Forgotten Ellis Island

Lecture 9: Eugenics, Ellis Island, and the 1924 Immigration Act To understand contemporary century immigration policy, the legacies of Caliban, and racism in both the 20th and 21st century, one must understand the rise of eugenics, an essentialist pseudoscience that claimed biology is destiny and that advocates improving the human race through selective immigration, breeding programs, miscegenation laws, forced sterilization, euthanasia, and/or genocide of the so-called ‘unfit.’ The term eugenics was coined in the 1883 in a movement founded by Sir Francis Galton, an upper class Englishman and Social Darwinist, who perverted the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Social Darwinism proposed that the races that developed in the human species are subject to the same laws of natural selection as mammals, birds, insects, and plants. According Social Darwinists, disabled and weak, as well as some ethnic and racial groups, and cultures were weaker, less fit, and must not be allowed to contaminate stronger ethnic groups, races, and cultures. According to Social Darwinists, human existence is ruled by “survival of the fittest,” a now iconic phrase fashioned by Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher/scientist. Galton and his followers argued that white peoples, particularly of Northern European Anglo- Saxon and Nordic origins, had achieved economic and social dominance because they are genetically superior to other race and ethnic populations. Through selective breeding, eugenicists claimed, the human species could be improved and evolve genetically. In the USA, eugenicists advocated strict immigration policies, limiting or forbidding immigration from regions of the world whose populations were considered ‘unfit.’ An ideology of nativism– beliefs and policies designed to protect the interests of those who consider themselves ‘native-born,’ as opposed to immigrants — allowed eugenics to flourish in the USA. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 by three Harvard graduates, advocated forbidding entrance to the USA of ‘racially inferior’ stock; their fear: white majority would be polluted, ruined, mongrelized if allowed to socialize and breed with ‘less-civilized,’ ‘genetically inferior’ races. League Membership included President of Harvard A. Lawrence Lowell & President of Stanford David Starr Jordan. The league influenced the policies of US immigration, practices at Ellis Island (open 1892-1954), and the Ellis Island Hospitals(1902- 1930).

In 1906, The American Breeder’s Association was established, and included members Alexander Graham Bell and Stanford University’s President David Star Jordan. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted miscegenation laws with a eugenic basis, prohibiting the mentally impaired, for example to marry. (These were finally struck down by USA Supreme Court in 1967, Loving v. Virginia case:

Thirty-two US states once had eugenics programs, restricting marriage, with some forcing sterilization of the ‘unfit.’ Typical targets were the mentally ‘defectives’ and criminals, and even the promiscuous. California was the national leader in forced sterilization (20,000 or 1/3 of the 60,000 nationwide from 1909 – 1960s). North Carolina had eugenics programs from 1933 – 1977; an IQ of 70 or lower meant sterilization. In the USA, women were sterilized far more often than men were because they were considered ‘breeders.’ In the South, over 2000



poor black women were sterilized without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge during labor. Sometimes, American Indian women were sterilized against their will during childbirth. Gas chambers were once advocated in the USA to clear the country of the unfit. In Illinois, mentally defective patients were inoculated with TB. In the 1930s, there was a wave of “mercy killings” of the mentally ‘unfit.’

The Immigration Act of 1924 (also, known as The Johnson-Reed Act) was a victory for eugenics and affirmed white master status in the USA for it froze current ethnic distribution in response to rising immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Limits annual European immigration to 2% of the number of people from that country living in the United States according to the 1890 Census. The Act greatly reduces immigration from Southern and Eastern European nations. The Act granted further restrictions on the 1917 immigration law enacted by Congress, that had arisen over concerns rising from World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and rise of communism political and social movements. Not only did it establish quotas for immigration from ‘undesirable’ nations, it also established literary tests for those over age 16, created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” (review Lecture 7, Week 3), increased the entrance tax of new immigrants, and gave immigration officials more jurisdiction over whom could enter and who could be excluded. In an act of institutional race and ethnic discrimination, the percentage of immigration visas made available to individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe was increased. The 1924 act created tension not only with Japan, as it nullified the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, it created strained relations with European countries whose emigrants were now deemed undesirable. The goal of the Act was to preserve a homogenous ‘white’ nation and it was only revised in 1952. (To read more about the 1924 Immigration Act: act )

The eugenics movement spread to the USA, and from the USA to Germany. It will no doubt surprise students that Nazi Germany’s eugenics programs were influenced by US eugenics, California was a leader in eugenics programs, and The Rockefeller Foundation funded German eugenics programs.

(Recommended further reading: Black, Edwin. 2012. War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Expanded Edition. Dialog Press.