Historian John Higham’s Widening Views on Modern Efforts to Limit Immigration

It’s Not All about Nativism

By Jerry Kammer on May 23, 2010

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Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow at CIS, won many awards in his 30 years as a journalist. In 2006 he received a Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for his work in helping uncover the bribery scandal whose central figure was Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. His work in Mexico for the Arizona Republic was honored with the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Award for humanitarian journalism.


Historian John Higham was long known as the dean of American immigration scholars. He is best known as the author of Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, a masterful book on the history of nativism.1 As one scholar noted after Higham’s death in 2003, the book “remains the classic work on the hostility native-born Americans showed toward immigrants outside the Anglo-Saxon fold.”2

Strangers in the Land was published in 1955. This Backgrounder is a study of Higham’s views on nativism and immigration policy as he expressed them in the remaining decades of his long career. It draws from his statements to Congress and a federal commission on immigration reform. It also draws from essays published in books and scholarly journals and from Higham’s previously private files at Johns Hopkins University. The author was granted special access to the files by Higham’s widow, Dr. Eileen Higham.

Rejecting the Frame of Nativism

Last December, as President Obama’s health care reform proposal was under intense national debate, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson lamented the absence of discussion on how immigrants affect the economics of health care. “If we don’t curb immigration of the poor and unskilled — people who can’t afford insurance, Obama’s program will be less effective and more expensive than estimated,” Samuelson wrote. “Hardly anyone mentions immigrants’ impact, because it seems insensitive.”3

The fiscal, labor market, demographic, environmental, and social effects of immigration are considerable. Yet those who raise these concerns as reasons for enforcing laws against illegal immigration and reducing flows of legal immigration are often accused not only of insensitivity but also of racism, xenophobia, and hostility toward immigrants. Those allegations crystallize around a single term that is wielded as an epithet: nativism.

The Center for New Community, for example, conducts “Nativism Watch,” which has contacted reporters whose articles have quoted the Center for Immigration Studies, demanding that reporters identify CIS as a “nativist” organization. Its website claims that “the goal of the anti-immigrant movement is to preserve a white nation against an invisible ‘invasion’ of brown-skinned, Spanish speaking immigrants.”4

CNC is allied with the National Council of La Raza, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Media Matters for America, and other groups in an extensive campaign to smear the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as a “hate group.”5 The campaign claims that CIS and Numbers USA are similarly tainted by nativism and should be shunned in the national immigration debate.

As immigration scholars Peter Skerry and Noah Pickus have noted, John Higham’s Strangers in the Land “continues to be widely and approvingly cited by those concerned with underscoring the history of prejudice and intolerance toward newcomers in the United States.”6

Yet, Skerry and Pickus also noted that Higham explicitly rejected efforts to frame as nativists those who favor more restrictive immigration policies.

As they cited “the social strains and disorder that inevitably accompany any movement of large numbers of unskilled migrants into advanced democratic societies,” Skerry and Pickus noted concerns Higham expressed after publication of his landmark book.7

Indeed, Higham expressed his concerns about massive illegal immigration and the efforts of ethnic and business leaders to thwart attempts to contain it. He worried that in the absence of firm but measured efforts to manage illegal immigration, rising public frustration would lead to the sort of virulent displays of anti-immigrant feeling that he chronicled in Strangers in the Land.

As Congress debated immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s, Higham warned that U.S. policies were promoting divisiveness by limiting the diversity of immigration sources that had helped the country avoid the ethnic cleavages that beset other countries.

As we will see, Higham warned of the need to enforce immigration laws in order to maintain comity and respect for the law. He expressed concern that narrowing economic opportunities for unskilled workers would constrain the social mobility that he saw as vital to the health of American society. Finally, he was concerned that multiculturalism would undermine the benign nationalism that he saw as an alternative to nativism and weaken immigrants’ identification with their adopted homeland.

During an especially intense period of immigration debate in California, Higham made clear his distaste for efforts to confine the issue in a frame of nativism. As the 1994 vote neared on controversial Proposition 187 which sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants, a journalist asked Higham “What do you make of the nativists?”

