Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Visit the Midday Edition homepage

UC San Diego Researcher Traces American History Of Democracy And Racist Immigration Laws

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

April 22, 2014 1:35 p.m.


David Scott FitzGerald is the co-director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego and co-author of the book, "Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas."

Related Story: UC San Diego Researcher Traces American History Of Democracy, Racist Immigration Laws


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the American Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created equal, at a time when that notion was truly revolutionary. But in order to make good on that claim, American democracy has had a long way to go. A new book examines how over a span of 200 years, America and other New World countries dealt with the influx of racially diverse immigrants. And it catalogs the efforts the United States took to keep its population mostly white. I would like to introduce my guest David Fitzgerald, the co-director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, and co-author of the book "Culling the Masses: the Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas." David, welcome to the program.

DAVID FITZGERALD: Thanks very much, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: From our Declaration of Independence to the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the huddled masses, we think of the American democracy as a refuge for all people, but your book argues that America worked hard to keep certain kinds of people out. How far back does that go?

DAVID FITZGERALD: That is a policy that really goes back to the founding of the Republic. You mentioned the Declaration of Independence and its call for a government based on the notion that all of us are created equal, that we should be created in the same way, and have the same rights and privileges of citizenship. But as early as 1790 the first naturalization law in the US restricted the right to naturalize to whites. And as early as 1803, it began restricting immigration of blacks, and beginning in 1862 it began restricting Chinese immigration, before banning them outright in 1882. And there are many other policies that continued banning various groups through 1965. So really, for most of US history despite the image that we have of the Statue of Liberty welcoming people to US shores, there was also this much darker side of democracy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You actually find out that the US had the longest period of barring people based on race than any other country in North and South America.

DAVID FITZGERALD: Right, we looked at twenty-two countries in the Western Hemisphere from Canada all the way to Argentina. We found all of them at some point had some kind of law selecting immigrants by race, but the US at the longest period of those kinds of policies. And it was actually the first to put those into place, and was among the last countries to take those away in 1965.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell me about the title of the book Culling the Masses, where does that come from?

DAVID FITZGERALD: As you suggested in your opener, there was a famous qualm at the foot of the statue of liberty welcoming the huddled masses of the world. And the United States has in fact welcomed the huddled masses of the world, but it has not always been an open immigration policy. We wanted to communicate the notion of culling the potential immigrants that would come to this country. Excluding some, admitting others. And trying to understand the logic of those policies, and the function of those policies, and how did they actually work out in practice in shaping who could become an American and who could be here today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What did you find is an example of the laws that prohibited Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States? Where did the notion come from, and how did they gain traction politically?

DAVID FITZGERALD: Chinese first started coming to the US and California in particular around the gold rush in California. Initially there was an interest on the part of employers in bringing in Chinese to do manual labor, and particularly to work in the transcontinental railroad. But very quickly anti-Chinese backlash formed that took place across the political spectrum, and that included both Democrats and Republicans, labor, most businesses even, and here in California we saw repeatedly that the public supported all sorts of manners to try to keep immigrants from China from entering. For example, in 1879 there was a referendum passed in California with 99% of the voters approving a ban on Chinese immigration. And there were various measures put into place to make life difficult for the Chinese that were already here. These days we see Chinatown in San Francisco and it is a global tourist attraction, but there was a reason that there is a Chinatown in San Diego and in San Francisco, which we now call the gaslamp Quarter. Chinese had to live in Chinatowns, and they were segregated by the California Constitution similarly. They could not marry whites, they could not own land, they could not testify in court, there are all sorts of policies put in place to restrict Chinese, and they took place with overwhelming Democratic support.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is just an example of the history of racist immigration policies that you document in your book Culling the Masses, and around that time around the turn of the twentieth century, the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, this was actually a rather popular notion. Your book begins with a disturbing quote, from the person who became president Theodore Roosevelt. He is celebrating the fact that the United States and other democracies in the New World have kept themselves largely white nations. Why was he celebrating that fact? What was the basis of that kind of remark?

