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.