Naturalized citizens leave a swearing-in ceremony in Los Angeles, July 18, 2017 (CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters).

Tucker Carlson, of course, was outraged.

Disorder and chaos were again coursing through the streets of an American city, this time in southern Wisconsin, during the long, hot summer of 2020. “The mob descended on Kenosha,” Carlson intoned ominously on his highly rated Fox News show. “Joe Biden’s voters really are a threat to you and your family.” Carlson then made a point of distinguishing one constituency from the hordes of revolutionary Bidenites. “[Kenosha] is home to a sizable Hispanic immigrant population. There’s no evidence they participated in any of this. They weren’t in the street yelling about the police or BLM. They’re just here to work.”

Which is quite a statement coming from a pundit—semi-seriously mentioned as a 2024 presidential candidate—who has spent years preaching to the “Build the Wall” choir. But it’s all the more reason to acknowledge that Carlson’s comments—like the outcomes of both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections—point to an immigration dilemma for progressives in post-Trump America. Two, as a matter of fact.


The nativist red meat we expect from Fox News sounds something like this: “Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood.” And: “The United States is our land [and] we intend to maintain it so.... The day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.”

But that’s not Ann Coulter or Lou Dobbs. That’s former Washington state Congressman Albert Johnson, the chief architect of America’s first anti-immigrant barrier, the Emergency Quota Act (EQA), signed into law by President Harding in 1921. Johnson’s nativism, and the subsequent legislation that dramatically reduced the number of Ellis Island’s huddled masses, followed decades of complaints about rowdy immigrants who refused to assimilate: criminal Italians, anarchist Germans, communist Jews, and bomb-throwing Irishmen.

If such concerns seem a little silly a century on, it’s mainly because so many view the past through the same nostalgic lens as celebrated French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who once marvelled at all the well-behaved and patriotic immigrants who “arriv[ed] a century ago on Ellis Island and learned to sing ‘America the Beautiful.’” For all of today’s partisan discord, Republican and Democratic Americans generally agree with an idea Phyllis Schlafly and her co-authors expressed in their 2016 book, The Conservative Case for Trump: that European immigrants were uniformly “grateful for the opportunities they found here, and they accepted American history as a great, inspiring story of patriots and heroes.” Now, that epic influx of Catholics and Jews is something close to ancient history—“a chapter from the American past,” according to David Frum in the Atlantic, “narrated to the nostalgic strains of The Godfather or Fiddler on the Roof.”

But the degree to which yesterday’s immigrants actually challenged and disrupted the American status quo has long been ignored. The same year the EQA was passed, an Irish immigrant priest named James Coyle defied the furious citizenry of Mobile, Alabama, and secretly officiated at the wedding of a Catholic convert and Puerto Rican laborer, a transgression for which he was murdered by a Klansman. Also in 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—residents of an immigrant community openly hostile to capitalism, and sympathetic to revolutionary violence—were sentenced to death on flimsy robbery charges amidst anti-Italian hysteria. Two years earlier, immigrant radicals were at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings across the country, this just two years after various immigrant communities openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I, brazenly sympathizing with America’s enemies.

If we forget such unsettling moments in our immigrant past, we ignore the powerful—if often paradoxical—influence they still exert. To wit: Has our sepia-tinted view ofEllis Island immigrants actually encouraged future generations to echo the nativist paranoia of Albert Johnson? And does that mean that the Ellis Island years actually ended up making the United States a significantly less progressive society? Then there is this more timely question: Have today’s immigrants and their children started their own rightward journey?

Albert Johnson’s anti-immigrant laws had bipartisan support, but also put his allies in a long-term bind. The 1920 census was the first to reveal that more Americans were living in cities than rural areas. This after decades of Catholic and Jewish immigration transformed American life in ways that would have been unimaginable when Ellis Island opened just three decades before. The profound demographic upheaval left Republicans facing the prospect of obsolescence, even extinction.

“The United States is and has always been both a nation of immigrants and a nation that periodically wages war against them.”

Which brings us to progressives’ first immigration problem. In 2020, Republicans are doing just fine, thanks in no small part to yesterday’s immigrants. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris managed to woo enough of these “white ethnic” voters to take the White House. Nevertheless, while MAGA-merica is typically depicted as the tumbleweed states in the middle of the country, the last two presidential elections actually came down to districts outside of urban areas that were once immigrant hubs.

