Nativism (politics)

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This article is about nativism in politics. For other uses of the term nativism, please see nativism (disambiguation).

Nativism is opposition to immigration and has been a political factor in all countries with immigration since the rise of romantic nationalism in the early 19th century. In Protestant countries it is often closely tied to anti-Catholicism. See also Xenophobia

In the U.S. the term 'nativism' distinguishes between Americans who were born in the United States, and individuals who have immigrated "first generation" immigrants. A similar distinction is relevant in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The term itself is not known in the UK and Europe, even if the underlying realities are not so different. In many other countries, a person with foreign-born parents would also be considered a 'foreigner' or an 'immigrant'. Not all opposition to immigration in the United States is concerned with this distinction, but nativism has become a general term for 'opposition to immigration' based on fears the immigrants do not share American values. It can be misleading to apply the term in other countries, especially in Europe, where opposition to immigration is often founded on national identity.

Anti-immigration may be used to describe individuals, groups or movements which oppose significant levels of immigration into their countries. Anti-immigrant may refer to those who are opposed to specific migrant groups, or as a pejorative for those who are anti-immigration. The terms often have negative connotations in a political context, particularly in the West, where politicians generally avoid giving explicit support to anti-immigration platforms or describing their policies as "anti-immigrant".

Major anti-immigration arguments

Anti-immigration sentiment are typically justified with one or more of the following arguments, claiming that immigrants:

  • Language: Isolate themselves in their own communities and refuse to learn the local language.
  • Employment: Acquire jobs which would have otherwise been available to native citizens.
  • Nationalism: Damage a sense of community and nationality.
  • Consumption: Increase the consumption of scarce resources; added pressure on environment; too fast population growth
  • Welfare: Make heavy use of social welfare systems, with a sense they are not entitled to it.
  • Crime: increase in crime, youth gangs, drug dealing
  • Ethnicity: Can displace a native population and replace its culture with their own.
  • Education: flooding public schools which are forced to deal with language training
  • In some cases deplete their own countries of origin of badly needed skills (known as the "brain drain").

The claim that immigrants can "swamp" a local population is noted to be related to birth rate, relative to nationals. Historically this has actually happened, but with immigrants whose societies were more technologically advanced than native populations — English immigration to North America, for example, displacing Indians. Also Germans moving into Slavic areas of western Europe, Han Chinese migration to western China, and Bantu migrations into southern Africa.

Counter arguments

In response, others point out that:

  • The "isolation" and "swamping" arguments have racist undertones as they are typically directed at immigrants from developing countries.
  • Expatriates from developed countries are just as likely to be isolationist, and refuse or otherwise fail to learn the language of the societies in which they live. In the U.S., there are relatively few current immigrants from developed countries, but a large number from developing countries.
  • The argument that immigrants "steal jobs" is often said to overlook the fact that the jobs being "taken" are typically menial and/or low paying positions which "natives" generally do not wish to perform, creating a demand for labour which is met by immigrants. The anti-immigration reply to this is that, without a ready supply of low-wage, low-skill labor, those jobs would be done by citizens at a higher rate. Or, inefficient industries would be forced to modernize rather than relying on that low-skilled labor.
  • The argument that immigrants are an economic burden is unproven and the reverse appears to be the case: immigration is correlated with an improvement in economic conditions, because immigrants spend money on products and services just like everybody else. Many immigrants also send a large percentage of their pay back to their home countries via Remittances
  • With regard to the "heavy use" of benefits and services such as publicly-funded health care, welfare and other forms of social security, immigrants are often ineligible to receive such assistance, or their eligibility is otherwise restricted in some way (e.g.. they may only become eligible after a lengthy period of time); furthermore, the effect of such restrictions is to reduce the economic contribution immigrants can make. In most U.S. states, public agencies are forbidden by law from inquiring about someone's immigration status. Illegal immigrants are also users of emergency care.
  • In countries with a declining, aging, population, immigrants tend to provide additional young residents who will, effectively, later help to support the aging native population. Indeed, population projections show that some countries who consider themselves to have a problem with excessive immigration will in fact face severe difficulties in future decades without immigration.

Commentators also point out that the problems which are purportedly caused by immigrants equally exist among native-born populations as well, and that politicians often use immigration as a convenient scapegoat to distract the public from real social, political and economic problems.

Driving forces behind nativism

Threats involving language, jobs, pay-scales, control of the government, control of borders (and fears of invasion), moral values, and loyalties to racial and ethnic groups, are involved in nativism, with the exact ingredients varying widely.

