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Photo of Trump campaigning


"Donald Trump Signs The Pledge" by Michael Vadon 
is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last month, former President Donald Trump said immigrants arriving in the United States were “poisoning the blood of our country” — prompting the Biden administration to draw a comparison to Adolf Hitler, who used the phrase “blood poisoning” in his manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” But Trump’s comments also bring to mind the eugenics movement — and the influence it had on American life in the early 1900s.

In researching two books on Italian immigrants — one, on the detectives of the New York Police Department’s Italian Squad, and the other on the once-contentious relations between New York’s Irish and Italian communities — I came to see how powerfully the junk science of eugenics influenced the way society viewed people such as my mother’s parents, who were immigrants from southern Italy.

In the process, I found news coverage, as well as the remarks of judges, academics, politicians and other public officials, echoing the racist notion that southern Italians were inherently...