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Trumpism And The Ku Klux Klan Nativist Tradition - The 1924 KKK Statement On Immigration Vis-a-Vis Republican Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

Donald Trump 2016 RNC speech (By Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons)

Immigration has always been a thorny issue in American society. Demographic changes have oftentimes resulted in the emergence of nativist movements opposed to the arrival of new people who were deemed dangerous and "unassimilable".

In 1840 the US population was a little over 17 million. The largest city, New York, had but 312,000 people. In that decade, however, a new wave of immigration, mainly from Ireland and Germany, led to a rapid increase in the US population, which by 1860 had reached 31.4 million.

Those immigrants, despite being white and Christian, were often met with suspicion and hostility. An anti-immigrant movement arose among native-born English-speaking protestants, who viewed the newcomers as a threat to the identity and the political system of the country. Associations spreading xenophobic ideas were formed, the most influential of which was the Know-Nothing Party.

In the 1870s and 1880s almost half the arrivals were Irish and Germans. In 1883, of 603,000 immigrants, 195,000 were German and 81,000 Irish. However, in the 1880s a new type of immigration began. Hundreds of thousands of people from southern and eastern Europe made the journey across the ocean looking for a better life in the New World. 

In 1900 almost three-quarters of the 448,000 immigrants were from Italy, Russia, or the Hapsburg Empire. By 1907, out of 1.2 million immigrants, 285,000 were from Italy, 258,000 from Russia, 338,000 from the Hapsburg Empire, many of whom were Slavs or Jews.  

Between 1880 and 1915 more than 20 million people had come to the United States, making up almost a quarter of a population which in 35 years had doubled in size from 50 million to 100 million (David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 1988, pp. 160-161).

Xenophobic sentiment led to calls for the regulation and restriction of immigration. In the 1920s there was intense debate about passing legislation to stop the influx of foreigners to the United States. In this context, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina wrote a statement expressing his views on immigration:

I regard the regulation of immigration as one of the most perplexing and important questions confronting the American people today. There are few questions that deserve the attention of this great organization, which I represent, more than the immigration problem.

"The time has now come when the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan should take the leadership in this great fight, to prevent America from becoming the melting pot or dumping ground of the world for the millions of heterogeneous elements who are seeking admission to our shores.

In my opinion a law should be enacted restricting immigration to the United States for a period of at least ten years, while we take an inventory of the human assets and liabilities within our borders, do a bit of house cleaning and set our domestic affairs in better order. We have already enough social and economic problems to study in connection with the 14,000,000 foreign born now in the United States.

America is just awakening to the fact that it is not a nation but a mixture of nationalities, and if this country is to be populated and governed by a class of people who are so different in character, thought and ideals, the inevitable result will be a nation of nationalities chattering all the tongues of Babel.

The immigrants who come to this country form communities by themselves and congregate in the great cities. Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil. They have a very low standard of morals, they are unable to speak our language and a great majority of them are unable to read and write their own language. They come from countries where they have been accustomed to a lower standard of wages and living and, therefore, compete with American labor which is already overcrowded.

We must insist that a law be enacted prohibiting the printing of any newspaper or magazine not printed in the English language, and to require all aliens within our borders to speak English within a limited period of time.

There are more than 14,000,000 foreign born in the United States, of whom more than 7,000,000 have never taken out naturalization papers, and who can neither speak nor read our language. We have aliens living in America who have never been naturalized and who never expect to.

How do we expect to naturalize and make good citizens of those 14,000,000 foreigners who are already in this country unless we require them to speak our language and print their newspapers and magazines in English? We can never have a homogeneous population unless we require every man, woman and child in America to speak the English language. And it will be a most powerful means of stopping the spread of unsound doctrines, the spread of anarchy and Bolshevism.

Unless we safeguard ourselves against the further influx of undesirables there will no longer be an America for Americans. If foreign- language newspapers may be taken as reflecting the sentiments of the foreign born within our gates then our non-Anglo-Saxon citizens are far more interested in forcing their own customs and institutions upon us than in helping us build a superstructure to fit the foundation upon which America rests. . . .

Of the 805,000 admitted to the United States in 1921 more than half, 432,000, were Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, and Finns, races which generation after generation maintain their own churches, customs, languages, schools, and social affiliations almost as intact as if they had remained in their native countries.

