In (of all places) The Boston Globe, professor Peter Skerry notes that “Opposing immigration wasn’t always racist”:
While liberals and progressives have stopped short of endorsing open borders, they’ve come to treat opposition to illegal immigration and constraints on illegal immigration as unacceptable, even racist…
Not long ago, liberals and progressives felt far more conflicted about immigration. Within living memory, a powerful labor movement favored limits on immigration and fought against the reviled Bracero guest worker program, which began during World War II and was finally ended in 1964. At times, labor organizer Cesar Chavez supported the arrest and deportation of illegal farm workers. His union, whose members were predominantly of Mexican origin, viewed these interlopers from Mexico as strike-breakers and scabs…
Just as today’s opposition to high levels of immigration is presumed to be rooted in prejudice and racism, so too are these same motives attributed to post-World War I policies that curtailed immigration and imposed national-origin quotas. To be sure, some immigration restrictionists at that time did rely on racist arguments. Yet historians paint a much more nuanced picture of that era.
In her examination of a 25-year battle to enact a literacy test, Harvard economic historian Claudia Goldin observes that the idea “gained momentum because immigration in the 1890s had shifted to ethnic and national groups whose schooling levels and living standards were distinctly below those of previous groups.” She concludes that this “flood of immigrants eventually did result in large negative effects on the wages of native-born workers.”
Likewise, in a 2005 Oxford University Press book on global migration, economic historians Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson emphasize the importance of labor market fundamentals. A stream of illiterate migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was facilitated by the advent of steamship travel, rendering the trans-Atlantic voyage safer, faster, and cheaper. The resulting “declining positive selection” also translated into increasing numbers of men arriving without families who did not intend to remain, but rather to save money and eventually return home. These “birds of passage” posed challenges involving neighborhood stability, community cohesion, social disorder, and crime.
Arguing that “the low and declining quality of the immigrants” arriving between 1890 and 1930 provoked subsequent restrictions, Hatton and Williamson conclude that “racism and xenophobia do not seem to have been at work in driving the evolution of policy toward potential European immigrants.” Nativists armed with racial and ethnic arguments did attempt to win trade unionists to their cause. But according to the British scholar A.T. Lane, “careful examination of the columns of many labor journals has produced few examples of racist thinking applied to immigration.”
In the early 20th century, the possible effect of large-scale immigration upon the labor market was the subject of spirited debate, including among labor advocates. Today, at least in progressive circles, even raising the question is nearly verboten.