In a book of deep and telling ironies, Peter Schrag provides essential background for understanding the fractious debate over immigration. Covering the earliest days of the Republic to current events, Schrag sets the modern immigration controversy within the context of three centuries of debate over the same questions about who exactly is fit for citizenship. He finds that nativism has long colored our national history, and that the fear—and loathing—of newcomers has provided one of the faultlines of American cultural and political life. Schrag describes the eerie similarities between the race-based arguments for restricting Irish, German, Slav, Italian, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants in the past and the arguments for restricting Latinos and others today. He links the terrible history of eugenic "science" to ideas, individuals, and groups now at the forefront of the fight against rational immigration policies. Not Fit for Our Society makes a powerful case for understanding the complex, often paradoxical history of immigration restriction as we work through the issues that inform, and often distort, the debate over who can become a citizen, who decides, and on what basis.
Schrag (Paradise Lost) offers a scholarly history of the political movements that have sought to restrict immigration to the U.S. since its founding from the 19th-century Know-Nothing Party through the years of American eugenics research that vastly influenced the Nazis in the years leading up to WWII. He points out how the same anti-immigration and anti-immigrant arguments have been recycled across generations: most notably the idea that certain groups be they the Irish, Jews, Chinese, or Mexicans were inassimilable. Though he doesn't provide any especially new insights, Schrag has assembled a fine history of nativist movements and the reasons why their rhetoric has been so seductive at particular points in history. The book would have been well-served had Schrag devoted more time to untangling the provocative idea he concludes with: that rather than becoming white and thus acceptable the path trod by previous generations of European and Jewish immigrants today's Latino and Asian immigrants may be shifting the paradigm and derailing the very mechanism that keeps the U.S. on a locked pattern of exclusion and race-based fearmongering against new immigrants.