An Important Book with a Flaw That Will Make It Harder for Today's Restrictionists to Get a Fair Hearing

By Jerry Kammer on May 31, 2019

In 2004, When Daniel Okrent was the public editor of the New York Times, he wrote a column that became famous in the world of American journalism. The headline, written by Okrent himself, posed a question: "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" The answer arrived in the very first sentence. "Of course it is," Okrent wrote, blowing to smithereens the Timesean claim to play it straight with the news and sequester opinion on the opinion pages. Okrent went to observe not only that the editorial page was "thoroughly saturated in liberal theology" but that Times news pages tended "to tell only the side of the story your coreligionists want to hear."

Nowhere is that more true that in the Times' work on immigration. That is why I want to append a mild complaint to the fulsome praise of yesterday's post about Okrent's new book on the history of immigration policy. The moral of Okrent's story is told in his book's title: The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America.

Okrent tells a powerful, often disturbing story. It is so compelling in its analysis of the worst motivations for restriction that it will tend to blot out attention of other, more understandable and even respectable reasons for restriction. As the New York Times' review of the book put it, the book is so vivid and "jam packed with appalling examples [that] most readers will be unable to miss the book's implications for present-day anti-immigration sentiment."

Now, that is the side of the story that the editors of the Times and their co-religionist readers – clustered and cloistered in their righteous cosmopolitanism – want to hear. Thus the headline that appeared above the review: "The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants."

To be sure, Okrent does take note of other elements in the fraught cultural, social, and political climate of that time. He points to concern for workers displaced by low-cost immigrant labor. But he shows none of the concern that historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. expressed in 1928, when he wrote: "The swarming of foreigners into the great industries occurred at considerable cost to the native workingmen, for the latter struggled in vain for higher wages or better conditions as long as the employers could command the services of an inexhaustible supply of foreign laborers. Thus, the new immigration has made it easier for the few to amass enormous fortunes at the expense of the many and has helped to create in this country for the first time yawning inequalities."

Okrent also acknowledges the superheated climate of the post-war years, stoked by understandable if exaggerated fears of Bolsheviks and other European radicals, and the raids of 1919 and 1920 led by the zealous and politically ambitious Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose squads rounded up some 3,000 people suspected of conspiracy. He even notes that leaders of the Jewish communities in several cities became so alarmed at the sheer size of the influx of Jewish immigrants that they arranged for them to be resettled to other parts of the country – "shooing them westward." In immigration, numbers do matter; size does count, despite the liberal dogma that limits are a bigoted form of oppression. But again, these observations by Okrent are brief and inadequate – at least to my moderate restrictionist eyes.

In his acknowledgements section at the back of the book, Okrent is particularly gracious about the influence of the late John Higham, one of his professors at the University of Michigan. Okrent says Higham is still "the most eminent historian of immigration." He adds, "I would like to believe a small portion of his scholarly DNA rubbed off on me."

Like Higham, Okrent is a brilliant scholar and an eloquent writer. But as someone who has spent considerable time studying Higham, I can venture the self-serving speculation that Higham would agree that Okrent should have paid more attention to legitimate reasons for limiting immigration. My Exhibit A is an unpublished Higham essay that I found in his archives at Johns Hopkins. Writing in 1984, as Congress debated the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which in modified form would be enacted as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Higham 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.

I'm an Okrent fan. He is to scholarly journalism what Roberto Clemente was to baseball. He has all the tools and awesome talent. But I think his new book will make life more difficult for restrictionists whose concerns are legitimate and who don't deserve to be found guilty by association with the villains of Okrent's remarkable and important book.