The Unimaginable Irony of Rick Santorum

We know today that racial categories are arbitrary from a scientific point of view. They make sense only subjectively, and what qualifies as “white” is changing all the time. After World War One, when Congress sought to design a new immigration policy, it was very clear that Italians and Jews were not considered white. To understand what this meant for Rick Santorum’s family, consider his grandfather who immigrated to this country from Italy in 1930 at the age of seven with his family. Because Congress had passed a law in 1924 restricting Italian immigration, the Santorum family was among a lucky few Italians who made the voyage in 1930.

In the 10 years following 1900, about 200,000 Italians immigrated annually. With the imposition of the 1924 quota, 4,000 per year were allowed. By contrast, the annual quota for Germany after the passage of the Act was over 57,000. Some 86% of the 155,000 permitted to enter under the Act were from Northern European countries, with Germany, Britain, and Ireland having the highest quotas. The new quotas for immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe were so restrictive that in 1924 there were more Italians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Poles, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese that left the United States than those who arrived as immigrants.

The quotas remained in place with minor alterations until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

The Immigration Act of 1924 created one kind of America and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 created another. The former was explicitly based on race and what we consider today to be pseudoscience.

Proponents of the Act sought to establish a distinct American identity by favoring native-born Americans over Jews, Southern Europeans, and Eastern Europeans in order to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population”. [Sen. David] Reed [R-PA] told the Senate that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here”. Southern/Eastern Europeans and Jews, he believed, arrived sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy, and unable to adapt to American culture.

Some of the law’s strongest supporters were influenced by Madison Grant and his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant was a eugenicist and an advocate of the racial hygiene theory. His data purported to show the superiority of the founding Northern European races. Most proponents of the law were rather concerned with upholding an ethnic status quo and avoiding competition with foreign workers.

Nothing is ever simple with history and we know, of course, that Nazi Germany made a rather famous alliance with Mussolini’s Italy. But when the Nazis came to power the first non-German book they ordered to be reprinted was The Passing of the Great Race, and Adolf Hitler actually wrote to Madison Grant to inform him that, “The book is my Bible.” Madison’s book was quite explicit that the Italians had certain talents, like for art, but were part of an inferior Mediterranean “worthless race-type” that should perhaps be sterilized along with “the criminal, the diseased, and the insane.”

All of this is a long way of setting the predicate for what follows here. You might think that Rick Santorum would look back at the immigration policies of the 1920’s with something other than wistful sentimentality. But, you would be wrong. Here’s what Rick Santorum has to say about the good old days:

“Let me ask you a question. Since 2000 there have been a little over six million net new jobs created. What percentage of those net new jobs are held by people not born in this country? Half? Sixty? All of them. There are fewer native-born Americans working today than there was [sic] in 2000, in spite of 17 million more workers in the workforce. So when people tell me the problem is just illegal immigration, they’re wrong. They’re wrong… We are almost at the same level of non-native born in this country they were at in 1920. And in 1920 they realized, wait a minute, it’s affecting our workers. Wages have stagnated, everybody knows that. Why? Part of the reason. Median income is going down. Why? Part of the reason is that we’re bringing floods of legal, not illegal, legal immigrants into the country.”

This is a precise echo of the language used at the time the 1924 immigration bill was being debated. If the primary purpose of the Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” the political support for the bill was built on anxiety that non-Native born Americans were taking all the jobs. So, when it came to Italian immigration, one concern was that Italians were racially inferior. Another was that, as Senator Reed put it, Italians “arrived sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy, and unable to adapt to American culture.” Yet, for the average voter, their concerns were less about high-falutin academic theories than competition for low-wage work.

Anyway you slice it, though, the result was that fewer Italians were allowed into this country in the period between 1924 and 1965 than would have otherwise been the case.

So, there are some pretty big ironies here. One is that the Santorums were among the undesirables who slipped through despite the new restrictions, and that one of their grandchildren went on to take Senator Reed’s seat in the U.S. Senate. The other is that that grandchild would go on to praise Senator Reed’s efforts and call for new immigration policies aimed at preserving an “American identity” and “the ideal of American homogeneity.”

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.