Ben Bradlee Jr.’s 2016 book, The Forgotten, focuses on Pennsylvania’s “predominantly Catholic” Luzerne County, where “waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe” settled. The names of his interviewees read like a Knights of Columbus roll call—Barletta, Langan, Deluca, Czarnecki. The same could be said of certain Trump loyalists—Hannity, Giuliani, Conway, Cucinelli. Mike Pence’s grandfather, after whom he is named, came to Chicago through Ellis Island, from Doocastle, Mayo, in 1923. Even in “anarchist” New York City, enclaves where older immigrants settled—south Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens, much of Staten Island—are conservative strongholds.

For some historians, this is simply an American paradox: “The United States is and has always been both a nation of immigrants and a nation that periodically wages war against them,” as historian David Nasaw put it recently. Donald Trump’s “grandfather, mother and first and third wife were immigrants,” Nasaw noted, yet “with the help of his immigration advisers Stephen Miller (the great-grandson of immigrants) and Jared Kushner (the grandson of Holocaust survivors)” he has supported an anti-immigrant agenda.

But from fifty years ago to now, books like Kevin Phillips’s 1969 classic, The Emerging Republican Majority, and 2020’s Hard Hat Riot by David Paul Kuhn have detailed the events and developments that contributed to this “inescapable” outcome. Progressives can lament the Republican dirty tricks and dog-whistles that swayed many whites, but they should also acknowledge that Democrats didn’t exactly articulate a compelling alternative vision.

By 2020 though, that no longer mattered because of America’s “changing demographics”—a polite way to say that “the end of white Christian America” (to use the title of Robert Jones’s 2016 book) was upon us. Conservatives, the argument goes, are (once again) on the brink of obsolescence, after decades of immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Over the next thirty years, these trends could help Democrats achieve a new “emerging majority,” in the words of Princeton professor Paul Starr. 

That Starr wrote these words twenty-five years ago suggests this argument is, well, getting a little old. For too long, progressives have relied upon a static conception of how ethnic identity expresses itself politically, when—as  the long, complicated journey of European immigrants suggests—such things are far more fluid, influenced by a wide range of issues, from religion and education to policing and state power.

Which brings us to progressives’ second immigrant problem: despite all manner of right-wing anti-immigrant bile, some residents of ethnic enclaves are apparently quite willing to dip their toes into more conservative waters.  In 2020, Donald Trump “confounded expectations” by “adding a substantial number of votes in areas with a lot of Hispanic residents,” according to the New York Times, which also reported that Muslim voters “confounded Democratic strategists with their support for Mr. Trump reaching 35 percent.”

Most of these voters are still reliably Democratic. But that a significant minority are not was surely less “confounding” to those who have studied America’s complex history of immigration and assimilation, which is that rare thing—a case study of what happens when marginalized groups actually gain some clout.

What should we expect? Could it be that while twentieth-century immigrants gave a short-term boost to Democrats, Republicans end up as the long-term beneficiaries, as they arguably were for decades after Ellis Island closed?

Fordham professor Charles Camosy and Boston College researcher Hosffman Ospino are among those who have suggested that Democrats should improve their appeals to religiously faithful immigrant communities. Conservatives like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are already laying out 2024 campaign strategies touting not just “a strong government role in managing the economy” but also outreach “to attract religious and minority voters,” as Nicholas Lemman wrote in the New Yorker.

Some immigrant communities seem to be seeking candidates who transcend the conventional right-left divide.

Many Muslim voters, meanwhile, “support progressive policies, like affordable health care and a living wage,” yet also “adhere to traditional values [and] believe in God,” New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali noted in 2017. In short, some immigrant communities seem to be seeking candidates who transcend the conventional right-left divide. As Bard College religion professor Hussein Rashid once said, “As a Muslim, I’d vote for Jesus, but the Republicans won’t let him in, and the Democrats don’t believe in him.”

