05/17/2013 08:40 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

An Old Idea Stirs Up New Controversy

Last week the media buzzed with the revelation that Jason Richwine, co-author of a Heritage Foundation policy paper critical of immigration reform, had written a 2009 Harvard dissertation that argued that "today's immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives" and recommended that prospective immigrants take IQ tests. The Heritage Foundation quickly distanced itself from these views, and two days later Richwine resigned. While the story seems to have resolved itself, with Richwine discredited and the Heritage Foundation humbled, his disturbing sentiments beg for deeper context.

Richwine might want to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which recreates the homes of 19th- and early 20th- century immigrants at New York's 97 Orchard Street. Here, he can learn how yesterday's immigrants encountered hard times, faced discrimination, reconciled their traditions with American customs, and sewed garments in dimly-lit rooms. Yet even as these families stitched together new lives -- and clothed the nation -- some native-born Americans lamented that newcomers could not possibly become American, and tried to close the gates to Southern and Eastern Europeans.

Madison Grant, patrician New Yorker and Yale and Columbia graduate, felt that the Southern and Eastern European immigrants were vastly inferior to Northern European, or Nordic immigrants, and native-born Americans. He felt that only the Nordic races had the aptitude and intelligence to understand and participate in democracy. Grant wrote, "The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners, just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the native American; they wear his clothes, they steal his name; and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals." Grant's colleague, Henry Fairfield Osborn, a biologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History, reinforced this, writing: no other human stock which has come to this country is there displayed the unanimity of heart, mind and action which is now being displayed by the descendants of the blue-eyed, fair-haired peoples of the north of Europe.

Osborn, Grant and others feared that immigrants of "lesser races"--the residents of 97 Orchard Street, -- would soon overpopulate the country, fail to assimilate, and lead to the "passing of a great race," that of the blue-eyed Nordics.

We know today that the "science" upon which Grant and his cohort based their pronouncements is false. We also know that rather than bringing the nation to ruin, the children of Italian and Jewish immigrants -- -just like the children of the German and Irish immigrants who preceded them -- raised the country to ever higher accomplishments. This despite scoring at the bottom of the first set of IQ tests administered in the 1910s.

Before we dismiss these ideas and the pseudo-science and fear that sparked them, we should note their disastrous consequences on America's immigration policy and our ideals. Pseudo-scientific race theory shaped the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s, which restricted immigration on the basis of national origin. The 1924 Johnson Reed Act favored Northern and Western European immigrants, severely restricted the numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, and completely barred Asian immigration (the country had already banned Chinese immigration in 1882). Quotas based on national origin remained on the books until the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Law.

At the Tenement Museum 40,000 of our 200,000 annual visitors are school children, mostly from New York City public schools. Many are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants. As they visit the recreated homes of past Irish, German, Jewish and Italian residents, today's Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Caribbean, Polish, and Russian students learn how immigrants came to this country with hope, how they encountered discrimination, and how many of them worked hard, studied hard, and became Americans. We do not subject our visitors to IQ tests; the curiosity in their faces, the intelligence of their questions, and the empathy they feel for immigrants of America's past and for each other testify to the future of this country and the role that immigrants have played, and continue to play, in shaping this great city and country.