which was the prevailing view at the time, then we learned that we are not all the same. We are not all brothers, if you wish to take that particular position. And the early eugenicists believed that and thought that we could control the nature of the population of a nation the U.K. at first, or the U.S. by selective breeding. Let's have only the "good" breed with the "good," and let's not let the less-than-good breed.
On how eugenicists believed morality was an inherited trait
You find some very well-established scientists, [Henry] Fairfield Osborn, the head of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, he outright declared that it is not just intelligence, it is also morality that is inherited, and criminality is inherited. It's really stunning to think that people who are very, very well-credentialed in the natural sciences could believe these things. But if you begin your belief by thinking that certain peoples are inferior to other peoples, it's very easy to adapt your science to suit your own prejudice.
On the evaluations to determine which ethnic groups were the smartest
There were any number of tests in various places, almost all of them of equal unreliability to determine whether people were of sufficient intelligence. One of the most famous ones was the so-called "Alpha Test" that was given to nearly 2 million soldiers in World War I by Robert M. Yerkes, who is now memorialized in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, a federal facility.
Yerkes gave tests that included questions that were almost [like] Jeopardy questions, although in reverse. A question like: "Is Bud Fisher a (choose one): outfielder; cartoonist or novelist?" If you've just been in the country for five years and you don't speak English terribly well, how are you possibly going to answer a question like that? But it was taken seriously as a measure of intelligence.
On how Trump's hard-line position on immigration echoes the anti-immigration and eugenicist sentiments of the early 1900s
When you choose your immigrants, when you choose your next door neighbors on the basis of their ethnicity or their race rather than the nature of the individual him- or herself, you're engaged in, in this case, official legal discrimination.
I think that one could say that today's Central Americans and today's Muslims ... are the equivalent of 1924's Jews and Italians, or ... the Jews and Italians then were treated and regarded as these Latin American and Muslim nationalities are today. When you choose your immigrants, when you choose your next door neighbors on the basis of their ethnicity or their race rather than the nature of the individual him- or herself, you're engaged in, in this case, official legal discrimination.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
- Opinion: People with disabilities don't need eugenics to improve - UI The Daily Iowan - March 16th, 2020
- The right has perfected making people expendable but a coronavirus recession will take it further than ever - The Independent - March 16th, 2020
- Assistant professor says he's been fired because he dared to talk about human population variation - Inside Higher Ed - March 16th, 2020
- Iain Macwhirter: Herd immunity does not mean the Government is trying to kill old people - HeraldScotland - March 16th, 2020
- Wendy Vogel on art and abortion - Artforum - March 16th, 2020
- Full Sixth Circuit Takes Up Ohio Ban on Selective Abortions - Courthouse News Service - March 16th, 2020
- Will This Years Census Be the Last? - The New Yorker - March 16th, 2020
- Eugenics - HISTORY - March 14th, 2020
- Introduction to Eugenics - Genetics Generation - March 14th, 2020
- Boris Johnson cares more about the economy than he does about human lives - The Canary - March 14th, 2020
- The World Changed Its Approach to Health After the 1918 Flu. Will It After The COVID-19 Outbreak? - TIME - March 14th, 2020
- The Morality Of Eugenics - New University - March 4th, 2020
- Eugenics and Scientific Racism - Slugger O'Toole - March 4th, 2020
- The history of time capsules has a dark side linked to eugenics. But their future is brighter - ABC News - March 4th, 2020
- Prejudice against Downs Syndrome is a form of eugenics Brian Wilson - The Scotsman - March 4th, 2020
- S. Craig Zahler and the Art of the Podcast - Filmmaker Magazine - March 4th, 2020
- Dumbarton MP critical of Boris Johnson as he tells of brother who died from cerebral palsy - The Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter - March 4th, 2020
- Fakebook and the Big Data manipulators - Pressenza International Press Agency - March 4th, 2020
- Resignation of UK Government Adviser Sparks Controversy Over Link Between Race and IQ - The National Interest Online - March 4th, 2020
- A new view of eugenics shows its ties to the slavery era - Daily Northwestern - February 12th, 2020
- The Dangers In Nationalizing Health Care - Forbes - February 12th, 2020
- It Was Never About Overpopulation - Psuvanguard.com - February 12th, 2020
- Universities must share their oppressive pasts - University World News - January 30th, 2020
- The Talented Mr. Epstein - The American Conservative - January 30th, 2020
- Anti-Semitism preceded Auschwitz and outlived it - The Boston Globe - January 30th, 2020
- Genetic risk scores open a host of concerns and implications - The Daily Cardinal - January 30th, 2020
- Margaret Sanger Is a Hero to the Left. Here's Her History of Ugly Views. - Daily Signal - January 30th, 2020
- Editorial: Lt. Gov. Forest -- Embrace the truth. Stop spreading divisive falsehoods - WRAL.com - January 30th, 2020
- Mengele was a monster and a product of his time - Catholic Herald Online - January 30th, 2020
- eugenics | Description, History, & Modern Eugenics ... - December 27th, 2019
- There's A New Problematic Dating Trend, One Based On DNA Matching - HuffPost India - December 27th, 2019
