The Racist Underbelly of MAGA Restrictionists
The Jan. 6 attack partly resulted because the neo-right has been trotting out the Great Replacement Theory to stoke white anxieties
The last meaningful reform of our immigration laws was enacted nearly four decades ago, yet virtually everyone—immigration advocates and foes alike—agrees that our laws no longer serve the needs of the nation. Why is it, then, that we’ve been unable to change outdated laws, or even ensure an orderly flow on our borders? Many have pointed to Americans’ economic anxieties, but sadly, the problem is more the resurgence of ugly racial fears stoked by former President Donald Trump and commentators like Fox News Channel’s top-rated host Tucker Carlson—fears that may well have played a role in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and that have been driven by a recurring narrative in American history known as “Great Replacement Theory.”
As the National Immigration Forum has described it, “Great Replacement Theory” is the belief that relaxed “immigration policies—particularly those impacting nonwhite immigrants—are part of a plot designed to undermine or ‘replace’ the political power and culture of white people living in Western countries.” This idea has a long pedigree in American history—although of course religious, linguistic and other anxieties, too, have informed anti-immigration sentiment in the country.
Going back to colonial times, the claim that immigrants would replace the U.S.-born population has been a constant theme in the push to restrict immigration in America. Ben Franklin famously worried, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” Note the reference to color: The fear that immigrants would overwhelm the native stock population always had a racial element. Though the descendants of most German immigrants would be shocked today to learn that they were once considered not-quite-white, Franklin noted that Germans (with the exception of Saxons), along with “the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion.”
It should be no surprise then that the first major restrictions on immigration to the U.S. were entirely racial. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the country and made those already living here ineligible to become citizens. The Immigration Act of 1917 expanded the excluded groups to those from an “Asiatic barred zone” extending from the Middle East to South Asia. President Roosevelt signed a law in 1943 repealing the ban on Chinese immigrants, largely because China was an ally against the Japanese, with whom we were at war. But even when the law was repealed, the number of Chinese eligible to immigrate to the U.S. was minuscule—only 105 a year—under the much broader restrictions enacted in the 1924 Immigration Act, which established national origin quotas based on 2% of that nation’s population present in the U.S. in 1890. In 1946, Congress finally repealed exclusions for Filipinos and Indians, but U.S. immigration policy remained defined in racial and ethnic terms until 1965, when Congress passed sweeping legislation that remains the foundation of our current immigration laws.
These limitations, too, were racially motivated in ways that might defy current definitions. By 1924, Franklin’s Germans and Swedes, as well as others from Northern Europe, had become “white,” but those from Southern and Eastern Europe (never mind Africa or Latin America) had joined Asians as designated undesirables who threatened the racial homogeneity of the American population. Republican Senator David A. Reed of Pennsylvania, a Princeton graduate and Senate sponsor of the act, penned an op-ed in The New York Times that made clear the 1924 law’s intentions: “The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent.”
The flood of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe from 1900 to 1924, which raised the number of all immigrants to 14.7% of the entire U.S. population in 1910, sparked a powerful backlash, including agitation among Progressive elites. In 1916, Madison Grant, trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and councilor of the American Geographic Society, wrote the influential book The Passing of the Great Race, which warned:
These immigrants adopt the language of the native American; they wear his clothes; they steal his name; and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideal, and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.
It is noteworthy that Grant did not see assimilation as an antidote to the immigrant threat. In his 1924 North American Review essay “The Racial Transformation of America,” he warned of “the introduction of a fast breeding alien population which expands at a rate of increase entirely out of proportion to that of the native Americans.” These immigrants were, in Grant’s view, “far below the average intelligence of the white population, so that not only will the blood of the native American be mongrelized by these alien hordes, but the average intelligence of the country will be steadily reduced by the newcomers.”
