Skip to main content

Nativism in America Today


Nativism is a concept that has been very controversial in American political discourse. Through its 19-century, anti-immigration, Anglo-Protestant views that vouch for a more pure and “white” America, it is understandable why many people oppose nativists and nativism in general. Its role in American history, however, has been quite significant, especially in terms of its effect on our immigration policy throughout the years. Here, I hope to provide some conceptual clarifications and secure an understanding of nativism. I wish to show how nativism has persisted historically and in contemporary times, narrowing my focus mainly on contemporary nativism and its effects on U.S. immigration policy. In doing this, I want to show how nativism is essentially an inherent form of racism that has persisted over time and has developed into a more discreet and elusive form of racism that has a negative impact on our immigration policy.

In comparing historical and contemporary nativism, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of the discriminatory fashion of immigration policy in the U.S. and how nativism has influenced such policy and anti-immigration as a whole. I hope to disprove the nativist belief that today’s form of anti-immigration is merely a cry for help in “protecting” our nation’s values and liberties with no racist influence. In short, social ills based on race have been produced through the movement of nativism that has resonated in American society today. Here, I would like to demonstrate how such ills have emerged.

What Is Nativism?

First, some conceptual clarifications and definitions of nativism are in order. We will shortly see how nativist values can be correlated with racist values. We must keep in mind, however, that the two concepts of nativism and racism are not the same, and I do not want to confuse the two. My claim is merely that nativism is a form of racism, maybe even a subcategory, only not as blatant or extreme such as racism is, and was, in the past.

Racism is more concerned with distinctions between “civilization and barbarism” than boundaries between nation-states, while nativism divides insiders from outsiders (Higham, 328-29). They are both similar in that they share a cherished heritage (ibid, 329). But, nativism does have racist and discriminatory values, and I wish to address those values here.

Definitions of Nativism

The standard definition of nativism comes from John Higham, who is essentially the most prominent historian of nativism altogether. He defines nativism as “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign connections” (Higham, 148). To him, nativism is “an ideology, manipulated by propagandists seeking power” who blame foreign groups for the “ills of society” (ibid, 149).

Linda Bosniak refers to nativism as a “race-based animus toward immigrants” (Bosniak, 282). She also coins it to be “a species of racism only that the ‘objects of prejudice are foreigners [...]’ rather than ‘native’ minorities” (ibid, 282). However, analysts generally characterize nativism with “negative sentiment of various kinds towards foreigners with ‘anti-foreign’ feeling” (ibid, 282). Nativism as an ethnonational bias is the most common understanding of the term.

From this perspective, we can see that nativism is correlated with racism. A fear or resentment of the "other," or, non-white foreigners is discriminatory and racist against other humans. In other words, nativists, generally WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) view themselves as being pure, while immigrants are viewed as a dirty, moronic, disease-ridden, and damaging peoples that do not humanly compare to them. It is an extremist view, a racist view, and a morally wrong view especially during the time we live in now. Immigrants and foreigners alike are blamed by nativists for the negative aspects of American society, which is ironic, considering the fact that this nation was built by immigrants.

Other takes on nativism involve a deeper analysis. Ali Behdad, for example, argues that nativists see themselves as being pure Americans, socially placing themselves above immigrants who they feel represent anti-American values (Behdad, 163). In the mind of a nativist, the "other" threatens the foundational values of the nation, which must require strict control and restrictions at the border.

This was supported by the eugenic “science” that emerged in the early 20th century that reinforced beliefs about newcomers who arrived after 1880 in that they were “intellectually, physically, and morally inferior” (Schrag, 5). Behdad also defines nativism as being “the limit of nationalism as an exclusionary mode of identification” (Behdad, 162). A contamination of the “white” majority through newcomers is still a fear among nativists today, just in a more disguised or discreet fashion than in the past.

