Indigestible Food, Conquering Hordes, and Waste Materials: Metaphors of Immigrants
and the Early Immigration Restriction Debate in the United States
by Gerald V. O'Brien
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“Organism metaphors used in conjunction with assimilation included ‘digestion’ and ‘absorption.’ Just as the food we ingest benefits us because it is distributed throughout the body, what is not digested by or absorbed within the body is a threat to health. Americans, K. Roberts wrote—in support of 1924 immigration legislation—wanted a law that will ‘give America a chance to digest the millions of unassimilated, unwelcome and unwanted aliens that rest so heavily in her.’ Americans had discovered, French Strother noted (1923), that ‘the stomach of the body politic [was] filled to bursting with peoples swallowed whole whom our digestive juices do not digest’.”

“This metaphor was fostered by the perception that immigrants were increasing exponentially, both through the large number of new arrivals and their great fecundity. They would eventually, many believed, take over communities and eventually the nation itself. Central to the ‘immigrant as diseased organism’ metaphor are fears of contamination and decomposition.”

About the Author
Gerald V. O'Brien is Professor of Social Work at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.


Book by Gerald V. O'Brien
Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-Mindedness in the American Eugenic Era

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Many people are shocked upon discovering that tens of thousands of innocent persons in the United States were involuntarily sterilized, forced into institutions, and maltreated within the course of the eugenic movement (1900–30). Detailing the major rhetorical themes employed, this book is essential for anyone wishing to explore how pejorative metaphors support control efforts against vulnerable community groups.

In the United States, fear and denigration of immigrants was present throughout the 19th century. Organized opposition to foreigners, however, did not reach a fever pitch until the decades immediately preceding and following the turn of the century. Between 1880 and 1920 the number of new immigrants into the country increased greatly, in some years exceeding a million per year. Whether the country could adequately assimilate such a large number of persons was a predominant concern.

Organism Metaphor

The organism metaphor was a particularly apt means of describing the presumed adverse impact of immigrants on the nation. The central feature of the organism metaphor is that the social community is viewed as analogous to a physical body. Just as the integrity of our own bodies may be threatened by contaminating external elements, so too is the social body vulnerable to corruption by invading sub-groups.

Many elements of a country are analogous to bodily elements, and we often speak of the “body of the nation.” Immigration became an issue of concern in conjunction with the rapid increase in disease prevention and the public health profession. Infection and disease-related metaphors were very much in keeping with the thinking of immigration restrictionists, and provided a rhetorically picturesque means of sharing these fears publicly.

A principle concern of the new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was its massing together within large urban settings such as New York and Chicago—or, in the case of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, California—rather than being disbursed throughout the country. This clustering of immigrants in “alien communities” within the nation’s borders was a source of fear, not only because these groups were depicted as crowding out the “native” population and taking over the cities, but also because such clustering was taken to have an adverse impact on assimilation.

A 1912 article in the Literary Digest stated that the immigrant “settles into masses, indigestible, with almost no chance for American influences—even for knowledge of America—to touch him”. Edwin Conklin (1921) provided an extended description of the organism metaphor, noting that;

“We talk euphemistically about the ‘assimilation’ of foreign peoples, as if they were so much food material that could be digested, absorbed, and built into our own organization without in any way changing that organization except to make it larger.

But the only way in which we could ‘assimilate’ alien races, that is, convert them into our own life and not be converted into theirs, would be by eating and digesting them, thus destroying their protoplasm, hereditary traits, instincts, and cultures, and out of the elements of these building up our own organization.”

Shortly after the turn of the century A. J. McLaughlin (1903) wrote that “the law-abiding citizen fears from the immigrant, not only the germ of bodily disease, but the germ of anarchy and also favorable media for its growth”. During the Red Scare that followed World War I and the Russian Revolution, an article in the Washington Post warned that the nation was being threatened by “a flood of undesirables inoculated with the virus of Bolshevism and Communism” (1921).

Frazer added (1923) that Socialist publications supporting unionization were “cheap inflammatory rot, as poisonous and destructive in its effects as typhus germs in a run-down system”. Such organism metaphors would obviously become a staple of the McCarthy era vision of the communist as a burrowing figure bent on contaminating others with his venomous ideals and fostering spiritual and political decay of the national organism.