DAVID FITZGERALD: It was received as wisdom at that time, this was not idiosyncratic to Teddy Roosevelt. This was the received wisdom among thinkers that certain groups of people were biologically capable of self-government, and those groups of people were from Northwestern Europe. On the opposite side there was a widespread sense that other groups of people were racially incapable of self-government, and the weight to keep democracy safe in the United States and places like Canada and Australia was to keep out those groups of people based on their supposed racial characteristics. This was an argument that was made against all manner of groups. It was in argument applied against Irish Catholics, against Mexicans, against Japanese and Chinese. Almost any group that you can think of that comprises Americans today. Southern Europeans, Italians, Greeks, there was this argument that they are simply incapable of self-government and had to be excluded to save democracy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is what I wanted to say, as wrongheaded and really deeply wrong as we see these kind of notions today, there was at least a germ in there of people thinking that democracy was a very fragile and new thing that only certain types of people can handle democracy, is that not right?

DAVID FITZGERALD: Yes, and this fit very neatly into notions of scientific racism. In a country that proclaims that everyone is supposed to be equal and everyone is supposed to have the same rights of citizenship, then what is the logic for racial exclusion? And the logic they came up with was biology, that some groups of people were just racially, inherently and biologically incapable of participating in this form of government.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's a whole section in your book about eugenics, this scientific notion of disparities among the races, and how there were conferences, Pan-American eugenics conferences. What did they discuss in these conferences?

DAVID FITZGERALD: In the 1920s and 30s, there were these conferences that took place at the level of the Western Hemisphere, where the leading scientists of the day and all of these countries got together and came up with policies that they suggested that their governments follow. And in 1928 they agreed that immigration policy should be put on the eugenics informed basis. That is that only people who would improve the racial stock of the country should be admitted. There was a widespread agreement that that meant northwestern Europeans if they were available, maybe maybe Southern Europeans, but blacks and Asians should be excluded.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And when we talk about immigration policies that restrict certain people from coming into the United States, does that mean that the quotas were kept very low? I know in the example that you gave us earlier of Chinese immigration, that was stopped for a while totally. But, why was it stopped? Were these immigrations stopped, or were the numbers kept at a very low margin?

DAVID FITZGERALD: The immigration of Chinese workers was practically stopped between 1882 and 1965. There were some ways for people to come in, there were some small symbolic quotas allowed beginning in 1943, but it did basically stop mass Chinese immigration into the country. These policies were in some ways quite effective.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The nondemocratic nations that you studied did not strive so hard to keep different races out, is that right?

DAVID FITZGERALD: At some point every country, no matter the system of government, fell into line and developed these policies. Often taking techniques developed in the United States like quotas, tests of literacy, other techniques of selection and developing those themselves. What these countries did was to apply those policies later than the US, and then many of them took those policies away a full generation before the most democratic countries like the US and Canada

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why did they do that? Do we know?

DAVID FITZGERALD: Mostly for geopolitical reasons, it was not that they were particularly enlightened to specific issues of race, in fact many of the same policymakers that invoked antiracism were themselves very busy discriminating against indigenous and Afro origin populations in their own countries. It was not as if they achieved some kind of post-racial epiphanies, but for geopolitical reasons they wanted to promote the idea that immigrants of any race should be able to enter a country. This was part of the context of World War II and the Cold War in which the US was trying to get the hearts and minds of people around the world in their titanic struggles against the Axis and later against the Soviet Union, and this policy of encouraging antiracist immigration law was one way for countries in the global South and Latin America to try to gain a bit more leverage at that time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is another aspect of your book Culling the Masses, it is nice to think that the forces of true democracy caused the US to rethink its immigration policies. But your book argues that the change came more from the outside than the inside. That the geopolitical pressures as it will, and really the way the rest of world was moving on, had a big influence in changing the way that we looked at our immigration policies, is that right?

DAVID FITZGERALD: Yes, there are always some actors in the US that tried to change policy and the became more prominent after World War II, but the major impetus came from foreign-policy pressures. Immigration policy is in some ways a foreign-policy. And when the government bans a particular group on racial grounds, it is humiliating to people from that group. And it is humiliating to the countries where those people live. At a time when the West was trying to increase its presence in Latin America and again to get the hearts and minds of people all over the world, in the Cold War and in World War II, it became a real foreign-policy problem for the US to humiliate the same people on an international stage by saying they cannot come in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, it is sometimes tough for America to learn lessons from places who have repressive governments like Cuba, or Chile when it was a dictatorship. You say that one lesson that we could learn from looking at comparative immigration policies, is that voters don't always choose fair policies when it comes to immigration.

