The long history of the citizenship question as a political weapon wielded by racists and xenophobes

By | July 12, 2019

The New York Times reports:

[Following its first occurrence in 1820, then again in 1830 and 1870,] [t]he next time citizenship was on the form, in a question about naturalization in the 1890 census, it came with the rise of a virulent campaign against immigrants. Curiously, one of the campaign’s principal leaders was the superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses, Gen. Francis Amasa Walker.

General Walker, who was also president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became increasingly obsessed with what he saw as the pollution of the American genetic strain by inferior immigrants.

Seeking to pin down the nation’s lineage, he adjusted the 1880 census to inquire about not only the respondents’ birthplaces, but their parents’ as well. Later, he backed an 1882 law that banned Chinese immigrant labor, and he called immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Austria and Russia “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in our struggle for existence,” according to the book “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America,” by Mae M. Ngai.

When the 1890 census showed that immigrants had accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s population growth in the previous decade, General Walker assailed the head count as inaccurate, kicking off a Democratic-led assault on the census that killed legislation to set up a permanent census office.

The anti-immigrant furor had yet to subside by 1920, when census-takers asked about respondents’ birthplaces, immigration history and naturalization status, and also their parents’ birthplaces and mother tongues.

There was a subtext to that furor: The immigrants were settling in major cities, swelling their populations and increasing their political power. And the cities, then as now, were Democratic bastions in a nation that was largely under Republican control. [Continue reading…]

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