Higham replied decisively, “I don’t know any nativists.”8

Nativism Defined

Higham defined nativism as “an inflamed and nationalistic type of ethnocentrism,”9 and as “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e. un-American) connections.”10 He described it as a prejudice rooted in irrational fears. He noted that the term was invented in the 1850s to describe the program of the anti-Catholic, anti-foreign political party the Know-Nothings.11

Others have added nuance, describing nativism as “a sort of patriotism combined with xenophobia”12 and the “hostile exclusion of immigrants simply to protect the cultural dominance of existing citizens.”13 Still others have noted that the term is often conflated with racism. Higham himself wrote that, historically, “Racism and nativism were different things, though often close allied.”14

But Higham himself disapproved of the tendency among scholars to label all concerns about immigration as nativist. He viewed that tendency as the product of an intellectual fashion, the 1950s academic preoccupation with ideology and prejudice, which he called “the twin lodestars of social psychology” at that time.15

Immigration scholarship had framed the discussion in a way that “almost inevitably stresses subjective irrational motives,” Higham said in 1957. He observed that for many a scholar, “Nativism displays all the terrors that beset his own sensibility. It is an ideology; a rigid system of ideas, manipulated by propagandists seeking power; irrationally blaming some external group for the ills of society.”16

Higham was frequently critical of trends in the academic world, believing that they often led to ideologically based distortions. “Immigrants remain very popular there,” he wrote in 1999, “but largely as members of victimized groups.”17

Cornell historian Michael Kammen, a longtime Higham friend, said Higham instinctively rejected views he regarded as extreme, however fashionable they may have been in the academy. “Whenever John thought the pendulum had swung too far, he would always push back,” said Kammen.18

In a posthumous tribute to Higham, Kammen recalled that he had received a letter from Higham, who acknowledged his “plausible reputation among friends as a middle-of-the-roader, leaning against whatever gets to be too fashionable.”19

Elsewhere, Higham acknowledged that his approach to Strangers in the Land had been strongly influenced by the political climate of the early 1950s. He regretted that he hadn’t resisted its gravitational pull.

“My treatment of nativism, like most earlier accounts, had focused on rigid systems of ideas that propagandists manipulate to distort reality,” he wrote in 2000. “Repelled as I was not only by the xenophobia of the past but also by the nationalist delusions of the Cold War that were all around me, I had highlighted the most inflammatory aspects of ethnic conflict.20

Higham’s Caveat

Just two years after publication of Strangers in the Land, Higham issued his first caveat against the widespread invocation of nativism to explain resistance to or anxiety about immigration.

“Whenever a contemporary point of view gives so much encouragement to a certain historical approach, should we not suspect that our angle of vision screens out a good deal?” he wrote. “Specifically, should we not suspect that the nativist theme does little justice to the objective realities of ethnic relations?”21

Higham took a firm position: “I propose that research on the conflicts associated with foreign elements in American society should take a new line. The nativist theme, as defined and developed to date, is imaginatively exhausted.”22

In the preface to a later edition of Strangers in the Land, he wrote: “I would … if I were writing today, take more account of aspects of the immigration restriction movement that can not be sufficiently explained in terms of nativism.”23

Higham sought a more balanced perspective, one that would recognize that some concerns about immigration were rooted in legitimate concerns of day-to-day life rather than virulent ideology.

He pointed to “status rivalries”24 born not of irrational prejudice or scapegoating, but of competition for political and economic power. He cited, for example, nineteenth-century competition for control of such institutions as school boards, police forces, and fire departments.

Normally, Higham wrote in measured, dispassionate prose. But at times he conveyed a sense of alarm, as in the late 1990s when he noted inter-ethnic conflict in Southern California:

We require no theory of a “new” nativism or a “new” racism to account for the trouble that today’s concentrated immigrations from abroad precipitate, especially in urban areas like Los Angeles where a flood of Mexican immigrants is overrunning black neighborhoods.25

In 1986, as Congress was a debating an immigration reform bill sponsored in the Senate by Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson and in the House by Kentucky Democrat Romano Mazzoli, Higham submitted an essay to the New York Times. While it was not published, it remains useful as a statement of his views, especially regarding illegal immigration.

Higham’s sense of urgency was plain as he warned: “Every year that Congress and the President procrastinate the social strains that illegal immigration creates become more disturbing.”26

He observed that, “the clamor against the Simpson Mazzoli Bill today closely resembles the rigid opposition in the first decade of the twentieth century to any scheme of immigration restriction. The inescapable need for some rational control over the volume of immigration in an increasingly crowded world was plain to see, then as now. But unyielding resistance from the newer immigrant groups, from business interests that exploited them, and from the traditionalists who feared any increase in the powers of government, blocked all action. The problem was allowed to fester and grow — until a wave of national hysteria brought into being a system that was extravagantly protective and demeaningly racist. Hispanic leaders, chambers of commerce, and civil libertarians should take note.”27