America is saturated with aliens, and some of our great States will soon be populated entirely by aliens, unless a law is enacted restricting immigration to the United States for a period of years. There are today thirteen States with a majority of the population of alien origin. Thirteen other states have more than 35 percent of their population foreign born. Some of our great cities are in even worse condition than those States."

(The Regulation of Immigration--A Statement by the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, South Carolina [1924], quoted in: Michael Lemay and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds., U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History, 1999, pp. 141-142). 

The KKK's statement revolved around four major themes:

- the rejection of multiculturalism and the notion that foreigners pose a threat to Anglo-Saxon identity;

- the notion that immigration results in lower wages and poverty for native-born people;

- the dehumanization of foreigners and their characterization as dangerous;

- the idea that immigration must be stopped or restricted to prevent economic and cultural decline;

As we shall see in future articles, these have been recurrent themes in anti-immigration nativist movements throughout American history. Xenophobic sentiment was so widespread that in 1924 Congress passed an Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which limited the number of immigrants who could legally enter the United States. 

The law set a national origins quota that provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States on the basis of the 1890 national census. Immigrants from Asia were completely barred from receiving visas.

Let us now compare the KKK's statement from 1924 with statements made by Donald Trump and some of his supporters, in order to show how present-day anti-immigration movements are drawing on exactly the same themes that led to the passing of the 1924 Immigration Act.   

On August 31, 2016, Donald Trump said in a speech on immigration:

"When politicians talk about immigration reform, they usually mean the following: amnesty, open borders, lower wages. Immigration reform should mean something else entirely. It should mean improvements to our laws and policies to make life better for American citizen ...

But if we’re going to make our immigration system work, then we have to be prepared to talk honestly and without fear about these important and very sensitive issues. For instance, we have to listen to the concerns that working people, our forgotten working people, have over the record pace of immigration and it’s impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions.

These are valid concerns expressed by decent and patriotic citizens from all backgrounds, all over. We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to chose [sic] immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us..."

In a 2018 speech Trump said: 

"People that come in violate the law, they endanger their children in the process, and frankly, they endanger all of our children. You see what happens with MS-13 where your sons and daughters are attacked violently. Kids that never even heard of such a thing are being attacked violently. Not with guns but with knives because it’s much more painful.

And remember, these countries that we give tremendous foreign aid to in many cases, they send these people up, and they’re not sending their finest. Does that sound familiar? Remember I made that speech and I was badly criticized? ‘Oh, that’s so terrible what he said.’ It turned out I was 100 percent right. That’s why I got elected." (my emphasis)

In a tweet from November 1, 2017, Trump wrote: "CHAIN MIGRATION must end now! Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil. NOT ACCEPTABLE!"

The fact that Trump made no objection when his own parents-in-law, who are originally from Slovenia, became naturalized US citizens, shows that he uses the phrase "chain migration" as a hidden reference to certain types of immigrants whom he and his followers deem undesirable. 

As a matter of fact, right-wingers use the words "immigration" and "illegal immigration" to conceal their real intention, which is to create a legalized system of cultural and racial hierarchies as it existed in the US before 1965. 

As white supremacist Richard Bertrand Spencer put it in a 2014 speech:

“Immigration is a kind a proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile.”

During a trip in Europe in July, Trump criticized European openness to immigrants. Without mentioning specific countries by name, he made it clear that he viewed immigrants from the Middle East and Africa as a threat to what he perceives as European culture:

“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,” he said. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way ... I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.”

Trump supporters, too, have made abundantly clear what their war on illegal and legal immigration is about. 

In a 2015 radio interview, then-Senator Jeff Sessions cited the 1924 Immigration Act as a good example of US immigration legislation: 

"In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924."

We shall point out that only six years after the passing of the Immigration Act the US experienced the most severe and prolonged economic depression in its history. This shows that there is no connection between economic performance and immigration. 

On August 8 right-wing host Laura Ingraham made statements that reveal how the term immigration is used by nativists to hide their true intentions behind a veneer of rationality: 

"[I]n some parts of the country it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they are changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don't like.

From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed. Now, much of this is related to both illegal and in some cases legal immigration that of course progressive's love." (my emphasis)

On May 13 2018 right-wing commentator Tomi Lahren said on Fox News about immigration:

"You don't just come into this country with low skills, low education, not understanding the language and come into our country because someone says it makes them feel nice. That's not what this country is based on."

It seems clear that the nativism we see today is not a new phenomenon, but the resurgence of old and well-documented xenophobic and racist patterns that have been responsible for some of the darkest pages in US history.  


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