Though few today would likely use Grant’s invocation of “a cloaca gentium”—a sewer people—“which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel,” hysteria about immigrants’ higher birthrates and putative low IQs has continued to drive opposition to immigration. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA have led the fight to restrict legal immigration to the U.S. since the 1980s. All three organizations have a common origin: John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Petoskey, Michigan, helped found and fund them over decades, remaining a leader in the fight to restrict immigration until his death in 2019. Tanton, like his early 20th century predecessors in the anti-immigration movement, was obsessed with the idea that immigrants would change America through higher birthrates. Before he embarked on his immigration crusade, Tanton was national president of Zero Population Growth (now Population Connection), an anti-natalist and environmental group that sees population growth in Malthusian terms. But Tanton also flirted with white nationalists and eugenicists and wrote an infamous memo to a close group of advisors in 1988, rhetorically querying: “Is advice to limit one’s family simply advice to move over and let someone else with greater reproductive powers occupy the space?” Then, he noted, “Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!”
This kind of denigrating language continues in anti-immigration rhetoric to this day.
Donald Trump has claimed that the problem of uncontrolled immigration was ruining our country, with Mexico sending rapists, drug dealers and criminals to the U.S. But at the point he uttered those words in June 2015, illegal immigration at the border with Mexico was at a historic low, and most legal immigrants were arriving from China and India, which were probably included in the “shithole countries” from where, too, he opposed immigration.
Trump’s words reveal a great deal about the real anxiety driving the opposition to immigration—which has always been centered more on the fear that immigrants would replace the native population than it has been on economic concerns. Tucker Carlson has raised the issue repeatedly since Trump was elected in 2016. In 2018, Carlson warned, “No nation, no society has ever changed this much, this fast,” in a segment about the growth of the Hispanic population in the small Pennsylvania town of Hazleton. Carlson was wrong about how unprecedented the rate of change in Hazleton (and elsewhere) has been, but he continues to push the Great Replacement Theory. Most recently, he claimed that when he refers to this theory he means that “in order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country,” but that is a transparent attempt to cover his tracks.
Great Replacement Theory is the dark underbelly of the immigration restriction movement, but its danger is not merely in stifling debate over necessary changes to our dysfunctional immigration system. Tanton once mused, “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?” We may well have already seen evidence of the latter. A University of Chicago study of participants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, the most likely predictive factor of whether an individual would be involved in the riot was living in a county that had experienced significant recent decline in its non-Hispanic white population. According to the study, those arrested, on average, were not poor, uneducated, or unemployed, nor were they, by and large, members of right-wing organizations or militia groups, and most lived in counties won by Trump in the 2020 election.
Racial resentment and fear of immigrants helped land Donald Trump in the Oval Office in 2016. Clearly Tucker Carlson and others hope that raising the specter of white replacement by hordes of brown-skinned newcomers will put Trump or a political clone or perhaps Carlson himself in office again in 2024. Meanwhile, enough members of Congress—even from districts that desperately need immigrant workers for their economies to survive—remain paralyzed.
Without expanded immigration, declining birth rates coupled with an expanding population of elderly, dependent Americans puts the U.S. economy in long-term peril. But so long as right-wing media can make money pushing racial anxiety, we’re unlikely to see sensible changes to our immigration laws.
Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the National Immigration Forum and former Reagan White House director of public liaison.
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Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
I agree with the premise of this article. I wish only that the author had mentioned that opposition to immigration was also central to the Democratic Party for decades and that Biden has continued Trump's immigration policies. We as citizens will have to appreciate how much immigrants contribute to our country before politicians will stop using fear of the other as a fund-raising issue.
I'd like to note that the quota system based on nation of origin never actually went away, the law merely changed the process of adjustment of status so that instead of arriving in the US with the right to stay being the norm for those holding immigrant visas, permanent residency was pushed back and the immigrant/non-immigrant/dual intent visa system, centered around consular processing and consular nonreviewability, was put in the same spot. This is kind of a sleight-of-hand though, because the quota system, one purely based on nation-of-origin, is still the law and still the system that determines the distribution of family-based immigrant visas as well as adjustment of status to permanent residency for a large number of those already legally here. We had a rather sarcastic celebration during law school in the immigration law course on the day the priority date for all immigrant visas finally all hit the 1990s. I took the class in 2013.