In sum, we can see that nativist values have essentially racist elements that help to shape those values. Viewing other ethnic backgrounds as being inferior shows nativists have a racially discriminatory nature, even though most, if not all, modern-day nativists deny any allegations of being racist in any way.

Three Strands of Nativism

For John Higham, there are three important strands of nativism: anti-Catholicism, anti-radicalism, and, of course, racism. Anti-Catholicism was a product of the Reformation, anti-radicalism the effect of the French Revolution, and racism persisting as the ideology of “Anglo-Saxon racial superiority” (Behdad, 160).

For Higham, anti-Catholicism is the most powerful American anti-foreign tradition, and it contributed to a new form of nativist nationalism that produced a fantastical sense of community (ibid, 161). For example, the Know-Nothings, one of the earlier nativist groups, became violent against Catholics because they viewed Catholics’ association with a centralized and autocratic institution (the Catholic church) to be threatening to American democracy and liberty (ibid, 163). Any opposition, cultural or racial difference to the American way of life is perceived by nativists as being anti-American and a threat to our national security, and we must eliminate them. Again, this is an extremist concept, but it is what nativism relies on as one of its main characteristics.

Targets of Nativism

In order to understand the nativist framework that has been shaped today, we must look at the targets of nativism through its movement in different waves of immigration history.

The first target began in the 1840s–50s immigration wave against German, Irish, and Catholic immigrants coming to America. The second target was during the 1870s–80s wave of Chinese and other Asian immigrants, which we will learn more about. The third was from the 1890s–1920s against Southern and Eastern Europeans, most notably during World War 1. The final target concerns contemporary nativism (1990s–present) that attacks the wave of Mexicans, other Hispanics, and “illegal aliens” in general.

Other important examples of nativism in the past include the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, anticommunism during the McCarthy era, the Red Scare of 1919, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is worth looking more into since it was the first anti-immigration law that had been passed.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

Waves of immigration and which groups were targeted by nativism during those waves.




Southern Europeans



Other Asian immigrants

Eastern Europeans

Other Hispanics




"Illegal aliens"


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The federalization of immigrants’ entry after the American Civil War formed into a growing restriction of human movement across national boundaries (Gabaccia, 44). This led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, fueled by nativist values and ideas, forbade the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and refused naturalized citizenship to all Chinese immigrants. The act was the first significant restrictive immigration law in U.S. history. It was also the first law to discriminate based on race and class. In the words of Behdad, the Act “ended the idea of citizenship as a status that could be gained through [...] acts of immigration and naturalization, transforming it instead into a privileged rank reserved for certain ethnicities whose racial and cultural identities made them assimilable in the polity” (Behdad, 170).

This is just one instance where nativist values have negatively affected the flow of immigration and immigration policy in the United States. It was a law driven by a racist ethos that has an extreme influence on the nativist outlook, the same ethos that has persisted over time through every other occurrence of nativism.

Mark Paul explains that with each new wave of immigration emerged a “defensive American nationalism” that held the belief of newcomers to not fit into our society (Paul, 4). Following the Act of 1882, the Immigration Restriction League was formed in 1894 by adherents of scientific racism, as well as nativists and restrictionists alike. The “scientific racism” of the League made hostility towards immigrants “respectable” and acceptable. Therefore, for the next 30 years the term immigrant held a negative odor in American political discourse, probably the same odor that the term nativism holds in our political discourse today, but still remains a significant concept (Gabaccia, 45). Since then, immigrants have been viewed as being contenders for damaging the nation originally produced by WASPs, and they have been seen by nativists as reckless individuals from inferior species, and we can see that this is a determinant of racism.

"Era of Regulation"

Over time, the American public became more and more resentful and less welcoming toward newcomers for depleting wages by increasing the supply of labor, and for demanding social-welfare expenditures. This, in turn, is what helped to create resentment of immigration by restrictionists and nativists that led the federal government to increase regulation and impose a more restrictive immigration policy. Further, in the “era of regulation” between 1882 and 1924, as Behdad notes, ideas of national and cultural identity became mediated by the state and its exercise of regulating immigration laws (Behdad, 171).


