Oliver Willis

A 1920s Letter From The Klan Sounds Like The Modern GOP On Immigration

If you think that the battle over immigration is something new in America, think again.

The right in this country has for years acted as if it should be the sole beneficiary of immigration, and then the door should be closed right after them. Our current crop of conservatives are themselves the descendents of immigrants – there are few Native Americans within the ranks of the right – yet to hear them speak about the issue you would think that past immigration waves were always welcomed with open arms.

Americans spread baseless fears about the erosion of traditional values, the influx of outside languages (Italian! Yiddish!) and the supposed socialistic inclination of immigrants. Many immigrants in our very recent past were treated nearly as poorly as America treated its native born blacks, latinos, and Asians. Bad business, all around.

This past weekend I visited the National Archives in Washington, and they have a great exhibit about immigration — and the resistance to it through our history. I found this letter, from the “Women of the KKK,” asking President Warren G. Harding to support a bill designed to limit immigration.

KKK Letter on Immigration

The letter asks Harding to support the Johnson Immigration Bill, which eventually became law as the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. That bill introduced a formula which made it so that countries from Northern Europe (Iceland, UK, Scandanavia, Finland, etc.) were allowed to emigrate more people from Eastern and Southern Europe, and other non-European Countries. Based on that geography you can see why the Klan, who was also opposed to Catholics, would support it.

As some of the other exhibits showed, the argument against immigration really hasn’t changed. In the 1920s people were blaming immigrants for the social safety net being stretched thin, and now the descendants of those same immigrants who ended up contributing to the strength of that safety net are now grumbling about the others coming in to the country who will do the same. The difference now is that instead of signs like “Irish need not apply” or calling the Italians “garlic eaters” we hear about “Press 1 for English” and other unfounded fears about drug smugglers, gang bangers (as if we don’t make those on our own) and transporting disease (mostly white city dwellers on the coasts against vaccines killed more Americans than ebola from Mexico last year.)

As previously stated, this issue drives me nuts because I am the product of American immigration. My parents came to this country (legally, via airplane not banana boat as the insulting stereotype likes to say) in the 1970s. Neither one ever became a U.S. citizen, both paid their taxes and into the social security system (my mother much more so over many decades than my dad), and had an American child. My family’s culture has had an impact on American life, and I don’t think I’m being too boastful to say Jamaica has had more impact than many countries of much larger size (Jamaica only has 2.7 million people).

We’re better off for that. And as someone who’s family has only been here for a generation, I appreciate the continued variety of our national melting pot, be they from the South or across either ocean. Even Canadians!

The situation isn’t any more dire in 2015 than it was in the 1920s when a band of racists feared immigrants. We are better than this.