- Backstory 2019: What Seven Days Writers Didn't Tell You the First Time Around - Seven Days - December 27th, 2019
- Scandal of The Tinker Experiment: demands for apology over Scotland's treatment of gypsy travellers - HeraldScotland - December 27th, 2019
- A year of more Netflix progress - The Irish Catholic - December 26th, 2019
- Eugenics Is Influencing Dating Apps and Other Forms of Tech - Wear Your Voice - December 13th, 2019
- CVTC eugenics victims: 'I always wanted children and never could have them' - Lynchburg News and Advance - December 13th, 2019
- What to Read During the Holiday Break - Georgia Tech News Center - December 13th, 2019
- An Oregon Couple Can Get Their Kids Back From Foster Care. But Many Disabled Parents Don't Get That Chance. - Rewire.News - December 13th, 2019
- Even Taylor Swift Can't Escape 'When Will You Have Kids?' - The Daily Beast - December 13th, 2019
- 'Targeted for Abortion Simply Because They May Have Down Syndrome': PA Gov. Blocks Anti-Eugenics Bill - CBN News - November 27th, 2019
- Book review - "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law that kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of... - November 27th, 2019
- Does Your Dog Actually Love You? - The Cut - November 27th, 2019
- Genetically Modified Babies Are Ethically OK - Reason - November 27th, 2019
- Reefer Madness And Seduction Of The Innocent Are Now The Anti-Vaping M.O. - Science 2.0 - November 27th, 2019
- Samanthas Journey Into the Alt-Right, and Back - The New Yorker - November 27th, 2019
- Renowned scientists address ethics, 'twin scientific revolutions' of AI and CRISPR - The Stanford Daily - November 27th, 2019
- Stephen Miller's white supremacy is no surprise but it raises the stakes on impeachment and 2020 - Salon - November 27th, 2019
- When DAFs Belie the Community in Community Foundation - Non Profit News - Nonprofit Quarterly - November 27th, 2019
- Indiana University Provost: The First Amendment says we can't fire our notorious bigot professor, so here's what we're doing instead - Boing Boing - November 27th, 2019
- At least we've on from eugenics...maybe - The Irish Catholic - October 23rd, 2019
- New Governor Addresses Piney Situation - By THOMAS P. FARNER - The SandPaper - October 23rd, 2019
- Universities must stop covering up racism in order to protect their own reputations - The Guardian - October 23rd, 2019
- Trump Makes Startling Statement: 'We've Taken Control of the Oil in the Middle East US Has Control of That' - The New Civil Rights Movement - October 23rd, 2019
- The Climate Change Solution Scientists Have Been Overlooking - Mother Jones - October 16th, 2019
- Eugenics: The Scientific Scandal That Helped Hitler Murder 300,000 Disabled People - Newsweek - October 16th, 2019
- What's on TV tonight: The Met investigates London's drugs gangs, and celebrities head to the First Dates Hotel - iNews - October 16th, 2019
- Selling Babies, Trading Wives - By THOMAS P. FARNER - The SandPaper - October 16th, 2019
- Lilly Presents Positive Results for Taltz (ixekizumab) in Pediatric Patients with Moderate to Severe Plaque Psoriasis at the 28th Annual European... - October 13th, 2019
- AbbVie Announces New Data from its Dermatology Portfolio and Pipeline at the 28th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (EADV) Congress -... - October 13th, 2019
- Scots psoriasis sufferer opens up on how skin condition can affect mental health and leave her not wanting to - The Scottish Sun - October 13th, 2019
- Lilly to Unveil New Data for the Treatments of Complex Dermatological Conditions at the 28th Annual European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology... - October 13th, 2019
- Public awareness on psoriasis increasing: health expert - pna.gov.ph - October 13th, 2019
- IL-41 Levels Elevated in Synovium of Patients With Psoriatic Arthritis - Rheumatology Advisor - October 13th, 2019
- Novartis data show Cosentyx treatment results in rapid and sustained resolution of signs and symptoms of psoriatic arthritis in patients with and wit... - October 13th, 2019
- New Guelph exhibit reveals history of eugenics education in Ontario - CBC.ca - October 1st, 2019
- Playing God, Ungodly? - Times of India - October 1st, 2019
- Alderman Library in midst of removing 1.7 million books, other items - The Daily Progress - October 1st, 2019
- TV guide: 18 of the best shows to watch this week - The Irish Times - October 1st, 2019
- Hillary Clinton proves impeaching Trump is all about protecting abortion - Lifesite - October 1st, 2019
- Toby Young apologises for accusing Hammond of antisemitism - The Guardian - October 1st, 2019
- Panelists Discuss Technology and Race at Harvard IOP Event | News - Harvard Crimson - October 1st, 2019
- Trump Attacks Obama, Hillary, Biden, and Supports Putin in Off-the-Rails Press Conference With Ukraine President - The New Civil Rights Movement - October 1st, 2019
- Questioning the Truth behind 'Climate Catastrophe' - Alameda Sun - October 1st, 2019
- My father was IBM's first black software engineer. The racism he fought persists in the high-tech world today - Los Angeles Times - September 27th, 2019
- French bishops oppose medically assisted procreation for single moms, lesbians - Crux: Covering all things Catholic - September 27th, 2019
- Not A Unique Case: 87-Year-Old Murdered Disabled Grandson With Overdose - Forbes - September 27th, 2019
- Republic of Lies: the rise of conspiratorial thinking and the actual conspiracies that fuel it - Boing Boing - September 27th, 2019
- Forget Mensa! All Hail the Low IQ - WIRED - September 27th, 2019
- Ripple Price Forecast: XRP vs SWIFT, SEC Updates, and More - May 25th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: This Week on Bitfinex, Tether, Coinbase, & More - May 25th, 2019