We used to talk about immigrants this way — nearly a century ago

Photo by Todd Wiseman

During the years that I was researching my new book about the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, I became increasingly aware of the disturbing parallels between the “Klanspeak” about immigrants that was widespread during the 1920s and the ugly talk and rumormongering about immigrants that is common today.

Most Americans have no idea that the 1920s Ku Klux Klan was a massive movement with millions of members all over the U.S. — not just in the former Confederacy. This incarnation of the Klan was not just racist, but also violently anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant.

About 15 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1900 and 1915, most of them Catholics and Jews from Eastern Europe. They were fleeing terrible poverty, and, in the case of the Jews, waves of vicious pogroms that left thousands dead. Many of these new immigrants settled in squalid conditions in cramped ghettos in America’s large cities, inspiring fear and disgust among the descendants of earlier immigrants who now considered themselves to be the “real Americans,” while the new arrivals belonged to a lower order called “hyphenated Americans.”

World War I propaganda had ramped up anger and distrust directed at immigrants, particularly German-Americans. When the war ended, the Second Ku Klux Klan (the first was the post-Civil War Klan), growing rapidly in the atmosphere of social tumult that followed, continued to stoke this fear. Immigrants were attacked in Texas for speaking German, despite the fact that Germans were the largest European immigrant group living in the state and had peacefully coexisted with their fellow Texans for decades. A gunfight between a Klan faction and an anti-Klan faction over the speaking of German resulted in the deaths of four men in Sealy in 1922.

Catholics and Jews could never become “100 percent Americans,” according to Klan literature. Jews were clannish and could not be successfully assimilated. Jews, Klan leaders claimed, were also growing wealthy by poisoning the morals of America’s young people through the appalling new music, scandalous dances and decadent movies of the Jazz Age.

Catholics were depicted in Klan propaganda as even worse, because they owed their primary allegiance to a foreign potentate. Outrageous rumors flourished: Catholics were reputed to be stockpiling rifles in the basements of churches, preparing for the day when the pope (often referred to in coarse Klan style as “the dago on the Tiber”) would arrive and take over the United States.

In our own time, immigrants have been accused variously of bringing leprosy and Ebola into the country, of being drug dealers, rapists, criminals — oh yes, and terrorists, despite the fact that none of the fatal, large-scale attacks in the U.S. in recent years have been committed by immigrants from the seven countries singled out by the administration or by refugees. Most of those who have attacked our people have been U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents from countries not included in President Trump’s ban.

In the 1920s, the Klan enjoyed great popularity for a few years and then faded fairly rapidly. But the poison the Klan injected into American society lingered. The Klan played a role in championing the passage of the draconian Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924, which established quotas for immigrants from each nation. “Nordic” nations were favored and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were disfavored, which reduced the influx of European Jews and Catholics to a trickle.

This act remained in effect for over 40 years, until the Civil Rights Era, when a new immigration act abolished the quotas and put the emphasis on reuniting immigrant families and bringing skilled labor to the U.S.

That came much too late for my grandfather’s three sisters and their husbands and children. They all vanished in Poland during the Holocaust. The Johnson-Reed quotas, combined with anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, kept Jewish refugees out of the country when many might have found a safe haven here. The U.S. Commissioner on Immigration even accused the State Department of encouraging a competition among American consuls to see who could issue the fewest visas to desperate refugees.

In the meantime, my grandfather and grandmother arrived in Galveston a decade before the 1924 law closed the doors, bringing nothing with them but the will to work and the desire to be free. They built a good life in Central Texas in the tiny town of Comanche, raising three sons who became respected lawyers and businessmen. A plethora of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are making their own contributions today. One of those grandchildren, now deceased, was an investigative journalist and author who also helped to bring aid to Jews in Russia and former Soviet republics. One of those great-grandchildren is a pioneering scientist in the field of medical biophysics who may someday improve treatment for cancer patients.

When we turn our backs on refugees — in this present case, the Syrians who have suffered all the plagues of Job and more in the last few years — we commit an unpardonable act of inhumanity. We also weaken and degrade our country by falling victim to today’s version of Klanspeak, which seeks to demonize all immigrants who fall into certain religious or ethnic categories. We turn away those potential citizens who are the most grateful for respite in our land and the most eager to contribute to our diverse society.