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A 1920 terrorist attack sparked calls for restricting immigration — from Europe

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In recent years, just about every terrorist attack has been followed by calls in the US to limit immigration. After the Brussels attacks on Tuesday, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump declared that the US should "close up our borders until we figure out what is going on." His main rival Ted Cruz vowed to "immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al-Qaeda or ISIS presence," and to "secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration."

These days, these calls tend to target immigration from Muslim countries, or by Muslim migrants. But in the early 20th century, when anarchist violence was deemed the main terrorist threat to the US, Southern and Eastern Europeans came in for similar targeting. Case in point: After the Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920, an attack from Italian anarchists that killed 38 people in what was up to that point the deadliest terrorist strike on American soil ever, the Washington Post editorial board called in explicitly racist terms to keep out "alien scum from the cesspools and sewers of the Old World":

The Post editorial praises the efforts of then-Rep. Albert Johnson (D-WA), a notorious eugenicist who crafted the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts, both of which served to put harsh quotas on new entrants and had the main effect of limiting immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews in particular. (Asian and Arab immigration was fully banned.) Johnson in 1920 also led an unsuccessful effort to halt all immigration for two years.

This vitriol came in spite of the fact that Congress had passed multiple laws at this point limiting immigration on the basis of belief in anarchism. The Immigration Act of 1903 — also known as the "Anarchist Exclusion Act" — made anarchists (as well as beggars, "importers of prostitutes," and epileptics) ineligible to enter the US, and allowed for their deportation in the first three years they were in America. The Immigration Act of 1917 — which also targeted "idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons," "vagrants," "paupers," and "polygamists" — lengthened that period to five years. The Immigration Act of 1918 repealed the time limit altogether and expanded the definition of "anarchist" to include mere members of groups like the Industrial Workers of the World; it led to the deportation of 556 anarchists, including notable figures such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

And yet even after all that, institutions like the Washington Post editorial board warned that immigration from Europe was not sufficiently restricted. It's a reminder that while the type of terrorist sparking panic and paranoia has changed from Southern/Eastern European anarchists to Middle Eastern jihadists, the impulse to exclude entire nationalities as a counterterror measure is nothing new.

You can read the whole editorial below. Be sure to check out the Washington Post's Philip Bump's piece on the article, situating it in the context of the nativist sentiment of the time.

Washington Post