During a discussion of the DREAM Act with Newt Gingrich at George Washington University this week, Howard Dean said "the reason this country is such an extraordinary success" is because it is populated with the descendants of self-starting immigrants who took a risk to come here.
Gingrich, a Fox News contributor and possible presidential candidate, replied by invoking Ellis Island as evidence that counter to the "mythology" about immigration history, the United States "had a very long stretch of controlled immigration":
GINGRICH: My wife's grandmother came from Poland at a time when it was occupied and she was actually listed as a Hungarian citizen because her part of Poland was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She arrived at Ellis Island where they wrote down her name, the ship she was on, where she came from, where she was going and they inspected her for health and would have kicked her out if she had not passed the health inspection. So there's this mythology -- we had a very long stretch of controlled immigration, and all of you should someday go to Ellis Island.
It's not clear what Gingrich wants us to take from this. But it's worth noting that U.S. immigration control in the early 20th century was structured around racial bias.
Ellis Island served as an immigration station from 1892 to 1924. During that time Chinese workers were forbidden to enter the country because, as President Cleveland wrote in 1888, the "experiment of blending the social habits and mutual race idiosyncrasies of the Chinese laboring classes with those of the great body of the people of the United States has proved by the experience of twenty years ... in every sense unwise, impolitic, and injurious to both nations."
Chinese exclusion began in 1882, and according to immigration expert Roger Daniels:
It marked the moment when the golden doorway of admission to the United States began to narrow and initiated a thirty-nine year period of successive exclusions of certain kinds of immigrants, 1882-1921, followed by twenty-two years, 1921-43, when statutes and administrative actions set narrowing numerical limits for those immigrants who had not otherwise been excluded. During those years a federal bureaucracy was created to control immigration and immigrants, a bureaucracy whose initial raison d'etre was to keep out first Chinese and then others who were deemed to be inferior.
Historian Hasia Diner explains that the immigration restriction system erected by Congress in 1920, "gave preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe":
Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914-1918) and into the early 1920s, Congress did change the nation's basic policy about immigration. The National Origins Act in 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. A complicated piece of legislation, it essentially gave preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe, severely limited the numbers from eastern and southern Europe, and declared all potential immigrants from Asia to be unworthy of entry into the United States.
Daniels noted that "no numerical limitation was placed on Western Hemisphere immigration, partly because many Southwestern and Western legislators insisted that their regions needed Mexican agricultural labor." Congress stipulated, however, that those born in "European colonies in the New World" were still subject to limits -- those affected being "almost all black."
Mexican immigrants moved more or less freely across the border, drawn by a demand for labor in the United States. But when the Great Depression hit, the government began sending Mexican workers, and even some U.S. citizens to Mexico -- only to shift course again when workers were needed during World War II.
In 1965, Congress replaced the racially based quota system with one that "provided preferences for relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents and for immigrants with job skills deemed useful to the United States," in the words of the Congressional Budget Office. That system has not been significantly reformed since.
So what was Gingrich getting at? Then, as now, movement over the Southern border was driven by economic forces. When the U.S. "controlled immigration" in the early 20th century, that often meant keeping out groups seen as racially inferior.
From the February 1 debate at George Washington University: