Posted on April 13, 2021

America Never Wanted the Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses

Caitlin Dickerson, The Atlantic, April 5, 2021

When David Dorado Romo was a boy growing up in El Paso, Texas, his great-aunt Adela told him about the day the U.S. Border Patrol melted her favorite shoes. Romo’s aunt was Mexican and had a visa that allowed her to commute into South Texas for her job as a maid. Every week she had to report to a Border Patrol station, in accordance with a program that ran from 1917 into the 1930s requiring most Mexican immigrants to bathe in government offices before entering the United States. She would dress up in her nicest clothing, because those who looked dirty or were thought to have lice were bathed in a mixture of kerosene and vinegar. Years later, when Romo visited the National Archives outside Washington, D.C., he found photos and records of gas chambers where the belongings of the Mexican workers had been disinfected with the chemical Zyklon B, as well as a large steam dryer of the sort that had melted his aunt’s shoes. {snip}

Romo also learned that just as the bathing and gas-dousing program was winding down, the American government began using a different dangerous chemical to delouse Mexican immigrants: From the 1930s through the 1960s, border agents sprayed DDT onto the faces of more than 3 million guest workers as they crossed the southern border.

Romo was shocked that he hadn’t learned this earlier. He became a historian dedicated to exposing truths that have been buried along the borders. “We have deep amnesia in this country,” he told me when I spoke with him recently. “There’s a psychological process involved in forgetting that is shame from both sides—from both the perpetrator and the victim.”

This forgetting has allowed the racism woven into America’s immigration policies to stay submerged beneath the more idealistic vision of the country as “a nation of immigrants.” That vision has a basis in truth: We are a multiethnic, multiracial nation where millions of people have found safety, economic opportunity, and freedoms they may not have otherwise had. Yet racial stereotypes, rooted in eugenics, that portray people with dark skin and foreign passports as being inclined toward crime, poverty, and disease have been part of our immigration policies for so long that we mostly fail to see them. “It’s in our DNA,” Romo says. “It’s ingrained in the culture and in the laws that are produced by that culture.”

The first American immigration laws were written in order to keep the country white, a goal that was explicit in their text for more than 150 years. (Over time, the understanding of “whiteness” changed and expanded. Well into the 20th century, only those of Northern and Western European descent were considered white; Italians and Jews, for instance, were not.) Even after the laws were finally changed, allowing large numbers of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa into the country starting in the 1960s, the eugenic ideas that supported earlier versions of them remained embedded in our society, and still provide the basis of many modern restrictions.


As the country moves forward from the past four years of harsh immigration policies, it must reckon with a history that stretches back much further, and that conflicts with one of the most frequently repeated American myths.

“This idea that somehow immigration was based on the principles stated on the Statue of Liberty? That never happened,” Romo said. “There has never been a color-blind immigration system. It’s always been about exclusion.”


When the Pilgrims crossed the ocean to settle in the New World, they brought with them ideas that would evolve into “manifest destiny,” which held that the United States was a land that had been bestowed by God on Anglo-Saxon white people. In 1790, the first American Congress made citizenship available only to any “free white person” who had been in the country for at least two years. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act blocked Chinese immigrants—and in 1917, it was expanded to block most Asians living between Afghanistan and the Pacific. These laws were upheld numerous times by federal courts, including in a seminal Supreme Court case from 1922, in which the government prevailed by arguing that citizenship should be granted as the Founders intended: “only to those whom they knew and regarded as worthy to share it with them, men of their own type, white men.”

In the early 20th century, the term progressive became synonymous with preserving or improving the racial “stock” of the country—and that meant keeping it white. Harry Laughlin, whose work would provide a model for Nazi Germany’s sterilization laws, served as the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization’s “expert eugenics agent.” In 1922, he presented evidence of the “hereditary feeble-mindedness” of nonwhite immigrants. Laughlin categorized the subjects of his research into overlapping subgroups that included “the criminalistic,” “the diseased,” and “the dependent.” Two years later, Congress passed the “progressive” Johnson-Reed Act, which established immigration quotas based on national origin. Adolf Hitler hailed the law as a model to emulate. “Compared to old Europe, which had lost an infinite amount of its best blood through war and emigration, the American nation appears as a young, racially select people,” he wrote.

Beginning during World War II, geopolitical and economic interests became important factors in the development of new immigration laws, but protecting the nation’s whiteness remained a priority.

The historic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the quotas based on national origin and instead allowed citizens of the United States to petition for family members to join them. But the overtly race-blind language in the new system belied its intent. For his book Dividing Lines, Daniel Tichenor, a scholar at the University of Oregon, scrutinized the Congressional Record and found that legislators designed the system the way they did because they believed that people of European origin, who made up the majority of the population at the time, would also make up the majority of those petitioning to bring in new immigrants. In the 1980s, the so-called diversity-visa program was created to help the thousands of Irish immigrants who were coming into the country illegally each year enter instead as legal residents.

However, since 1965 the flow of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa has, as ever, outpaced expectations—to the point where America is on track to become a majority-minority nation sometime in the next few decades. Various attempts have been made to acknowledge the enduring presence of immigrants of color by granting them legal status: In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ushered in an amnesty policy that allowed nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, most of them Mexican, to become citizens. And in 1990, President George H. W. Bush amplified the demographic effects of the 1965 law by increasing the visa caps it had established. But by the time these efforts were made, racial tropes that had once painted Irish, Italians, and Chinese as unassimilable and prone to crime, poverty, and disease were already embedded in the nation’s culture, as well as in its laws.


The use of the phrase a nation of immigrants to describe America first appeared in the late 1890s, in the Congressional Record, according to Donna Gabaccia, a scholar at the University of Toronto. It was used only sparingly until the 1950s, when it was popularized during the movement to broaden the label of white to include a more diverse group of Europeans. Mae Ngai notes that in 1958 John F. Kennedy, himself the descendant of Irish immigrants, published a book called A Nation of Immigrants that included only two paragraphs on Asian and Latino immigration.

To call America a nation of immigrants is not wrong, either as a factual statement or an evocation of American myth. But that fact coexists with this one: Over the past century, the United States has deported more immigrants than it has allowed in. Since 1882, it has deported more than 57 million people, most of them Latino, according to Adam Goodman, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. No other country has carried out this many deportations. {snip}

Moreover, though the United States accepts more immigrants each year than any other country, the percentage of its population that is foreign-born is lower than in countries like Norway, Gabon, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates—none of which considers itself “a nation of immigrants.”