The system to which Higham referred was created by Congress, which passed legislation in the 1920s that drastically curtailed immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Higham regarded the legislation as the embodiment of nativist anxiety that surged in the aftermath of World War I. He later called it a “blatantly discriminatory” effort “to freeze the existing balance of ethnic strains in the total American population.”28

There are actually two drafts of the essay in Higham’s files. One concludes with this urgent assessment of the federal government’s failure to contain illegal immigration. Higham wrote that, “in considering the short-sighted self-interest that allows illegal immigration to run wild, all of us should bear in mind that our acquiescence in the growing dangers and inequities it produces is nothing less than a failure of national will.”29

A letter in Higham’s files makes clear that he attempted first to have the essay published in the New York Times and then in the Washington Post.30 Neither paper published it.

Avoiding Division

Higham testified during the run-up to two major rounds of debate over immigration — first before a congressional committee in 1986, later before Barbara Jordan’s U.S. Commission on Immigration Reforn in 1993. He said the history of immigration offered cautionary lessons.

The United States had avoided ethnic divisions because of the powerful effects of assimilation, the internal mobility of American society, and the diversity of its immigrants, Higham said.

While immigrants tend to cluster in ethnic communities, “these communities undergo continual erosion through assimilation, especially in the third generation,” Higham said. “Consequently, the proportion of the American people who feel significantly conscious of foreign origins has always been limited.”31

He described the socially lubricating effects of mobility this way:

Since immigrants by definition come from somewhere else, they are an unsettling influence wherever they appear. But in America their arrival has often been less stressful than it would be in other countries because here most of the older, supposedly settled population have themselves been engaged in an endless round of relocations.

From east to west, from town to city, from city to suburb, and from one neighborhood to the next: Americans have always been an extraordinarily migratory people …. Internal mobility has lessened the social distance between one kind of newcomer and another.32

Discussing the benefits of diversity in the immigration flow, Higham observed that “America’s immigrants have differed from those drawn to other new countries most strikingly in the variety of peoples who have come here.” While conflict had arisen in other countries whose immigration favored particular nationalities, “[t]he United States has escaped any such cleavage not only because our many ethnic minorities have differed too much from one another to form a compact body.”33

Higham called for immigration policy that would avoid divisiveness, which he called “the principal negative effect that immigration can have on a country.”34

He reviewed U.S. history’s “two great explosions of ethnic turmoil associated with immigration.”35

The first came in the 1850s, the era of the Know-Nothing party, which was directed largely against Catholic immigrants who had surged to eastern cities.

The second came in the 1920s, a time of “a nation-wide spread of intense anti-Semitism, and much hysteria over the suspected disloyalty of German-Americans and immigrant radicals” and also “the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan as a nation-wide, all-purpose vigilante movement.”36

In explaining these eruptions, Higham revisited a thesis of Strangers in the Land — that the social unrest could be “traced in considerable measure to economic and cultural anxieties that had little to do with the actual behavior of the newer peoples.”37

Higham noted the historical context of both these eruptions of nativism. He wrote that “we cannot ignore the fact that the two crises … erupted at the peak of the greatest waves of immigration in American history.” He observed that “recovering tolerance and civic harmony depended in both instances on a period of relief from heavy immigration, during which an inclusive national enterprise could bring old and new Americans together. The American Civil War resolved the crisis of the 1850s by reducing immigration greatly and by uniting immigrants with natives in a common struggle to save the union. The crisis of the 1920s was dissipated partly by immigration restriction and partly by the subsequent challenge of the Great Depression.”38

Higham contended that U.S. immigration policy at the time he wrote was not adequately advancing values that he regarded as key: the diversity of immigrants and the innovation that creative immigrants had infused into the nation’s economic life.

On the first theme, Higham complained in 1986 that the existing law’s emphasis on family reunification “tend[s] to reinforce and perpetuate existing patterns of migration.” He noted disapprovingly that in the previous year 73 percent of green cards (which grant permanent residence) had been issued to relatives of persons already in the United States. He quoted the observation of journalist James Fallows that such policy “in bestowing benefits on certain families simply because an uncle or cousin managed to immigrate in the past … closes the door on the classic immigrant, the independent man or woman who sets out to make a new life.”39

The Value of Enforcement

Higham approached the issue of enforcement of immigration law cautiously. In his 1993 statement to the Commission on Immigration Reform, he offered no specific proposals. Nevertheless, he noted that “the problem of enforcement will have to be dealt with in order to maintain the comity that we vitally need and the respect that law must enjoy. Without a secure means of personal identification, the present system invites massive evasion by illegal immigrants and their exploitation by unscrupulous employers.”40