For example, economic competition and national security are currently (2006) at issue in the United States. However, it has been pointed out that the poor people who are most economically hurt by illegal immigrants are not usually those who are complaining about it.

While the distinguishing feature of nativism is the opposition between established inhabitants and recently arrived immigrants, the specifics of each situation creates different dynamics.

Often, there are economic tensions caused by the fact that the immigrants are often willing to work harder for less pay, or spend less (saving more and sending money to their home country). Often it is alleged the newcomers form violent gangs that seize control of work, or engage in illegal activities like drugs or prostitution. The allegation dates back to the Irish canal gangs (1840s), Chinese gangs (tongs) in 1880s, Italian ("Mafia") (1890- present), and more recently to Russian and Hispanic gangs. The established inhabitants perceive an economic threat caused by lowered wage scales and lower standards of living.

Linguistic, religious, moral, racial/ethnic and cultural differences might be factors. While there was nativist sentiment in the late 19th century against Catholics from Eastern and Southern Europe, much of this sentiment had subsided by the 1950s as these immigrant groups assimilated into American society and culture. The nativism of the 1880s focused on Chinese. In 1890-1920 the focus was on European immigrants.

In some instances, national security concerns can stir up latent nativist tendencies that are not directly associated with economic competition. Examples of this are the sentiment against German-Americans during both World Wars and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although the internment of Japanese-Americans was not directly motivated by economic factors, many Californians took advantage of the situation to profit financially at the expense of the internees.

Despite the national trauma inflicted by the 9/11 attacks, there has been remarkably little nativist sentiment in the US targeted against immigrants from Islamic countries. This can largely be attributed to a vigorous campaign by governmental and civic leaders to discourage a nativist backlash in response to the attacks. In Europe, however, there has been a considerable growth of anti-Islamic nativism after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent attacks in London and Madrid.


Canada, the country with the highest per capita immigration rate in the world, has grown rich, with low levels of unemployment and high growth rates, as immigration increased after 1970.

Another issue concerns free trade; immigrant rights advocates believe it is hypocritical and inhumane to allow goods and money to freely cross borders yet impose numerous requirements on people to do the same thing. It has been argued that this constitutes a form of class warfare against workers, who are not free to move with changing economic conditions in the same manner that businesses can move their capital. (See also capital flight.)

Anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US frequently mentions that foreigners take "American jobs", yet the US Constitution does not guarantee employment for anyone, and free flow of capital means that business owners have no legal obligation to keep jobs in the country. To this end, many immigration opponents/reductionists offer protectionist solutions to economic problems, and there was considerable criticism of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) among them. Many proponents of these policies do not otherwise tend to support the modern welfare state.

Politicians and commentators have contrasted the developed world's immigration controls with what they see as uncontrolled movement of people throughout the Third World. This is inaccurate; many poor countries indeed have numerous restrictions on immigration, and there has been little apparent economic gain from these policies.

Nativism in Europe

Gross (2004) argues that a liberal culture of anti-Catholicism shaped the modern development of Germany including capitalist economics, industrial expansion, national unification, and public and private gender roles.

Regarding the Irish in Great Britain, Lucassen (2005) argues the deep religious divide between the Protestants and Catholics was at the core of the ongoing estrangement of the Irish in British society. In the case of the Poles in the mining districts of western Germany before 1914, it was nationalism (on both the German and the Polish sides), which kept Polish workers, who had established an associational structure approaching institutional completeness (churches, voluntary associations, press, even unions), separate from the host German society. Lucassen find that religiosity and nationalism were more fundamental in generating nativism and inter-group hostility than the labor antagonism. Once Italian workers in France had understood the benefit of unionism and French unions were willing to overcome their fear of Italians as 'scabs', integration was open for most Italian immigrants. The French state, always more of an immigration state than Prussia/Germany or historical Great Britain, fostered and supported family-based immigration and thus helped Italians on their immigration trajectory with minimal nativism.[1]

Many observers see the post-1950s wave of immigration in Europe was fundamentally different from the pre-1914 patterns. They debate the role of cultural differences, ghettos, race, Muslim fundamentalism, poor education and poverty play in creating nativism among the hosts and a caste-type underclass, more similar to white-black tensions in the U.S. Algerian migration to France has generated nativism, characterized by the prominence of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and former leader of the National Front.[2]

History of nativism in the U.S.

