Making America 1920 Again? Nativism and US Immigration, Past and Present

by Julia G. Young

Executive Summary

This paper surveys the history of nativism in the United States from
the late nineteenth century to the present. It compares a recent surge in
nativism with earlier periods, particularly the decades leading up to the
1920s, when nativism directed against southern and eastern European,
Asian, and Mexican migrants led to comprehensive legislative restrictions
on immigration. It is based primarily on a review of historical literature,
as well as contemporary immigration scholarship. Major findings include
the following:

  • There are many similarities between the nativism of the 1870-1930 period and today, particularly the focus on the purported inability of specific immigrant groups to assimilate, the misconception that they may therefore be dangerous to the native-born population, and fear that immigration threatens American workers.
  • Mexican migrants in particular have been consistent targets of nativism, immigration restrictions, and deportations.
  • There are also key differences between these two eras, most apparently in the targets of nativism, which today are undocumented and Muslim immigrants, and in President Trump’s consistent, highly public, and widely disseminated appeals to nativist sentiment.
  • Historical studies of nativism suggest that nativism does not disappear completely, but rather subsides. Furthermore, immigrants themselves can and do adopt nativist attitudes, as well as their descendants.
  • Politicians, government officials, civic leaders, scholars and journalists must do more to reach sectors of society that feel most threatened by immigration.
  • While eradicating nativism may be impossible, a focus on avoiding or overturning nativist immigration legislation may prove more successful.


ISSN 2330-2488 (Online), 2331-5024 (Print)  © 2017 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York

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