While Higham became increasingly alarmed at illegal immigration, and outspoken in his calls for action, he remained true to his centrist orientation as he discussed immigration policy. He acknowledged that any system of restrictions would “not square easily with the belief that this is a land of opportunity for all.”41

Nevertheless, he believed that “the growth of the world’s population and its increased mobility made regulatory action unavoidable. In the modern world free migration would result in excessive population displacement toward countries with high wages or political stability.”42

He went on to make a side-by-side comparison of the opposing sides in the immigration debate. “In this situation the restrictionists claimed to be the hard-boiled realists, though their ‘realism’ was seldom free of prejudice or hysteria,” he wrote. Meanwhile, “Antirestrictionists tended to gloss over the dilemmas that immigration posed.”43

But in a second 1993 statement to the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Higham forcefully criticized antirestrictionists for thwarting what he regarded as reasonable and necessary efforts to control illegal immigration. He drew an analogy between that period and the era that incubated the nativist outbreak that followed World War I:

A fair policy of immigration restriction was becoming increasingly desirable in the early twentieth century as part of the responsible organization of an industrial society. But immigrants and their employers simply adopted an inflexible posture of defending the status quo. That kept the nation’s doors wide open to everyone who could pass a simple physical examination or pay for cabin passage. The opportunity, between 1910 and 1917, to think out an immigration policy that might be both realistic and democratic was therefore lost. After the war the forces of ethnic self interest and national hysteria took over …. Today a third major wave of immigration is building around us, and again it puts special strains on parts of the country where it is breaking. We are, I submit, at a moment analogous to the years between 1910 and 1917. Serious protective measures against unregulated (i.e.,undocumented) immigration are called for, and desired by the public at large, but influential groups do not wish to listen.44

Here Higham was expressing the conviction that measured but firm action to control illegal immigration was necessary in order to avoid the sort of public anger and resentment that could lead to an explosion. It was a concern that others had voiced for years.

In 1980, as an earlier presidential commission on immigration reform was preparing a report that would urge tough action on illegal immigration, the New York Times reported on the concerns of the commission’s executive director, Lawrence Fuchs.

The Times reported that Fuchs “said that the 16-member commission was very conscious of the need to protect civil liberties, but that continued illegal immigration carried risks of its own, including an increased potential for social and political tension The tension, he warned, could lead to a ‘xenophobic, racist reaction.’”45 United Press International quoted the chairman of the commission, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who said the group was “well aware of the widespread dissatisfaction among U.S. citizens with an immigration policy that seems to be out of control.”46

Three years later a New York Times editorial also expressed concern about the danger of failing to contain illegal immigration: “For reasons of vitality, humanity, and history, America wants and needs immigrants. What it does not need is such an uncontrollable flood of illegal migrants that it tries public patience and foments a backlash against all newcomers. That’s the genuine danger ….”47

Importance of Social Mobility

Higham saw another danger in the fact that so many immigrants were poorly educated and unskilled. “In the last several decades America has probably offered all but the best educated immigrants more limited opportunities than it did in the past,” he wrote in 1999. “The widening distance between unskilled jobs and the technological complexity of better ones condemns most immigrant families to minimal social mobility and thus may deprive them of the hope that keeps the American system going.”48

A handwritten note in his files, dated May 2000 provides evidence that Higham was also concerned about the effects of low-wage immigrants on the economic welfare of U.S. citizens and others already working in low-wage jobs. In a reference to economist George Borjas, now at Harvard, Higham wrote, “No one to my knowledge has refuted Prof. George J. Borjas’s statement [that the] high level of immig (sic) is ‘an astonishing transfer of wealth from the poorest people in the country, who are disproportionately minorities, to the richest.’”

Higham’s conviction that the United States had historically avoided civil upheavals because of the great variety of ethnicities in its immigrant population caused him to be concerned about the intense concentration of Latino immigrants in Southern California and Miami.

He wrote that “numbers and concentrated visibility in specific regions have reached a level at which our history should have warned us to expect serious trouble …. For the first time we may be creating enclaves of permanent minorities on a pattern familiar in other parts of the world, where a dominant ethnic group dwelling at the center of the country is surrounded by minorities on the periphery,” he wrote. “A geographic pattern that produces bitter conflict from Quebec to Tibet is becoming possible in the United States.”49

Finally, Higham was concerned about a decline of a form of nationalism that he saw as a healthy alternative to nativism. He called it “liberal nationalism” and “American universalism.” It was “a concept of nationality that stressed the diversity of the nation’s origins, the egalitarian dimension of its self image, and the universality of its founding principles.”50

Higham feared that multiculturalism had led to a fragmentation of this identity, a development that he believed was accelerated by an ideology that was widespread in the academy. “Because the scholars who specialize in ethnic studies generally see nations as oppressive and cooptive, the relations of ethnic groups to a core culture do not interest them,” he wrote.