Colonial era

In General colonial America welcomed all European immigrants, as labor was urgently needed to settle the new world. Language became a political issue in the 1750s, when British settlers in Pennsylvania began to resent the fact that a third of the colony's population were German speakers. Benjamin Franklin ridiculed and fought the Germans. Since that time, American nativists have sought to eradicate minority languages and discourage bilingualism wherever it could be found. Complaints about non-English-speakers became all too common in the last quarter of the 19th century, and again during and after World War I, when the fear of immigrants and their languages prompted protective English-only legislation. Many Americans deemed non-Anglophones to be subhuman. In 1904, a railroad president told a Congressional hearing on the mistreatment of immigrant workers, "These workers don't suffer--they don't even speak English."(Shanahan, 1989.) Today, there is still opposition to nonanglophones and bilinguals. The result is the proposed English Language Amendment (ELA), a Constitutional amendment making English the official language of the United States.

In the United States, anti-immigration views have a long history. American nativism appeared in the late 1790s in reaction to an influx of political refugees from France and Ireland. After passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 it receded.

Nativism first gained a name and affected politics in mid-19th century because of the large inflows of immigrants from cultures that were markedly different from the existing American culture. Thus, nativists objected primarily to Roman Catholics (especially Irish American) because of their loyalty to the Pope and supposed rejection of republicanism and American ideals.

Nativist movements included the American Party of the mid-19th Century (formed by members of the Know-Nothing movement), the Immigration Restriction League of the early 20th Century, and the anti-Asian movements in the West, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement" aimed at the Japanese. The leaders of nativism against the Chinese were the Irish American (especially Dennis Kearney in California in the 1870s), and the labor unions (especially the AFL under Samuel Gompers. They opposed cheap Chinese labor because it undercut wages and living conditions and was based on a wholly alien culture.

Anti-Catholic nativism in the 19th century

Nativist outbursts occurred in the Northeast from the 1830s to the 1850s, primarily in response to fears the Catholic church was poised to seize political power using the base of German and, especially, Irish immigrants. In 1836, Samuel F. B. Morse ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York on a Nativist ticket, receiving 1,496 votes. Riots broke out between Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish in Philadelphia in 1844.

In 1849–50 Charles B. Allen founded a secret nativist society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner in New York City In order to join the Order, a man had to be twenty-one, a Protestant, and willing to obey without question the dictates of the order. Members of the Order became known as the Know-Nothings (a label applied to them because if asked they said they "know nothing about" the secret society).

The Nativists went public in 1854 when they formed the 'American Party', which was anti-Irish Catholic and campaigned for laws to require longer wait time between immigration and naturalization. (The laws never passed.) It was at this time that the term "nativist" first appears, opponents denounced them as "bigoted nativists." Former President Millard Fillmore ran on the American Party ticket for the Presidency in 1856. The American Party also included many ex-Whigs who ignored nativism, and included (in the South) a few Catholics whose families had long lived in America. Conversely, much of the opposition to Catholics came from Protestant Irish immigrants and German Lutheran who were themselves immigrants and not well assimilated into American culture.

Nativist sentiment experienced a revival in the 1880s, led by Protestant Irish immigrants hostile to Catholic immigration. The Orange Order was the center of nativism in Canada from the 1860s to 1950s.[3]

In 1875 the proposed "Blaine Amendment" to the Constitution would forbid the public funding of private, denominational schools. It was defeated at the national level but adopted by about 31 states. Read (2004) examines the role of the GOP in creating a series of state public school systems in the North and West that were strongly shaped by pietistic Protestantism. The majority of new immigrants 1880-1910 were Roman Catholics German Lutherans or Jews who represented non-pietistic religious values. As pietistic Protestants found their political power challenged by these newcomers, they sought to prevent the emergence of an unamerican (or un-republican) presence. In 1890, however, the GOP suffered heavy losses in part because of the issue of parochial schools. In 1896 William McKinley supported pluralism, promising all ethnic and religious groups would prosper and none would be the target of hostile federal action.[4]

Cultural dimensions

Historian Róisín Healy[5] has shown that 19th-century German anti-Jesuit attitudes stemmed from a conception of Jesuit priests as androgynous. An exploration of the way a fear of androgyny informed the anti-Catholicism of American Know-Nothings demonstrates that anti-Catholicism fueled by anxiety over blurred gender roles was an international phenomenon throughout the 19th century. Such Know-Nothing writings as The Jesuit (1854), a play by Thomas Whitney, the grand sachem of the Order of United Americans, portrays Jesuits paradoxically as both hypersexually masculine and effeminately subservient, violating prescriptive codes of masculinity in several ways. Similarly, Know-Nothings were influenced by the sensational tales promoted by such anti-Catholic propaganda as Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), which depicts nuns' cloistered life as a perversion of female nature and portrays mother superiors as masculinized figures who rejected ideals of domesticity. In both Germany and the United States, the ideology of Protestant religious superiority was advanced through the strict definition of proper gender roles, demonstrating that gender prescriptions were at the heart of international 19th-century anti-Catholicism.[6]

Anti-German nativism

From the 1840s to 1920 German Americans were distrusted because of their separatist social structure, their opposition to prohibition, their attachment to their native tongue over English, and their neutrality toward the war in World War I. Major episodes took place in Wisconsin in 1890 when the Germans opposed the "Bennett Law" (which threatened to shut down German Catholic and Lutheran schools). The Germans switched parties and helped elect a Democratic governor who repealed the Bennett Law.