This leads me to ask a very crucial question: Are we in a new “era of regulation?” Possibly so, and we can see how by looking at the country’s continued legislation and regulatory practices of immigration control of contemporary times, which began with the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) developed in 1986. This act was designed to slow the movement of illegal immigrants across the border between the United States and Mexico, and to make the hiring of undocumented workers against the law (Behdad, 172-73). IRCA helped to support the goals of organizations such as FAIR and the CIS, two nativist organizations we will learn about, along with other contemporary examples of nativism. But first, I would like to take a brief look into the minds of some nativists of today that contribute to the support of these ideas and organizations to help us understand how they have an implicitly racist nature.

Nativist Arguments

Contemporary nativist arguments are vital to understanding the racist framework of nativism today. For example, Peter Brimelow, a self proclaimed “restrictionist” argues that the term ‘nativism’ has gotten more negative feedback than it deserves, and that the term was never meant for restricting immigration, but was meant to protect the American national identity and liberty (Bosniak, 283). Brimelow also argues that “the American nation has always has a specific ethnic core [which] has been white” and that incoming immigrants are from “incompatible” cultural backgrounds and traditions, and that America needs to return the country’s racial balance to its white European core (ibid, 286).

Another example is Lou Dobbs, who comes from early twentieth-century restrictionists and holds the same images of the ignorant past that immigrants were diseased and would carry their viruses to the Western world (Paul, 4). These are just a couple of nativist arguments, but they correlate with the more broad nativist outlook that America is racially imbalanced, that immigrants threaten our national identity and security, and that newcomers are not compatible with the WASP core of our country.

In other words, newcomers of another color or ethnicity would not fit into the pure American society. Our country has become a country of immigrants, so for nativists to hold such a prejudice and racially downgrading view against immigrants is dated, immoral, and essentially racist.


New Nativism: SB 1070

We must now ask how nativism has negatively influenced the contemporary politics of immigration through its racially prejudice ethos. Has it entered the scope of immigration directly or indirectly?

While there are no prominent nativist parties in our government, they do have a strong voice in the Republican Party. But for the most part, nativists have leaned toward the more indirect route of influence, discreetly trying to persuade non-nativist political actors to implement anti-immigration policies that suit their needs (Mudde, 15).

The biggest success of the nativist lobby, however, is SB 1070, Arizona’s immigration law of 2010, which is known to be the strictest anti-immigration policy in recent American history (ibid, 18). The Act makes it a crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying any documentation. The Act also requires the police enforcement of the state to determine one’s immigration status if they suspect them to be illegal. This has led to racial profiling in Arizona, mainly against Latinos. Here is proof of how the nativist framework is inherently embedded in U.S. immigration policy and how it is clearly a form of racism by default. It specifically attacks those who are different, those who are not white, those who look like they do not fit, and we can see this through SB 1070. It is a form of racially exclusionary nation-building of the present that is subtly reminiscent of the more extremist forms of the racially inclined nativism of the past.


New Nativism cont'd: Prop 187

Another example of ‘new nativism’, or contemporary nativism, would be California’s Proposition 187 of 1994. This act was meant to ban undocumented immigrants from social benefits such as health care, public education, and other vital services. Proposition 187’s aim was to “recriminalize the alien population and to heighten the costs of alien visibility” (Honig, 5). This means that the act was meant to deter aliens from being in the political spotlight, and to prevent them from becoming significant democratic, community, and labor activists (ibid, 5).

