Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Last Immigrant Panic

Interesting story by Adam Hochschild in The New Yorker about the last great anti-immigrant blow-up in America, in 1919-1920. At that time the surge of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, the Bolshevik Revolution, and resurgent nationalism combined to create a public furor about the sort of people coming to America and their politics. After all, quite a few European immigrants were political radicals, and a few joined anarchist or communist cells. Lenin published a “letter to the American working man” that added more fuel to the fire.

Anti-immigrant, anti-communist rhetoric reached a crescendo in 1919. A string of more than 50 mail bombs targeted Americans leaders, including Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer. Palmer responded by working with a young J. Edgar Hoover to organize what came to be called the Palmer Raids, mass round-ups of politically dubious immigrants. In December, 1919, 249 alleged radicals were loaded on an old troopship called the Buford and sent to the Soviet Union, an event best remembered because feminist gadfly Emma Goldman was among them.

Palmer and Hoover intended this to the first of many such voyages, but it was the only one. Further attempts were blocked by increasing opposition across the country, led by an official of the same administration: Labor Secretary Louis Post. Post, a former muckraking journalist and advocate for the rights of blacks and workers, used a series of bureaucratic maneuvers to delay and eventually kill more deportations. He knew that Palmer's mass raids swept up many of the innocent along with the guilty, so he zeroed in on the mistakes and violations of basic rights to undermine the whole operation. In particular he showed that many of the arrest warrants were fraudulently obtained, sometimes after the arrest, and got judges to invalidate them by the hundreds.

Meanwhile the “Red Scare” was abating, and more and more Americans realized that a Bolshevik revolution in the US was a bit far-fetched. Several anti-immigrant, anti-communist loud-mouths ran for President in 1920, but all of them eventually faded, leaving the field to a man who wanted no part of the hysteria. One of the claims made loudly was that the communists were planning an uprising for May Day, 1920:
May Day came and went. Nothing happened. Yet the silence turned out to be an event in itself. It deflated the national hysteria about arresting and deporting “Reds,” and helped kill Palmer’s campaign for the Presidency. Nor did any of the three Republicans who had thundered about deportation become his party’s choice. The eventual candidate and victor was Warren Harding, a Republican who declared that “too much has been said about bolshevism in America,” and campaigned for a “return to normalcy.” The Republican Party platform that year rebuked the “vigorous malpractice of the Departments of Justice and Labor.”
I confess it never occurred to me until now that “return to normalcy” included an end to hysterical anti-communism, but Hochschild has convinced me that it did.

Although the Red Scare abated and there was no more talk of mass deportations, anti-immigrant fervor did not disappear. It eventually led to the passage of a strict immigration law in 1924, which banned immigration from Asia and set quotas for European countries based on the proportion of their descendants in the US of 1890, before the wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe  got under way.

No comments: