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

Julia G. Young
Date of Publication: 
May, 2017
Source Organization: 
Center for Migration Studies

President Trump's America is looking increasingly like the America of the 1920s. This article examines the influence of nativism on immigration policy from the early 1870s to the present. President Trump has consistently appealed to nativist sensibilities, from promising a border wall between Mexico and the U.S. to proposing legislation banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries and cutting U.S. refugee admissions. The author suggests that Trump's campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again" is reminiscent of 1920s America, when immigration was restricted based on racist conceptions of culture. Nativism in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries was predicated on the idea that certain immigrant groups were too culturally distinct to assimilate, too prone to criminality or revolutionary ideologies, or were taking job opportunities from working class whites. Such rhetoric resulted in severe immigration restrictions and quotas on Asian, eastern European, southern European and Slavic immigrant populations. While the nativism of 1920 is certainly similar in tone to the nativism of today, contemporary nativism is more likely to be directed towards immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Muslims and the undocumented than Asians or Europeans. While it may be impossible to eradicate nativism completely, the author proposes that advocates of immigration reform discuss the social and financial costs of nativism and do more to highlight the cultural and economic contributions of undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The author also recommends that opponents of nativism work to overturn nativist legislation in multifaceted and sustained efforts. (Sarah Purdy for The ILC Public Education Institute)

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Young, J. (2017). Making America 1920 Again?  Nativism and US Immigration, Past and Present. New York: Journal on Migration and Human Security. Available here: