On November 20th, President Obama unveiled his executive order shielding up to five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. This act of protection was well-received by countless compassionate Americans, but it also invigorated one of our oldest and darkest traditions: the politics of Nativism. Nativism, as per the Oxford-English dictionary, is the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. Doubters of Nativism’s existence and vitality in this nation need only visit any Congressional office, each of which fielded dozens of calls last week from constituents incensed that “illegal aliens” were receiving “amnesty” for their “crimes.”
These self-righteous voices bellowed about how their ancestors immigrated “the right way,” and complained that immigrants are “stealing” jobs from “hard-working Americans.” No description of the daily difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants is heart-wrenching enough to sway these citizens from their conviction that undocumented immigrants have committed a grievous crime against America. From where, though, does this conviction come, and why does it still figure so prominently in political life? Why do politicians still talk of self-deportation, and attempt to turn the southern border into a virtual war zone? To start answering these questions, we need to look at the history of American Nativism, and the expectations the modern electorate has for public officials.
One of the first explicit efforts to organize around the concept of Nativism occurred in the middle of the 19th century with the so-called “Know Nothing” movement. The Know Nothing movement, which led to the creation of the “American Party,” was born out of reaction against an influx of Catholic immigrants, especially Irish-Catholic immigrants. Party positions included opposing citizenship for immigrants who had been in the U.S fewer than 25 years, and excluding all immigrants from political office. They also sought to prevent recent immigrants from obtaining jobs in the private sector. This last effort is memorialized in the famous phrase “No Irish need apply,” a rumored disclaimer on some job postings. Though reports of these explicit warnings were probably exaggerated, their historical persistence highlights one of the primary reasons Nativists fear immigrants: they believe new arrivals will take their jobs.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was rooted in similar fears. The act was meant to exclude Chinese immigrants generally, but targeted laborers specifically, and left open a small back door for Chinese non-laborers. This maneuver made clear that the direct purpose of the act was to remove immigrant labor competition from the United States. Indeed, Americans at the time felt that Chinese laborers were willing to work for too little pay, making it undesirable for employers to hire Americans to do the same job at a reasonable (higher) wage. The act may not have passed, however, if it had not been for the racial animus towards ethnic Chinese harbored by some citizens. This race-driven dislike is a major second component of traditional American Nativism. It existed towards Irish immigrants during the Know Nothing era, it was directed towards Chinese immigrants before and during their exclusion, and it was felt by Japanese immigrants during their World War II-era internment. Today, it probably contributes to the resentment some Americans have towards Hispanic immigrants.
Distrust of immigrants contributes to that resentment as well, and at no time was the distrust of immigrants more apparent in American Nativism than during the aforementioned internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment was motivated in part by racism, and in part by a desire to remove economic competition, but it was distrust of the loyalty of Japanese Americans that pushed many citizens to support the practice. In fact, this very distrust led John DeWitt, a high-ranking general on the West Coast, to profess to Congress “I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty.” The Supreme Court later legitimized that position in Korematsu v. United States, confirming for some Americans that immigrants should not be trusted. Unfortunately, there has never been a broad repudiation of this sentiment in American culture, indirectly allowing for the possible distrust of immigrants to continue to this day.
As these episodes illustrate, distrust, fear of labor competition, and racial animus are the common threads that run through history American Nativism. However, racism is alone among these in having passed from polite political conversation. The others have yet to see popular disapproval, and therefore continue to support the legitimacy of the Nativist. Perhaps even more insidiously, their continued acceptance has provided cover for those whose anti-immigrant stances are racially motivated. Why, though, are fear of immigrant competition for jobs and distrust of immigrants still considered justifiable political positions? Possibly because America has yet to experience a permanent drop in immigration. The constant flow of immigrants into the U.S means that no American generation has yet been born into a nation without a substantial Nativist presence. This presence sustains itself as parents pass their suspicions of immigrants to their children. Thus, we may very well be left with a culture that continues to sanction Nativism.
Nevertheless, the cultural acceptance of Nativism doesn’t explain why a major U.S political party is willing to be associated with it. Endorsing, even implicitly, a movement so bound up in fear and mistrust would seem detrimental to most campaigns. However, a more thorough investigation suggests that incorporating Nativist positions can actually strengthen popular campaign themes.
Anyone familiar with political ads knows that one of the most common lines of attack is “candidate X voted to KILL JOBS.” Jobs and the economy are perennially a top response for the “what’s the biggest problem facing the country” question, and virtually every political candidate is expected to put forth ideas for creating jobs. With this sort of national environment, it makes sense for some politicians to encourage the historical Nativist fear of immigrant job competition. Any anti-immigration candidate can easily integrate “I oppose the influx of illegal aliens taking jobs from hard-working Americans,” into a pro-jobs message, backing her opponent into a tough corner. The opponent must either then copy her opposition’s Nativist position, or respond with a nuanced argument about the positive overall impact that immigrants have on the U.S economy. The problem with this second tactic is that it relies on a deeper understanding of the U.S economy, and does not directly connect to further job growth. This means that it is a far tougher message to convey to voters who do not have the time or desire to gain more than a superficial understanding of the issue. As such, an anti-immigration position can easily mesh with a job-centric campaign, giving the Nativist position a veneer of respectability.
Furthermore, Nativist ideas frequently mesh with the anti-welfare positions that most conservatives now embrace. I saw this synergy personally when working for the Democratic Party during the Maine gubernatorial election this past fall. Our Republican opponent, Governor Paul LePage, was a well-known opponent of the social safety net, and campaigned energetically on the idea of cutting assistance to low-income individuals. He supplemented this message with assertions that welfare programs frequently benefited undocumented immigrants, and promised to continue attacking such programs if reelected Governor. As a field organizer who was tasked with having conversations with countless undecided voters, I found that LePage’s rhetoric was well-received by many of them. They disliked the idea that an immigrant might receive benefits that they themselves wouldn’t, and felt as though undocumented immigrants were particularly undeserving of assistance. In a way, they perceived the receipt of aid by some immigrants as stealing money from themselves. This attitude validated LePage’s decision to embrace a Nativist stance, and the Governor was further rewarded when he won reelection by 5%. The success of this sort of anti-immigrant position in a relatively blue state underlines the potential electoral benefit of taking Nativist positions.
Some pundits portray the liberalization of immigration laws as inevitable in light of the rapidly changing demographics of the United States. I believe, though, that this position underestimates the strength of the U.S Nativist tradition. We may someday see the comprehensive immigration reform that has thus far evaded our two most recent presidents. But so long as Nativist positions continue to be part of mainstream politics, such a law will never achieve broad support.
Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.