The Last Time the US Wanted a Wall, 70,000 People Were Sterilized

Since his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has been advocating for the construction of a wall along the southern U.S. border. While continuously fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia, from the moment of his election to the present, this has been one campaign promise that keeps eluding him. In a desperate attempt to construct his wall, Trump even forced a government shutdown.

While many might think this policy suggestion is new, historical examination reveals it has been proposed at least once before. Over 100 years ago, a group of wealthy white men advocated creating a wall around the entire United States to keep out those they called “degenerates,” “defectives” and the “unfit.” But this was only part of their advocacy.

These individuals were part of a movement that promoted eugenics, which, over the course of the 20th century, led to the forced sterilization of more than 70,000 individuals. To understand Trump’s call for a border wall, we must understand the history of a movement that advocated for a wall before Trump was even born.

Eugenics in the U.S.

Eugenics is the science of modifying human populations by controlling reproduction. Falsely believing that intelligence and valor, as well as poverty and “squalor,” were passed down genetically from generation to generation, its founders advocated for increased reproduction among the genetically “fit” — that is, the wealthy, the “intelligent,” the successful, the white — through intermarriage of elite family lines. Such advocacy is called “positive eugenics.” Yet when these ideas arrived in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, they took an even more insidious form.

This period was full of transition for the nation. Immigrants flooded in from Europe and Asia, newly freed Black families migrated North and West, the nation geographically expanded after incorporating large parts of Mexico (and Mexicans), and the U.S. government sought to forcefully “assimilate” Native Americans to “national values” like Protestant Christianity and the English language.

While this occurred, an economic shift propelled by the Industrial Revolution led to the rise of cities where many immigrants, migrants and displaced peoples began arriving by the end of the 19th century. This influx led to overpopulation and issues with crime and poverty in bourgeoning cities across the nation.

In the eyes of many of the white, wealthy and educated “intelligentsia” of the time, these societal shifts threatened the nation — by which they meant the white men that ruled the nation. These white elites interpreted their way of life as under attack, and they needed to do everything in their power to protect themselves and their progeny. In this context, an individual by the name of Charles Davenport encountered the science of eugenics.

Davenport was a Harvard-trained zoologist from Brooklyn who — inspired by the work of eugenics founder, Francis Galton — created the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, in 1910. Along with a close associate by the name of Harry Laughlin, Davenport expanded and actualized eugenic theories. Though they called for “positive eugenics,” Davenport and his associates pushed the science and also began advocating for “negative eugenics.”

Negative eugenics was the active limiting of reproduction among those deemed “unfit,” whose “undesirable” characteristics were believed to be hereditary and a burden on society. Eugenicists included among the “unfit” people who were poor, “criminals,” “alcoholics,” “the sexually deviant,” the “mentally defective” and the “feebleminded,” which scholars John P. Jackson and Nadine M. Weidman define as a “catch-all term that could … include various kinds of physical weakness or disease.” Out of this foundation, Davenport and Laughlin promoted eugenic policies that took two primary modes.

First was sterilization. Because eugenicists believed that the genetic traits of the “unfit” were passed on from generation to generation, its adherents sought to cut the source of “defectiveness” through forced sterilizations. Beginning in Indiana in 1907, laws emerged state by state which legally allowed sterilizations of those deemed “defective.” Though some limitations existed in these laws, often restricting sterilizations to individuals institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals or to prisoners, the effects were widespread.

Between 1907 and 1970, when individual states officially repealed these laws, scholars estimate that at least 70,000 individuals were forcefully sterilized in the United States. Before World War II, these sterilizations were often limited to psychiatric facilities and prisons in accordance with the law. Scholar Dorothy Roberts writes in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty: “Young women who [at most had a mild learning disability] were often admitted to facilities for the feebleminded for the sole purpose of being sterilized. Several states pursued a program of ‘admission, prompt sterilization, and speedy discharge’ in order to perform the surgery on as many women and as efficiently as possible.” In male prisons, men were often given a vasectomy as a precondition for release.

