DEFECTIVES IN THE LAND: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

Everything good depends upon discrimination to survive, but for those who don’t think, “discrimination” is a dirty word.

Every living thing should be expected to seek their self-interest and to try to preserve their world from invasive species. Why would birds want to allow cats in their habitat to kill them? Why would deer want to allow lions in? Why would dolphins welcome killer sharks? Why would non-Muslims want to allow Muslims in? Why would Europeans welcome a migration of Africans?

New York Times:

The aim of a state’s immigration policy has to be one that would-be immigrants ought to accept as reasonable (even if in practice they disagree with it). For example, it is legitimate for a state to admit only high-skilled immigrants if this serves its economic goals, despite the fact that this policy may be unpopular with low-skilled migrants. By contrast, it is illegitimate for a state to admit only people of a certain skin color, or to have a “temporary” migrant policy (say, for guest workers) that in actuality creates a semi-permanent two-caste system. An unfortunate policy is O.K. An unfair one is not.

Does that distinction seem as if it might get blurry in practice? The early history of immigration policy in America, as told by the historian Douglas C. Baynton in DEFECTIVES IN THE LAND: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics (University of Chicago, $35), suggests so. Traditionally, scholars have divided that history into two periods: a “selective” phase starting in 1882, which in large part (aside from the Chinese Exclusion Act) involved screening out individuals with any “defect” that would render them “likely to become a public charge”; and a “restrictive phase” starting with the passage of a ­literacy test in 1917, which marked the beginning of a series of proxy measures for keeping out whole nationalities or races. Using Miller’s principles, you might condone much of the first phase but condemn the second.

Yet Baynton, challenging the conventional historiography, argues that the selective phase of American immigration policy, despite its heavy reliance on the ­sensible-sounding “public charge” standard, was no less discriminatory. During those years, he demonstrates, immigration officials could and did customarily invoke this standard to rule out such “defectives” as women unaccompanied by male providers and members of races with supposed “predispositions” to criminality. Even those with “objective” physical impairments (as the Americans with Disabilities Act would underscore many years later) were incapable of work only if you made certain assumptions about how workplaces were to be structured. So beware “reasonable” justifications for immigration policies, Baynton warns.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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