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Spencer Rendahl: Immigration And Eugenics

Almost a century ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Carrie Buck’s mother had been institutionalized for what was then called feeblemindedness. Despite good grades Carrie was pulled from school by her foster parents at the end of sixth grade for domestic work. Soon Carrie became pregnant, and her foster family, knowing she’d probably been assaulted by a visiting relative, also had her institutionalized for being feebleminded.

Carrie’s circumstances made her the unfortunate legal target of the American eugenics movement.

As author Adam Cohen notes in his book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, in the 1920s the United States was caught up in the belief that “newly discovered scientific laws of heredity could perfect humanity.” It was a compelling idea, and Eugenicists laid claim to a body of apparent scientific knowledge and practice that called for native-born American’s deemed mentally or physically deficient to be forcibly sterilized.

In a test case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers in Virginia presented “expert” evidence that would never stand up to scrutiny today, that Carrie, her mother, and Carrie’s 8-month-old daughter were feebleminded. In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a eugenics supporter, famously wrote that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” to justify the courts 8-1 ruling that allowed the State of Virginia to sterilize Carrie and countless others with qualities deemed undesirable.

Nazi Germany followed the lead of the American eugenics movement and forcibly sterilized 375,000 of their own citizens. In the Nuremburg trials, Nazi defendants attempted to use Holmes’ majority decision as a defense.

And here’s the Immigration link, because eugenicists turned to immigration laws for non-citizens.

At the turn of the last century, record levels of immigrants poured into the country, bringing with them different religious, ethnic and political backgrounds. Fear of their numbers contributed to social unrest and set the stage for The Immigration Act of 1924.

Championed by eugenicists, the Act set quotas for immigration that favored northern European and Christian immigrants over southern and Slavic Europeans and Jews. This law barred Otto Frank from bringing his family here to escape the Holocaust. It’s the tragic backdrop to his daughter Ann’s famous diary - in which she documents her life before perishing in Auschwitz.

I find it hard to accept that once again we’re debating immigration and religion in a similar atmosphere.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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