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How America Failed Its Immigrants

An excerpt from Alfredo Gutierrez's new book reveals how today's politicians repeat the racist history of US immigration policy.

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The following is an excerpt from Alfredo Gutierrez's new book, "To Sin Against Hope, How America Failed its Immigrants: A Personal Story ." (Verso Books, 2013)

My father’s deportation story was not particularly unusual in Arizona’s mining towns at that time. It was just part of the landscape, one of the sacrifices Mexicans risked in order to work in the mines, join the union, get steady pay and a company doctor, raise the kids, maybe send them to college and get them out from underground. My father was deported in 1932. It was at the height of anti-immigrant hysteria that had been growing for two decades. Madison Grant’s highly influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, had been published in 1916. Grant described the United States as the highest accomplishment of the Nordic race of northern and western Europe, a place where Democracy flourished because it had been founded by this Nordic white race. The greatest danger America faced was the immigration of non-Nordic people. They would pollute the purity of America and debase the values, morals, and intelligence of the American people. Mexicans fit Grant’s definition of a “population of race bastards” as an example of a people whose inferior Indian blood would dominate whatever good white blood there may have been in a mestizo.

The mestizo, in his view, was a moral cripple incapable of democratic government.

Grant was perhaps the best known and most often cited scientific racist of the era, a leader of the eugenics movement in America. A powerful voice advocating for the passage of the restrictive anti-immigration Quota Law of 1924, he argued successfully in a majority of the states for coercive sterilization laws and worked with Marcus Garvey to facilitate the return of former slaves to Africa. Grant’s public persona was not defined by simple racism. He was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, is often credited as a founder of the American conservation movement, helped create Denali and Glacier National Parks, and counted among his friends President William Taft, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Even Adolf Hitler recognized his genius, calling The Passing of the Great Race “my bible.”

But Grant’s was not the only voice calling for extreme measures against dark-skinned immigrants. C. M. Goethe, later the august founder of Sacramento State College, estimated that “the average American Family had three children while the Mexican family had nine or ten offspring. At this rate the former couple had 27 great-grandchildren while the latter had 729. Within a few generations Mexicans would control the United States through sheer weight of numbers.” The danger of being inundated by Mexican bad blood was imminent and profoundly alarming. Roy Garis, an expert in eugenics and a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University,  wrote of Mexicans:

Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions— eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery. In every huddle of Mexican shacks one meets the same idleness, hordes of hungry dogs, and filthy children with faces plastered with flies, disease, lice, human filth, stench, promiscuous fornication, bastardy... These people sleep by day and prowl by night like coyotes, stealing anything they can get their hands on, no matter how useless to them it may be... Yet there are Americans clamoring for more of this human swine to be brought over from Mexico.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later legislation had closed the door to Asians, and the Literacy Act of 1917 had been passed to try to exclude illiterate peasants, but waves of Jews, Poles, Italians, Irish, and Greeks continued landing on America’s shores. In 1921 and again in 1924 Congress passed Quota Laws that established a maximum number of immigrants by national origin. The quotas were based upon the demographic makeup of the United States in 1890—prior to the great waves from southern Europe. The intent was obvious: America had been founded as a white Nordic country, and Congress intended to keep it that way.

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