The socialist tilt of some Democrats, meanwhile, may bring class-based exuberance but spiritual drawbacks. The conservatism of Floridian Cubans, for example, is well documented. But there is also the Vietnamese community in California’s Orange County, “refugees who supported themselves by opening small businesses, and [have] identified with Republicans’ free market ethos,” Hua Hsu recently wrote in the New Yorker. “Their hatred of Communism often made them distrustful of liberal politics.” Many immigrants—from China, Venezuela, and elsewhere—“have come to America from countries where the state interferes in people’s lives while pretending to help,” notes the Hoover Institution’s Tunku Varadarajan. And if you think Donald Trump couldn’t possibly woo fledgling immigrant conservatives, check out the Instagram photo of Cuban dissident Eliecer Avila and supporters at Miami’s Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre shrine—all with their middle fingers thrust in the air. Crude gestures aside, there are parallels here to past ideological conflicts, from Spanish Civil War clashes in the 1930s to the anti-communism divides of the 1950s and ’60s, that hastened divisions between U.S. progressives and immigrant communities in the twentieth century.

Some Asian Americans, meanwhile, have lined up against progressives in battles over elite public schools in New York City, while “Latino and Asian American voters played a key role in defeating” an affirmative action ballot measure in California. The same voters are also not only “more likely to be actively religious,” but also more likely “to pursue Republican-leaning careers such as military service and law enforcement,” Lemann noted. Such career paths also played a role in the rightward drift of working-class white ethnics. Even after his infamous televised downfall, in 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was raucously cheered by thousands of New York City cops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, following a warm introduction by Cardinal Francis Spellman.

The raw emotional nature of issues surrounding policing, crime, and punishment, then and now, can lead to debates that range from uncomfortable to abhorrent. The political implications of such matters are nevertheless far-reaching.

In 2020, for example, it is increasingly anachronistic to discuss police brutality in black-and-white terms, since more and more police departments—including large ones like the LAPD and NYPD—are, or nearly are, majority-minority. A Hmong immigrant and Nigerian-American were among the four Minnesota police officers implicated alongside Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, while the Guangzhou-born widower of executed NYPD officer Wenjian Liu recently posted a video denouncing anti-cop “radicals.” In an LA Times article titled “Why More Latinos Voted for Trump,” Texas A&M political science professor Juan Carlos Huerta noted that “U.S. Border Patrol has provided Latinos in the (the southwest) with good-paying jobs, perhaps blunting the outrage for some over Trump’s harsh rhetoric over illegal immigration.”

Which brings us back to noisy pundits like Tucker Carlson. If progressives simply try to run out the demographic clock, relying solely on Republican bigotry to maintain immigrant support, what will they have to offer when conservatives—recognizing that many immigrant communities have deep ties to faith groups and law enforcement—start fine-tuning their trusty dog whistles? After all, what is often dismissively called “white Christian America” is actually the product of quite remarkable diversity, having (slowly but surely) incorporated the offspring of millions of tired, poor, and despised peasants. Academics spent much of the 1990s explaining how these Ellis Island immigrants “became white.” It could be that a new, twenty-first-century version of this regrettably termed process is nevertheless underway.

Liberal activists—understandably striving to expose Anglo privilege and systemic nativism—often look to the ideas and tactics of the civil rights movement for inspiration. But the long, strange history of immigration in America reveals the shortcomings of viewing the world as neatly divided between the mighty powerful and oppressed powerless—in other words, in black and white. That works for some. But as Huri Kunzru asked recently in the New York Review of Books: “Where does that leave the rest of us non-black people of color, rendered invisible in this schema?”

History is not destiny. But neither is demography. At a time when initiatives like the New York Times’s 1619 project (whatever its shortcomings) rightly asks us to racially reframe important aspects of America’s foundation, we should also be reassessing the broad, long-term cultural impact of immigration—from 1820, 1920, and 2020—on American history. A more nuanced understanding of immigration, as it was then and is now, might temper some of the more paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric on the Right, and shake up the complacency and naivete on the Left. Because one hundred years after the passage of Albert Johnson’s Emergency Quota Act, we still haven’t seriously grappled with even basic immigration questions, such as these posed recently by author Wes Enzinna:

Immigration narratives are often only about the journey. But what happens when a migrant arrives at his or her destination? And what happens to his or her children after they’ve been there awhile and grown up?

Tom Deignana regular Commonweal contributor, has written about books for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Catholic Reporter. He is working on a book about immigration.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.