After World War II, the language of eugenics fell out of mainstream favor because of, among other factors, the Nazis’ application of the theory in the Holocaust. Though institutional sterilizations of prisoners and those considered “feebleminded” continued in many states, the nature of sterilizations in the United States expanded to particularly target women of color: Native American women, Black Women and Latinas, especially Chicanas and Puerto Rican women.

At a time when welfare programs were on the rise, many doctors sterilized women of color (especially Black women) without consent, immediately after they gave birth. In some instances, women were told that the only way they could give birth at a specific hospital was if they agreed to sterilization. In other cases, women were told that if they were not sterilized, their “welfare benefits would be withdrawn.” For these doctors, sterilizations served society by allegedly preventing the number of children born into poverty — irrespective of the desires, agency or consent of the parent.

Similar cases were seen among Chicanas in the West and Southwest, Puerto Rican women on the island and in the United States, and Native American women on reservations. Indeed, in some Native nations, coerced sterilizations performed at Bureau of Indian Affairs hospitals were so high that some nations risked never being able to birth a new generation. As Dorothy Roberts notes in Killing the Black Body,

[In] four Indian Health Service hospitals alone, doctors performed more than 3,000 sterilizations without adequate consent between 1973 and 1976. For small Indian tribes, this policy was literally genocidal. One physician reported that “[a]ll the pureblood women of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma have now been sterilized. At the end of the generation the tribe will cease to exist.”

But negative eugenics also took a secondary form: immigration policy. For eugenicists in the United States, “bettering the nation” included limiting the number of “unfit” individuals that were allowed to enter. Harry Laughlin spent much of his time with the Eugenics Records Office advocating for harsher immigration laws. In the early 1920s, Laughlin was called in by Congress as an expert witness to offer testimony on immigration-related issues. In Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America, Peter Schrag writes that the priorities for advocates like Laughlin “were (1) keeping the unfit out of the country; (2) deporting them; and, if all else failed, (3) keeping them from reproducing.”

Laughlin’s “eugenic expertise” was well received by lawmakers and he was consulted several times between 1922 and 1924, influencing the Immigration Act of 1924 in which the United States set quotas on how many immigrants could come into the country from various nations. Eugenics was central to this policy, as higher quotas relative to population size were granted to the more “fit” nations of Western Europe, while “unfit” nations in Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Asia were either virtually restricted or severely limited. Yet, outside of law, eugenicists like Laughlin promoted even more extreme immigration restrictions — including building a wall around the country.

The Wall: Then and Now

In 1920, Davenport wrote to Madison Grant, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, and a fellow eugenicist: “Can we build a wall high enough around this country … so as to keep out these cheaper races, or will it be a feeble dam … leaving it to our descendants to abandon the country to the blacks, browns and yellows.”

Such a remark needs to be understood within the history of eugenics. Davenport’s suggestion here wasn’t merely a comment about a physical structure. It was a suggestion that stemmed from a eugenic worldview that the “unfit” were taking over the nation and putting in jeopardy the survival of the “fit.” Immigration policy wasn’t enough. Even forcefully sterilizing thousands wasn’t enough. To keep out the “unfit,” the nation needed a structure that signified that “defectives” from “shit-hole countries” were not welcome.

In our present moment, Trump’s perpetual insistence to build a wall mirrors these ideas. Indeed, according to this mindset, a wall must be built to “keep out these cheaper races,” lest the country be abandoned “to the blacks, browns, and yellows.” To understand the gravitas of such a claim, we must place Trump’s xenophobia in the context of a nation that, for decades, advocated for similar policies while sterilizing those deemed “unfit” within its borders.

If the history of eugenics teaches us anything, it’s that advocating for a wall surrounding the nation isn’t merely about the wall itself. It’s a symbol to keep out those deemed “unfit,” so that the well-off can maintain power in the face of a diversifying nation.

Such a call is not new but is grounded in a history that calls forth eugenics. Only by uncovering this history and not being constantly “surprised” by the policies and bombastic rhetoric of the current administration can we begin charting a new path, learning from a history that seems to be repeating itself.

For when those who wish to consider themselves the “fit” control history, they have an easier time throwing out the “defectives.”