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Hiding Behind Reform

by Edward T. O'Donnell on Nov 23, 1999

In recent weeks, a group calling itself ProjectUSA has caused a stir in California, Minnesota, North Carolina and South Carolina by unveiling plans to put up anti-immigrant billboard advertisements. A similar effort in New York City in August made national headlines.

What’s significant about the controversy is not ProjectUSA’s message of immigration restriction. That’s hardly a new idea. What’s important is the skillful way it has presented this message as reformist rather than reactionary.

The practice of opposing immigration in the name of reform goes back centuries and relies upon two time-tested formulas, both of which are apparent in the ProjectUSA campaign:

First, opponents make a mythological distinction between present-day immigration and the flood of newcomers who came in the past. ProjectUSA’s website is emphatic on this point. Making this distinction is essential since most Americans can point to an immigrant ancestor. They argue that past immigration was good for the United States because the immigrants were different (i.e., European), willing to Americanize (they had no choice), and too proud to accept welfare (it didn’t exist). 

Among the three million who throng every year to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to celebrate their proud immigrant past we find many leery, if not downright hostile, to the idea of continued immigration. One of the surest signs of Americanization, today and more than a century ago, is the willingness of immigrants or the children of immigrants to support calls for immigration restriction. Sociologists call it the “tree house effect” — the willingness to deny others entry by pulling up the ladder once safely inside.

Second, while there has never been a shortage of people willing to condemn immigration in nakedly racist terms, the most effective anti-immigration groups have always dressed up their bigotry in the respectable clothes of high-minded concern for the common good. To cite but a few examples:

In the 1840s nativists cast their attacks on Irish Catholics as civic duty. Loyalty to the Pope in Rome, they argued, rendered those immigrants incapable of exercising the duties of republican citizenship. 

In the 1880s restrictionists gained passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, allegedly to protect American workers from cheap “coolie labor,” even though it did nothing to stem the tide of hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.

At the turn of the century, many justified opposition to immigration by invoking the “science” of eugenics. Maintaining the nation’s health, identity, and values, they insisted, demanded the exclusion of the genetically inferior peoples of Europe and Asia.

The billboard campaign sponsored by ProjectUSA is simply the latest version of this tradition. Their billboards bear messages such as “Over 80% of Americans support very little or no more immigration. Is anyone listening to us?” In that way, the group carefully avoids the appearance of opposing immigration on the basis of race or culture. Instead, it cloaks its narrow-minded bigotry in allegedly high-minded concern over population growth, environmental damage or urban sprawl.

Craig Nelson, the group’s founder, goes to great lengths to convince his critics that “it’s not about skin color. It’s about numbers.” Such assurances ring with the same degree of sincerity as, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle.” In interviews Nelson has let slip his view that America has “enough diversity.” 

ProjectUSA claims that its billboard campaign is intended to force a national debate on immigration policy. It is a serious issue, one that demands careful consideration of all options, including reducing the annual total of new arrivals. Debate, however, must be open and honest if it is to lead to consensus. ProjectUSA lacks the courage and honesty to state its real reasons for opposing immigration. Hiding behind convenient myths and smokescreen issues, the organization is clearly not interested in stimulating a debate on immigration. It wants to poison it.

Edward T. O'Donnell is an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and a writer for the History News Service.