In 1914-17 most Germans were neutral regarding the war in Europe and opposed any support for Britain. They communities opposed the declaration of war, and were under heavy pressure regarding the draft and war bond sales. German courses were dropped from high schools. German music was not played by major orchestras. The German community responded with grudging support for the war effort, and strong support for antiwar candidates such as Robert LaFollette. By the 1920s most German churches and all their schools had switched to English, and German language newspapers fell away.

Literary interpretations

Schreibersdorf (2005) the debate on German Americans centered largely on the question of "hyphenated Americans," a term which became nearly synonymous with German-Americans and their perceived challenge to American integrity. Thus, the hyphen became a term not simply for discussing cultural minorities but also for discussing the dominant culture's relationship with Britain, as this relationship was contested and ultimately reshaped. She locates these efforts at cultural definition in popular English language periodicals, federal government propaganda, and academic discussions regarding the new field of American literary study. She argues that cultural critic Randolph Bourne uses the terms of these popular debates to show that both ethnic and artistic collectives could supplant the nation-state as a means of community. She argues that Theodore Dreiser's German-American identity became a focal point for contests over the definition of modern American literature. In his novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911) and autobiographical travel narratives A Traveler at Forty (1913) and A Hoosier Holiday (1916), Dreiser distinguishes between local, ethnic communities and internationalism, two concepts critics used the hyphen to signify. He uses these distinctions to assert his own "radically American" exceptionalism. The best-selling war fiction collapses the distinctions Dreiser makes. Penned by some of the twentieth-century's most popular writers, including genre trend-setters Mary Roberts Rinehart and Zane Grey, novels depicting the American home front metaphorically equate familial and national homes, and use German-American characters to depict home and homeland as sites of international conflict. Schreibersdorf argues that hyphenated characters can represent a self imperfectly separated from others. George Brown's My Country (1917) was a spy novel about German-American twins; it can be contrasted with Elizabeth von Arnim Russell]]'s comic approach to twin characters in Christopher and Columbus (1919), arguing that different the modes of writing suggest different inflections of the hyphen.

Anti-Chinese nativism

In the 1870s Irish American immigrants attacked Chinese immigrants in the western states, driving them out of smaller towns. Denis Kearney led a mass movement in San Francisco in 1877 that threatened to harm railroad owners if they hired any Chinese. [1] [2]. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first of many nativist acts of Congress to limit the flow of immigrants into the U.S. The Chinese responded with false claims of American birth, enabling thousands to immigrate to California.[7] Ironically, the exclusion of the Chinese caused the western railroads to begin importing Mexican railroad workers in greater numbers ("traqueros").[8]

20th-century USA


In 1914-20, the question of dual loyalty arose. There was intense scrutiny of German-Americans; hyphenated Americanism was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. A massive program of "Americanization" sponsored by federal state and local governments, by corporations (like Ford Motor Company) and by civic groups helped immigrants make the transition to an American identity. Whereas many immigrant of 1910-1914 intended to return to Europe, the war made that impossible and after the war they no longer were so interested. They lost touch with their ancestral countries and lost interest in its politics, but tried to maintain the religion and foods they had brought over.[9]

A 1918 law which offered naturalization to every immigrant who served in the war, including the many Asians who had served but were otherwise ineligible for citizenship. Initially most veterans' groups such as the American Legion were nativist and did not support citizenship for Asian veterans. However, drawing on the rhetoric of militaristic patriotism, activists challenged the exclusion of Asian veterans from citizenship. By the 1930s, therefore, the American Legion reversed its position and supported the Nye-Lea bill, which provided for citizenship for Asian veterans and was passed into law in 1935.[10]


The decade after World War I saw a crescendo of nativist rhetoric in the United States related to those perceived to be "foreign" in their race, religion, or ideology. Fear of low-skilled immigrants flooding the labor market was an issue in the 1920s (focused on immigrants from Italy and Poland), with rhetoric similar to that in the 2000s (focused on immigrants from Mexico and Central America).

