Daniel Okrent, best known as the first public editor of the New York Times and the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, brings his considerable research and narrative talents to a neglected, disturbing aspect of America’s past: the creation of harsh anti-immigrant laws driven by eugenics.
Okrent begins his detailed, compulsively readable account with a bit of family history: He descends from Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. While Okrent’s ancestors slipped through the gate, strict immigration limits were imposed on many Jews, Italians, Greeks and Poles seeking new lives in the United States between 1924 and 1965. Okrent traces the rise of the supposed science of eugenics, which underscored legislation and categorized whole groups of people as having such imagined traits as “defective inheritance” or “inferior blood,” and which promoted the notion that the average intelligence of a steerage immigrant was “low, perhaps of moron grade.” Through his analysis, Okrent chronicles the forces and individuals behind the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which effectively made Ellis Island, once the symbol of America’s melting pot, into what one observer called “a deserted village.”
Okrent follows immigration policy through World War II, where quotas and restrictions had horrifying results for the generation of Jews desperate to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Okrent notes: “had the immigration regulations that began to change in 1921 remained as they were before, many, many people who might otherwise have found their way to Chicago or Boston . . . perished instead.”
Okrent spent five years researching this sobering look at immigration policies based on bigotry and racism and how they shaped America in the 20th century. Now, in the 21st, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America is a must-read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the history of immigration in the United States—and how the past might be relevant to policy makers and citizens today.