DAVID FITZGERALD: Right, this is something that is tough. I have a daughter in sixth grade who learns in school about the importance of democracy, and the sense that democracies over the long run make good decisions. I would like to believe that, and that resonates with my own political ideals. But we see in practice that policies that are popular often don't meet those basic standards of justice. I think one of the lessons here is to be cautious, and not to think that just because something is democratic that it is fair, or that it is somehow antiracist. It is very easy. Again and again we see this in history and the history of other countries, for racism to come back into discussions that on the surface are promoting democracy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The U.S. Congress has stalled in reforming immigration laws, do you hear echoes from the past in our current national debate over illegal immigration?

DAVID FITZGERALD: There a lot of echoes, but I think that is something that most people don't really hear because they are not attuned to this history, for understandable reasons. Most of us are not professional historians. But what we find, is that even though the US no longer explicitly excludes immigrants by race, which is an important change from how things have been historically in the US, there still are very subtle ways that policies impact certain racial groups overseas who are trying to come here. Often those differences are deliberate. So, in the case of comprehensive immigration reform, there has been discussion about the diversity visa program. The diversity visa program was created in 1990 by the mostly Democratic Congressman in the Northeast, Italian American and Irish-American constituencies, trying to get more Irish and Italians into the immigration stream. They did not write that into it, but they came up with a vehicle through a lottery to make that happen. Fast-forward to the present and we see that almost all of the people who come in through that diversity visa program are not coming from those countries, half of them are coming from Africa, those who come from Europe or are coming from the Ukraine, so political support for that program has evaporated because it is not actually achieving its purpose of secretly bringing in more Irish and Italians. I think that is why that has been stripped out of the current version of comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate and is now stuck in the house.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Indeed I believe you mentioned one of the things in the comprehensive immigration reform package that has stalled in Washington is the idea that each country has the same quota of family members that can come to the United States. And when you have such a large number of immigrants from Mexico and comparatively small number of immigrants from another country, it means that getting family members from Mexico will take a much longer time than it takes coming from another country.

DAVID FITZGERALD: Yes, there's a class of visas called family preference visas, and they represent about 20% of the visas for legal permanent immigrants coming into the US. Those visas are capped per country and there is no accommodation made for the size of the country's population, or whether there has historically been a lot of immigration to the US. What that means is that Mexico gets the same number of visas as a tiny country like Monaco, or Botswana, with very little migration to the US. That also means that Filipinos and Mexicans are waiting twice as long as nationals of other countries after they have met all of the requirements to immigrate. In the case of some categories, people are waiting up to twenty-three years in line before their number comes up. One of the things that comprehensive immigration reform would do if it was passed in its current form would be to lessen the effect of that policy by changing the way that is calculated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you said, these are some echoes that come from our checkered past when it comes to immigration policy. Now, I think we could all agree at this point, mainstream that racism incompatible with our commitment to democratic ideals. Do you, David, think that idea will guide our immigration policies in the future?

DAVID FITZGERALD: I think that it has become completely illegitimate in the US to openly exclude against race, and that is a good thing, and I expect that will continue. What I think that is more likely to be an ongoing issue are attempts to subtly discriminate by race without saying as much in the law. What we have discovered with our discussion and analysis for the US and many other countries is that there is been a host of very tricky maneuvers made by policymakers to target particular groups without explicitly saying that. I think that will be something that will be an issue going forward, and I think that the issue of giving preference to particular groups, making it easier for one particular group to come will be an ongoing issue, there is an ongoing issue in Washington to make it easier for Irish to come in, for example.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with David Fitzgerald, he is co-author of Culling the Masses: the Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas. Professor Fitzgerald will be speaking about the book this afternoon at 330 at University of San Diego's Institute for Peace and Justice. David, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVID FITZGERALD: Thank you Maureen.