The organism metaphor was particularly descriptive of the connection between the human bloodstream and early perceptions of the “gene pool” or the racial composition of the community. “Until the foreign blood we have is absorbed so that it is made American,” insisted a commentary in the Washington Herald, “a further transfusion is anything but desirable”. Immigrants were said to be a “stream of impurity,” that needed to be thoroughly filtered, a “tide of pollution” that had to be purified, and a “turgid stream of undesirable and unassimilable human ‘offscourings.’”

A view of immigrants as “ingredients” graded over into the organism metaphor and the view of the immigrant as an entity to be “absorbed” or “digested.” The much-quoted words from Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot includes both organism and object metaphors;

“There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth— the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow… how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame.”(1917)

Natural Catastrophe and War Metaphors

As the number of immigrants per year increased to a million or more, the surge was portrayed by many restrictionists as a natural catastrophe or enemy invasion. One of the most frequently used terms that described the growing immigrant population was “FLOOD.” The flood metaphor was especially likely to be used in conjunction with the threat to American character that was posed by the over-whelming rush of immigrants.

Whether perceived as a poison coursing through the blood veins of the nation or an engulfing flood, liquid metaphors were an important element of restrictionist writings, and served as an apt means of portraying a group of persons who arrived over the water.

Thomas Darlington wrote in the North American Review in 1906 that the “incoming tide threatens to overwhelm us with the magnitude and ceaseless oncoming of its flood”. If, restrictionists warned, limitations were not increased, “the flood gates will be down and a turgid sea of aliens will inundate our seaports”. Two years after passage of the 1921 legislation, James Davis noted that this policy had “effectively dammed a rising tide of immigration from Europe” (1923).

One House Member expressed concern that the restriction acts necessitated increased vigilance at the Canadian and Mexican borders. “Now that we are tightening the restrictions and trying to partially dam the stream,” he wrote, “the pressure at the weak points will be greater”.

Related to the natural catastrophe metaphor was the war metaphor. An us-against-them imperative arose not only because of the alien nature of the immigrant, but also due to their presumed deficiencies and refusal to assimilate. These groups of undesirable foreigners were bent on engaging in, even without their knowledge, a bloodless takeover of the nation.

Numerous advocates of restrictive measures depicted the “new” immigration as an “invasion” of the country. Comparing immigration to the nation’s involvement in World War I, Conklin (1921) wrote that “armies equal in size to the one we sent to France land every two years on our shores”.

According to Warne (1913), the foreign invasion of the United States was “equal to one hundred and fifty full regiments of one thousand each.” Therefore, he continued ominously, these foreigners “were double the entire fighting strength of the United States Army”. Is it necessary, he queried, that “the invader should come in warships instead of in the steerage hold of steam vessels before the migration can be called an invasion?”

The immigration problem was so serious, Cannon (1923) said, that “like the hordes of old they are destined to conquer us in the end, unless by some miracle of human contriving we conquer them first”. Restrictive immigration laws, intoned a former New York congressman in 1892, “Were more necessary than forts and ships against hostile invasions”.

Many writers contended that immigrant groups had already taken over many sections of the country. James Phelan, a California politician who spearheaded the anti-Japanese movement in the state, wrote in 1919 that “upwards of eighty thousand Japanese in California, and they are as much a tributary colony of Japan as though the flag of Nippon had supplanted the Stars and Stripes”. Writers spoke of urban areas where large numbers of new immigrants settled as “foreign cities” within the nation.

The importance of an analysis of metaphoric themes that were employed to fashion a negative image of immigrants extends beyond this single target domain or historical period. Similar themes cut across different time periods and relate to a wide variety of target groups.

We should all be concerned when such measures gain support because of rhetorical devices and social myths as opposed to a factual understanding of the threat that is posed by those who are primarily impacted by such laws. Many metaphors, especially those that touch our subconscious fears and disgust. arise time and again to provide credence to those feelings, often by giving them a human face.