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Anti-immigration attitudes: they didn’t want a bunch of Hungarian refugees coming in the 1950s

In a post entitled “Not that complicated,” sociologist David Weakliem writes:

A few days ago, an article in the New York Times by Amanda Taub said that working-class support for Donald Trump reflected a “crisis of white identity.” Today, Ross Douthat said that it reflected the “thinning out of families.” The basic idea in both was that “working class” (ie less educated people’s) opposition to immigration is a symptom of anxiety about something else.

In September 1957, the days of the baby boom and the “affluent society,” when unions were strong and no one was talking about a crisis of white identity or masculinity, the Gallup Poll asked “UNDER THE PRESENT IMMIGRATION LAWS, THE HUNGARIAN REFUGEES WHO CAME TO THIS COUNTRY AFTER THE REVOLTS LAST YEAR HAVE NO PERMANENT RESIDENCE AND CAN BE DEPORTED AT ANY TIME. DO YOU THINK THE LAW SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT BE CHANGED SO THAT THESE REFUGEES CAN STAY HERE PERMANENTLY?”
42% said yes, and 43% said no.

33% approved and 55% disapproved.

With both questions, education made a difference for opinions. For example, in 1958, 55% of the people with a college degree favored letting the refugees come to the United States, compared to 31% of those without college degrees. The only other demographic factor that made a clear difference was that Jews were more likely to favor letting the refugees stay.

The 1957 survey also had a question about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision against school segregation—people who approved were more likely to favor letting the refugees stay. The 1958 survey had a series of questions about whether you would vote for various religious or racial minorities for president—people who were more tolerant were more likely to favor letting the refugees come to the United States.

The Hungarian refugees were white, Christian, and could be seen as part of a clear story of oppression vs. resistance. Despite this, most people, especially less educated people, were not in favor of letting them stay in the United States. So the contemporary opposition to immigration, and the tendency for it to be stronger among less educated people, are not a reflection of something specific to today, but continue a long-standing pattern. Of course, an increase in the number of immigrants today presumably makes the issue more important. But the basic pattern is not new.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Interesting: among those who expressed an opinion, over 60% opposed letting those 65,000 anti-communist Hungarian refugees come to the U.S. And, as Weakliem points out, it’s hard to explain this based on ethnic prejudice, which is how we usually think about earlier anti-immigrant movements such as the Know Nothings of the 1850s.

Just one thing, though: There was a big recession in 1958. So people could’ve been reacting to that. In retrospect the 1958 recession doesn’t seem like much, but at the time people didn’t know if we were going to jump into another great depression.


  1. Bill Harshaw says:

    One of the lesser contributions of immigrants to American culture is the soccer-style field goal kick. Yes, before 1959 all field goal kickers kicked straight on. It was Pete Gogolak and his brother Charlie who brought soccer-style kicking to the college level (Cornell for Pete), and then to the pros. They were Hungarian refugees.

    An example of how we all benefit from the interchange of people and ideas.

  2. Martha (Smith) says:

    One thing that seems relevant to me but isn’t mentioned in the discussion of the polls: What was the ancestry of the respondents, and how recently did their ancestors immigrate? (The discussion of how Jews responded is related to this, since presumably many of them had emigrated to escape Naziism in Europe, or had ancestors who had emigrated from Europe to escape earlier pogroms or other maltreatment.)

    Part of the reason this occurred to me is that I was in my early teens in 1957/58, and (at least in Detroit, where I grew up) a lot of kids my age were third generation American, some second generation, and a few first generation. Countries from which their grandparents (or parents or they) had emigrated seemed to be mainly Poland, the Scandinavian countries, Italy, Canada, Greece, and Armenia (in roughly that order). So I am wondering if respondents whose families had emigrated recently were more favorable than those whose families had lived in the US for longer, or if approval of Hungarian immigration was related to the country from which their families had emigrated.

  3. ojm says:

    Isn’t ethnic prejudice a ‘special’ (often particularly prevalent/nasty) case of prejudice or fear of ‘other’, for many replacements of ‘other’? Or is that the point? Hungarian probably sounded (and probably still does sound) pretty ‘other’ to many Americans.

    • ojm says:

      One side of my extended family is classic working class with barely high school education and the other quite well-educated. Both have implicit biases but only from one side do I frequently hear blatant rants about immigrants, other ethnicities, genders etc etc. Or receive celebratory txt messages from them about Trump’s win.

      A 6 year old on that same side recently told a classmate quite casually that she couldn’t come over to play ‘because my dad doesn’t like Chinese people’. These family members are not what I would call ‘poor’ either. In addition, their comments aren’t even always angry but are intended as ‘jokes’ or ‘just the way things are’. It’s more of a general worldview.

  4. D.O. says:

    I am not an expert or anything, but US immigration laws were much more restrictive before mid-60s (that is, from mid-20s to mid-60s). Baseline expectations of who can and cannot immigrate might have been very different. Also, it was only 3 years after infamous Operation Wetback, which probably contributed to the scary perception of all immigrants.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    It’s striking how little support there has been in the US over the last few decades for admitting refugees from southern Africa, such as Nobel Laureate, JM Coetzee, who found it prudent to leave South Africa after he won the Nobel prize for his novel “Disgrace” about the new South Africa, to the displeasure of the ruling party.

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