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And you thought xenophobic immigration policy was a new thing

(American Philosophical Society Library)

Any student of American history knows that the xenophobic currents animating the current immigration debate are hardly new. They’re rooted in this country’s profound ambivalence about successive waves of newcomers, who’ve been alternately welcomed and scorned. In language with obvious contemporary parallels, Benjamin Franklin fretted as far back as 1753 that immigrants were “generally the most stupid sort of their own nation.”

So we’re reminded in Daniel Okrent’s often surprising history, “The Guarded Gate.” Okrent underlines the politically salient linkages between eugenics, pseudo-scientific racism, and anti-immigration sentiment in early 20th-century America. Their unsavory ménage à trois culminated in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which drastically curtailed the previous flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. That law, with its minuscule national quotas, impeded the escape of untold numbers of Polish and Russian Jews and others from the Nazi death trap.

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Okrent, whose Jewish forebears (like mine) arrived “before those gates clanged shut,” makes no pretense to “spotless objectivity.” He skewers the racist, anti-Semitic, and scientifically flawed theories that infected American discourse in the decades before Nazi excesses helped discredit them — or at least drove them underground. He also delineates the close connections between American and German eugenicists before World War II.

“The Guarded Gate” is reminiscent of Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” (2010) in its elegant, if sometimes dense, prose and its focus on the unlikely alliances that converged to effect political change. But with its gallery of scientifically dubious, mean-spirited, and flat-out racist characters (so many they become difficult to distinguish), the current book is a much grimmer enterprise. Okrent himself describes his narrative as a “bleak tale of eugenics, immigration, racism, and the corrupting potential of scientific authority.”

It was Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who coined the locution “eugenics.” Galton’s view was that individuals typically take more care in selecting plant and animal varieties “for plantation in foreign settlements” than in picking “appropriate types of men.” It was, Okrent suggests, “an idea waiting for a crusade.”

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A parade of men (and the occasional woman) would take up the banner: Charles Davenport, who founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1910; H. Fairfield Osborn, the paleontologist who became president of the American Museum of Natural History and “the most prominent scientific advocate for eugenic restrictions on immigration;” the fabulously wealthy Mary Harriman, who funded most of Davenport’s research; Harry H. Laughlin, America’s foremost exponent of involuntary sterilization. Even Margaret Sanger, best known for her birth-control advocacy, was firmly in the eugenics camp.

Both anti-Semitism and racism were hardly limited to the radical fringe. Okrent notes that the young Eleanor Roosevelt espoused the casual anti-Semitism of her class and era. His point is that the turn-of-the-20th-century prejudices of the Protestant upper classes were “a newly overt expression of an attitude both normative and persistent.”

One of the early immigration restrictionists was Henry Cabot Lodge, who epitomized Boston Brahmin culture. As a US senator, the Republican Lodge worked for years to impose a literacy test on prospective immigrants — a measure that was passed repeatedly by Congress, supported by the powerful Immigration Restriction League, but vetoed by successive presidents. It became law in 1917 when Congress overrode Woodrow Wilson’s veto.

Among Lodge’s allies in that battle was Joe Lee, a well-regarded Democratic philanthropist who fretted over the massive immigrant influx of Catholics and Jews. “I believe in exclusion by race,” Lee said.

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One of the book’s few heroes is the anthropologist Franz Boas, who emphasized the importance of environmental, rather than genetic, factors in shaping individual traits. The German-born Boas “made no effort to cloak his disregard for the prevailing race theories” that fueled restrictionism.

By contrast, Madison Grant sought to amalgamate eugenics and xenophobia, embracing “scientific racism as a political creed.” Founder of the Bronx Zoo and an ardent environmentalist, “he was as personable in social settings as he was savage in his pursuit of an ethnically pristine America,” Okrent writes.

Grant authored one of the key restrictionist documents, the 1916 screed, “The Passing of the Great Race.” Hitler would pronounce himself a fan. Grant’s publisher was Charles Scribner’s Sons, and his editor was Maxwell Perkins, later renowned for editing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Scribner’s and Perkins would collaborate on several subsequent books touting scientific racism. (It’s noteworthy that this revelation has come to light in a volume published by Scribner, the successor company.)

Okrent concludes his worthy study with the passage, in 1965, of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which established a nationality-blind immigration system. In overturning the 1924 law, it augured a future for American immigration policy “as bright as the brilliant sun overhead,” he writes, with barely perceptible irony.

THE GUARDED GATE:

Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America

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By Daniel Okrent

Scribner, 478 pp., illustrated, $32

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Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.