“The eclipse of liberal nationalism since the 1960s has deprived all the nation’s minorities of a powerful means of affirming their fraternity with others and exploring their relations to a common Americanism.”51

He closed one seminal essay with a question and a warning: “Are we experiencing, basically, an increasing indifference of people to one another, both within and between ethnic groups. If so, immigration may prove to be just an aspect of a wider social fragmentation.”52

End Notes

1 John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press) 1955.

2 Douglas Martin, “John Higham, 82, Historian of Nation’s Role as a Melting Pot,” The New York Times, August 18, 2003.

3 Robert Samuelson, “Yes, It’s all about him,” The Washington Post, December 21, 2009.

4 Center for New Community, http://buildingdemocracy.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=9....

5 See Jerry Kammer, “Immigration and the SPLC, How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donors,” Center for Immigration Studies, March 2010, http://www.cis.org/Immigration-SPLC.

6 Peter Skerry and Noah Pickus, “Good Neighbors and Good Citizens, Beyond the Legal-Illegal Immigration Debate,” in Debating Immigration, Carol M. Swain, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 96.

7 Skerry and Pickus, p. 97.

8 Otis L. Graham, Unguarded Gates, (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.) 2006, p. 191

9 John Higham, “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” Reviews in American History 28 (2000), p. 330.

10 John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press) 1992 edition, p. 4.

11 Higham “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” op. cit.

12 Marcus Hall, “American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers in the Land”, book review, Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 22, 2009.

13 Bill Moyers Journal, http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/blog/2007/11/examining_the_discourse_o....

14 Higham, “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” op. cit. p 328.

15 Ibid., p 332.

16 John Higham, “Another Look at Nativism,” Catholic Historical Review, 44:2 (July 1958), p. 149.

17 Higham, “Cultural Responses to Immigration,” in Diversity and Its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society, Neil J. Smelser and Jeffrey C. Alexander, eds., Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 57.

18 Author conversation with Michael Kammen, March 2010.

19 Michael G. Kammen, “John Higham and the Nourishment of Memory,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2004, p. 298.

20 Higham, “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” p. 331.

21 Higham, “Another Look at Nativism,” p. 149

22 Ibid., p. 147.

23 Strangers in the Land, second edition, 1963.

24 Higham, “Another Look at Nativism,” p. 151.

25 Higham, “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” p.337.

26 John Higham, essay submitted to the New York Times in 1984, but unpublished, in Higham files at Johns Hopkins University.

27 Ibid.

28 John Higham, “The Goals of American Immigration Policy, A Long Term View,” in Higham’s files.

29 John Higham, “History Illuminates Immigration Policy,” unpublished essay in Higham’s files.

30 Higham letter to Howard Goldlberg, New York Times op-ed editor, October 12, 1984, in Higham’s files.

31 John Higham, “The Goals of American Immigration Policy: A Long-Term View,” submitted to the Jordan Commission, 1993.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Higham testimony before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and International Law, Washington, D.C., July 30, 1986.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 John Higham, “The Goals of American Immigration Policy: A Long-Term View,” submitted to the Jordan Commission, 1993.

39 Higham testimony to House Subcommittee, op. cit.

40 Higham, “The Goals of American Immigration Policy,” op.cit.

41 John Higham, Send These to Me, Immigrants in Urban America, (revised edition) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,) 1984, p. 30.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Higham statement to the Commission on Immigration Reform, dated October 1, 1993, in Higham’s files.

45 Robert Pear, “Alien Identification Called Civil Rights Threat,” The New York Times, July 17, 1980.

46 Robert Shepard, “Commission urging crackdown on illegal entries,” United Press International, February 27, 1981.

47 New York Times editorial, “Time to Turn the Illegal Tide,” February 21, 1983.

48 Higham, “Cultural Responses to Immigration,” in Diversity and Its Discontents, p. 57.

49 Ibid. p. 56.

50 Higham “Instead of a Sequel, or How I Lost My Subject,” p. 338.

51 Higham, “Cultural Responses to Immigration,” p. 52.

52 Ibid.