The proposition also would have required anyone in the Californian workforce to report illegal aliens to their agencies, the attorney general, and immigration authorities (Schrag, 10). However, this proposition became blocked by a federal judge and was later repealed in 1999. Even so, proposition contenders such as 187 are continually being designed to weaken the power of the immigrant in order to pursue more dominantly white autonomy in American politics, with WASP values and prejudices against immigration and discriminatory views against immigrants as a whole. However, nativists tend to forget that they most likely stem from immigrants, and that immigrants who migrated to America who became engineers, scientists, scholars, artists, etc. are the very ones who built the nation into the global powerhouse that it has become (Schrag, 3). Propositions such as Prop 187 show that immigration policy is being negatively influenced by nativist pursuits and ideas, and that it is attaining a more racially discriminatory pattern that is starting to remind us of the values of the past.

The Puppeteer of Nativism

Another nativist organization mentioned earlier is The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which was founded in 1979 by John Tanton, who is known to be the “puppeteer” of the nativist movement in America. His group is an anti-immigrant organization with an aim to profoundly limit immigration into the U.S. and is notorious for its racially vulgar nature, as well as its ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists. Tanton is also the founder of two more immigration restriction organizations: the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA, although FAIR is the most widely known anti-immigration lobbying group.

Tanton’s overall mission is for America to be a majority-white population. Tanton has very similar values to those of the KKK of the 1920s, and he worries about the role of the Catholic church in that it would “capitalize on the Catholic faith of Latino immigrants to exert more political influence in the U.S.” (Polok). In 2007, his three organizations were helpful in “derailing bipartisan [...] immigration reform that had been expected [...] to pass” and they are treated as being legitimate immigration debaters (ibid). These organizations are known for lobbying Congress to pass more restrictive immigration laws and financing opinion polls that produce an increasing public disapproval of illegal immigration (Behdad, 174).

Tanton’s role in immigration has much to do with race. This shows how most of the nativists in our politics today, like Tanton, have racist values. They would shun being called racists, but if we analyze their political incentives and beliefs, we find them to be ignorant, morally wrong, and discriminatory individuals who feed on racist conspiracy theories about immigrants, mainly Latinos in the modern day.

John Tanton

John Tanton

We can now see the differences and similarities between nativism of the past and contemporary nativism. Whereas past nativism was more indiscreet and direct with their values and beliefs, today’s nativism is seen as being more subtle and indirect, which is much more dangerous. Indirectly and slowly infiltrating an ideology through public policy only forces it to resonate within society and produce a social framework that would be hard to suppress after it has been internalized. While the nativism of the past was profoundly extreme and blatantly racist in nature, contemporary nativism is more of a silent killer, with the same discriminatory values as in the past, but less aggressive.

Nativists of the past acknowledged their racist nature. Today’s nativists do not coin themselves as nativists but as restrictionists and deny any racist or discriminatory nature in their ideas and beliefs. Whether they want to admit them or deny them, it is crucial that we avoid caving into believing these concepts of nativists as we will continue to see them emerge in immigration debates and policies.


  • Behdad, Ali. Nationalism and Immigration to the United States. N.p.: University of California, 1997. PDF.
  • Gabaccia, Donna. Nations of Immigrants. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., 2005. Pdf.
  • Higham, John. Another Look at Nativism. 2nd ed. Vol. 44. N.p.: Catholic University of American, 1958. Pdf.
  • Higham, John. Instead of a Sequel, Or How I Lost My Subject. 2nd ed. Vol. 28. N.p.: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. PDF.
  • Honig, Bonnie. Immigrant America? How Foreignness 'Solves' Democracy's Problems. N.p.: Duke UP, 1998. PDF.
  • Mudde, Cas. The Relationship Between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America. Washington D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2012. PDF.
  • Paul, Mark. Nativism Is Alive and Thriving in America. 1st ed. Vol. 2. N.p.: University of California, 2010. Pdf.
  • Potok, Mark. "The Nativist Lobby: Three Faces of Intolerance." The Southern Poverty Law Center. N.p., Feb. 2009. Web. 11 June 2012. <>.
  • Schrag, Peter. Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America. N.p.: University of California, 2010. PDF.
  • "Federation for American Immigration Reform." The Southern Poverty Law Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2012. <>.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Ameera Nassir

Related Articles