President Calvin Coolidge signing the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.

Jeff Sessions’ Praise of 1924 Johnson-Reed Act Recalls a Dark Past

As President Calvin Coolidge signed the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, he stated, “America must remain American.” The Johnson-Reed Act, until 1965, restricted immigration of multiple racial and ethnic minorities into the United States before World War II, including Eastern European Jews. Many of these Jews later died in the Holocaust. The Act restricted these racial and ethnic groups in part due to eugenics “science” that said these groups were more likely to be “socially inadequate,” and become a “public burden.” Eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who managed the Eugenics Record Office, testified in 1920 about foreign-born groups in hospitals for the “insane.” His testimony included the remark, “the Italians, Russians, Austrians (largely Jews) constitute a large proportion of the insane.”

Laughlin had been appointed around 1922 as the “Expert Eugenics Agent” to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, and much of his research and testimonies provided the justification for the Johnson-Reed Act.

The Johnson-Reed Act has received some renewed attention as a result of to the nomination and approval of Jeff Sessions. He is now Attorney General, which puts him in charge of the Department of Justice. Sessions, one of the first to defend Trump’s executive order targeting chiefly Muslim individuals, stated in conversation with Steve Bannon for the right wing website Breitbart in October 2015:

In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual… When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America… and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.

Sessions’ support for the Johnson-Reed Act is shockingly in line with the ideas supporters of eugenics had in the early 20th century. Eugenicists said low intelligence and mental flaws caused moral failings of people. In the United States, this meant blaming swaths of people for America’s “moral decay.” Their targets included: Low-income people, people in prisons, women, disabled people, and immigrants.

Eugenicists believed that “some people are born to be a burden on the rest,” which is the slogan for a eugenics poster at the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition in 1926.

The image's most prominent text reads "Some people are born to be a burden on the rest," and used flashing lights to indicate statistics on the birth of "high-grade" and "low-grade" people.

They used the specter of disability to justify social control policies, such as forced sterilization. This means surgically ending people’s ability to have children without consent. Sterilization laws in California, for instance, enabled the targeting of Mexican immigrants. Another policy was immigration restriction, like the Johnson-Reed Act. Laughlin’s views were common to eugenicists. Many had ties to the Immigration Restriction League, which wanted to prevent Eastern Europeans, and others seen as undesirable, from immigrating. One eugenicist, Madison Grant, served as its vice president from 1922 until 1937.

We don’t have proof Jeff Sessions authored or contributed to a recently leaked draft of an executive order on disabled immigrants. It certainly seems consistent with his support of the Johnson-Reed Act, though. The draft states, “immigration laws must ensure the United States does not welcome individuals who are likely to become or have become a burden on taxpayers.” However, it is likely that Sessions will support any such executive order and will direct the Department of Justice to enforce it. The executive order, if implemented, will have disastrous effects for disabled immigrants. The Arc of the United States, a nonprofit that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, made an official statement in response:

Broadening the criteria for excluding or deporting immigrants based on need for support will harm people with disabilities and their families who have much to contribute to our society… [a family] shouldn’t be turned away or turned out because their child or another family member has a disability and may need to access government services to live and participate in the community.

The more state-sanctioned, violent aspects of eugenics fell out of favor after the horrors of the Holocaust it inspired became public knowledge. Jeff Sessions’ stance on immigration restriction resurrect eugenics under the guise of a “solid middle class of America.” His support for the Johnson-Reed Act and an executive order that could disproportionately target disabled immigrants based on “public burden” signal an Attorney General who is well in line with the eugenics movement.

3 thoughts on “Jeff Sessions’ Praise of 1924 Johnson-Reed Act Recalls a Dark Past”

  1. “Eugenicists said low intelligence and mental flaws caused moral failings of people.”

    Ironically this is what we echo when we blame Trump & friends’ actions on being stupid or crazy. They just don’t like us and would be happy with us dead, much more sinister.

  2. Well, we’ve gone back to the days of racial discourse. This is what the people wanted. I’m ashamed that we have become the laughing stock of the world. I hate that my kids have to grow up in such a hateful world. The top 1% could care less of the 99% that struggle to make a decent life for their families. They rape & take and we just give until we die. Meanwhile, they make laws that don’t affect them, but changes our daily way of living. America, please, wake up!

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