To understand immigration in America today, we need to understand our historical immigration policy and our societal treatment of immigrants. The oft-cited statement that “we are a nation of immigrants” although true, implies that America has always embraced immigrants with open arms. America, however, has not been so welcoming. Each successive wave of immigrants has had to struggle to gain a place in American society. This blog explains American immigration history and offers perspective as to what is happening today.
In the early 1600’s, the first European immigrants arrived in America. They sailed from England and settled in Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. A steady stream of immigration through 1800 ensued with most immigrants coming from England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and France. African Americans were brought to America against their will as part of the European slave trade. The lure of America was so great to Europeans that many immigrants arrived as indentured servants who worked to “buy” their freedom from their sponsors. Indentured servants were treated poorly and perceived as not worthy of freedom. Their poor treatment was based on their status and not some immutable trait like race or ethnicity. After 1800, immigration slowed dramatically until the 1840’s.
III. First Wave Of New Immigrants And Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
During the 1840’s approximately 1,000,000 Irish immigrants arrived in the United States escaping the potato famine. Practically all were Catholic. They were unskilled workers who settled in urban areas and provided inexpensive manual labor to build railroads, canals, and public projects. The “native population,” that is, the earlier arriving immigrants, feared that the Irish Catholics and other Catholic immigrants would be loyal to the Pope over the United States. Chinese immigrants also began arriving in America as an even cheaper labor source. The new immigrants were blamed for problems in urban areas like disease, crime, and welfare. They were also accused of wanting to remain separate from the “true” Americans.
In the 1850’s, spawned by this wave of immigration, Nativism gained popularity in the United States. The Nativists, who were also known as “Know Nothings,” advocated against further immigration, favored a 21 year residency requirement to be eligible for citizenships, and did not want foreign born citizens to have the right to vote. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted into law and prevented all Chinese from entering the United States.
IV. Next Wave Of Immigration And Anti-Immigrant Policies
In the 1880’s, many immigrants arrived in the United States from Italy, Eastern Europe, Poland, Syria, and Lebanon. A significant number of Jews were among the new immigrants. The new immigrants were greeted with suspicion and prejudice. Nativists blamed immigrants for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, poverty, and disease in the cities. They also questioned whether the immigrants wanted to assimilate into American culture. The Immigration Act of 1917 required that all immigrants over the age of 16 read at least 40 words in their native language. The Immigration Act of 1924 made it more difficult for immigrants other than Northern and Central Europeans to enter the United States. That law barred all immigration into the United States from Asia.
V. Immigration Policy In The United States Today
Since the end of World War II, the United States has used either a quota system or preferential category admission system as its immigration policy. The quota system established a defined member of spots for immigrants based on their national origin. That system has been replaced by a preferential category admission system which establishes priority factors for determining who may immigrate to the United States. The factors include family reunification, employment skills, investment capability, and persecution because of political, religious, and social status. With the number of new, documented immigrants capped at 675,000 per year, there has been an explosion of undocumented immigration into the United States mostly from Mexico, Central America, China, and India.
VI. Today’s Immigration Debate
Two attitudes prevail today in the United States regarding immigration. These two attitudes have been present since the founding of America. Pro-immigration advocates maintain that immigrants contribute to the vibrancy of the United States and are our hope for sustained greatness. Anti-immigration advocates argue that our borders have been overrun and that unchecked immigration overburdens our social welfare system, takes jobs away from lawful residents, lowers tax revenues, and increases crime. These competing attitudes and the debate that has resulted have enabled us to find an equilibrium that although imperfect, has continued to make us a nation of immigrants deeply committed to fairness. We owe that commitment to the words contained in our nation’s primordial document – The Declaration of Independence – which reads “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”