The second Ku Klux Klan, which flourished in the U.S. in the 1920s, used strong nativist rhetoric.

Pendleton (2005) studies the nativism expressed by many Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Baptists, using church newspapers and official convention records. He finds that many SBC Baptists found in nativist rhetoric a voice to articulate their awareness of the sweeping changes that were occurring on the larger societal landscape. Many SBC Baptists viewed Bolshevism, the arrival of the "new immigrants," and the 1928 presidential candidacy of Catholic Al Smith as a concerted attempt by those perceived to be "un-American" to overtake native-born Americans and usurp Anglo-Protestant hegemony in American life. While their reactions to the changes taking place in the United States in the decade after World War I were for the most part greatly disproportionate to the threats posed, many SBC Baptists voiced in their nativist rhetoric an awareness that the long cherished Anglo-Protestant vision of America that they continued to hold to was increasingly untenable on the larger societal landscape.



After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the resulting influx of Vietnamese refugees caused some racial tension to flare up as host communities struggled to adapt to the cultural differences between the new arrivals and the existing American culture.

When Fidel Castro opened the doors to Cuban emigration, a number of communities in the southeastern U.S. struggled to accommodate the sudden inflow of Cuban immigrants ("Marielitos"), many of whom were mentally ill or criminal elements.

An immigration reductionism movement formed in the 1970s and continues to the present day. Prominent members often press for massive, sometimes total, reductions in immigration levels.

However, as most Americans are themselves descended from immigrants, many feel that it is hypocritical to criticize those who enter the country through legal means, and neither of the two major parties has proposed curtailing the number of visas given out annually.

American nativist sentiment experienced a resurgence in the late 20th century, this time directed at illegal aliens, largely Mexican resulting in the passage of new penalties against illegal immigration in 1996.

Illegal immigration, principally from across the U.S.-Mexico border, is the more pressing concern for most immigration reductionists. Samuel P. Huntington argues recent Hispanic immigration as creating a national identity crises and presenting insurmountable problems for American social institutions. He lists the size, illegality, cultural roots, and poverty of this recent wave of migration as most problematic.[11]

The political effects of anti-immigration/immigration reductionism movements have been embodied in the US welfare reform bill of 1996 and initiatives such as Protect Arizona Now in 2004. The Minuteman Project, launched in 2005 with several hundred volunteers patrolling the Mexican border to assist authorities in spotting illegal immigrants, have also been influenced by opposition to illegal immigration. Some members also support reductions in legal immigration. VDARE is an editorial collective website which advocates for reduced immigration, including heightened selectivity in legal immigration into the United States.

In the wake of H.R. 4437 and the 2006 U.S. immigration reform protests, a large segmented of public opinion vented nativist sentiments in claiming that illegal aliens were flooding the U.S., taking advantage of social welfare programs, and overwhelming state and federal governments. In July 2006 Democrats and Republicans in Colorado agreed on legislation that curtailed state benefits to illegals, penalized employers who hired them, and required citizens to provide proof of citizenship before they could receive benefits--a policy that alarmed relief agencies that dealt with disorganized clients who had no documentation whatever.


  1. Lucassen (2005).
  2. Lucassen (2005).
  3. Hereward Senior. Orangeism: The Canadian Phase. 1972.
  4. Jensen (1971); Margery Read, "The Blaine Amendment and the Legislation It Engendered: Nativism and Civil Religion in the Late Nineteenth Century." PhD dissertation U. of Maine 2004. 248 pp. DAI 2005 66(1): 314-A. DA3159835
  5. Róisín Healy, "Religion and Civil Society: Catholics, Jesuits, and Protestants in Imperial Germany," Paradoxes of Civil Society (2000)
  6. Timothy Verhoeven, "Neither Male Nor Female: Androgyny, Nativism and International Anti-Catholicism." Australasian Journal of American Studies 2005 24(1): 5-19. Issn: 0705-7113 [ online
  7. Erika Lee, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (2003)
  8. Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo, `Traqueros': Mexican Railroad Workers in the United States, 1870 to 1930. PhD U. of California, Santa Barbara 1995. 374 pp. DAI 1996 56(8): 3277-3278-A. DA9542027 Fulltext: online at ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  9. James S. Pula, "'A Branch Cut off from its Trunk': The Effects of Immigration Restriction on American Polonia." Polish American Studies 2004 61(1): 39-50. Issn: 0032-2806
  10. Lucy E. Salyer, "Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and U.s. Citizenship Policy, 1918-1935." Journal of American History 2004 91(3): 847-876. Issn: 0021-8723 Fulltext online at History Cooperative
  11. Huntington 2005