Nativism and the Diminishment of American Rights


There may be new things under the sun, but the recent rise of nativism in the United States is not one of them. The political forces attempting to reduce, revoke, or reject citizenship – and voting power – of naturalized Americans are engaged in a time-(dis)honored American pastime of seeking partisan political advantage over a rival party more popular with immigrants.

As usual, the partisan advantage is camouflaged by questions of loyalty to America and commitment to American values of hard work and self-sufficiency.

The Republican Party that attracted Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s arose as an amalgam of many anti-Democratic (the party) movements. One of those movements – decidedly not endorsed by President Lincoln – was nativism. Though it is hard today to imagine, The New York Times of the 1850s claimed “our adopted citizens” had a duty of “thoroughly Americanizing themselves.” Nativism then was no more fringe than it is today.

In hindsight, Lincoln and other Western Republican leaders seem to have possessed greater than average political savvy or greater than average commitment to democratic ideals, or both. Rejecting the calls of those in their party who wished to reduce, restrain, or reject citizenship – and the right to vote – for anyone not born in the U.S., these forces outlasted those opposing immigration in the struggle for control of the GOP. 

One political reality that motivated these urges was the strength of Democrats in large cities and the ease with which the party absorbed immigrant voters. Democratic candidates, buoyed by large numbers of immigrants in Northern cities, reinforced the dominance of the Southern Democratic aristocracy for a period.

Some elements of the Republican Party saw particularly in German and Irish immigrants elements predisposed to drink and to the dole. If this sounds uncomfortably familiar, we should not be surprised. The anti-immigration push of the 1850s was preceded by one in the 1790s and succeeded by another in the 1920s.

So today, we should not let the usualness of nativism numb us to the un-Americanness of it. By American, I mean the America of our aspirations, of our better angels.

Recent immigration policy changes are troubling. Without evidence of any deep policy discussion, the federal government has involuntarily discharged legal, foreign-born military recruits in the MAVNI program that leads to citizenship.

While there is a temporary halt to this policy, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—an agency of the Department of Homeland Security–has announced a program to denaturalize large numbers of citizens in administrative procedures that, according to a troubled Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, give the government unlimited power to denaturalize anyone it wants.

There is little doubt that immigration policy is being retrenched by the current administration, but can partisan politics help explain this? Both the conservative and liberal media carry stories suggesting there is evidence to support such a hypothesis.

The Washington Examiner cites a 2012 study showing that 62 percent of naturalized immigrants identify as Democrats compared to only 25 percent who identify as Republicans. The New York Times and others published stories of immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, seeking citizenship – and the vote – in an ultimately failed attempt to defeat President Trump’s bid for the White House.

Americans of all political persuasions should defend the rights of all of us. To paraphrase President Kennedy, the rights of everyone are diminished when the rights of one of us are threatened.

Brendan Cushing-Daniels is an associate professor of economics and the Harold G. Evans Chair of Eisenhower Leadership Studies at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College.

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