The History of Immigration in America



There has always been something about the “otherness” of immigrants [their skin color, religion, language, culture or beliefs] that has sparked a backlash by some Americans. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin complained about the Germans in Pennsylvania and their reluctance to learn English. Even, the most famous immigrant of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, faced opposition when he sought entry with the anti-immigrant Woman Patriot Corporation arguing that he was “affiliated with more Communist groups than Joseph Stalin himself.” Luckily, calmer, wiser heads prevailed.

If you look back over the last 200 years, opposition to immigration has two reoccurring themes. Some folks want to limit immigration to protect American jobs while others oppose it to protect their vision of a homogeneous cultural identity. Such arguments have been influential politically, even when they were racist and weren’t supported by much evidence. So, throughout our history, immigration policy has been whipsawed back and forth by nationalists, religious populists, and business interests that favor increased immigration as a boon to America’s economic competitiveness.

A brief history of US immigration policy:

Our history as a nation is a story of immigration and Europeans came during the Colonial era to escape religious intolerance and for expanded economic opportunities. But, America's immigration and citizenship laws have always been controversial, political, and often racist. In 1790 Congress passed the Naturalization Act which allowed any "free white person, being of good character," and living in the United States for two years, to apply for citizenship. This meant that indigenous peoples, free African Americans, and slaves were excluded from citizenship, but our borders were open to Europeans who came by the millions throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

At first, most came from Northern and Western Europe, and between 1815 and 1865 one-third came from Ireland which experienced a famine in 1845. Between 1820 and 1930, almost 5 million Irish migrated to the United States, many settling in cities along the east coast. In the 19th century, the United States also welcomed about 5 million German immigrants. Many of them put down roots in the cities of the Midwest.

During the mid-1800s America also began to draw Asian immigrants, first lured by the gold rush in California and then to help build our railroads. This influx led to America's first significant piece of immigration legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants.

However, anti-immigrant resentment extended beyond Asians. American Protestants also resented the growing wave of Irish Catholics immigrants, fearing their ties to Rome and greater competition for jobs. In the 1840s and 50s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Native American Party, more commonly referred to as the "Know-Nothings" formed to curb immigration. The Know Nothings believed Catholics wanted to undermine religious liberty in the United States and they drew support from native-born Protestants in the defense of America's "traditional religious values". They faded as a political force by the end of the 1850s, but an anti-immigrant, nativist bias has remained a part of our political culture. As historian Elliott J. Gorn wrote about the era, “appeals to ethnic hatreds allowed men whose livelihoods depended on winning elections to sidestep the more complex and politically dangerous divisions of class."

As America industrialized between 1880 and 1920, a new wave of almost 20 million immigrants rushed to the United States seeking jobs in America's growing economy. American business interests supported an open immigration policy during this period to supply the labor necessary for the nation's industrial expansion. Immigrants made up the majority of workers in the sweatshops of New York City, the coalfields and steel mills of Pennsylvania, and the meatpacking plants of Illinois. Many of the new arrivals came from Eastern and Southern Europe including more than 4 million Italians.

But this era also ushered in another wave of xenophobia and Congress responded by creating the Dillingham Commission. The Commission released a lengthy study of immigration in 1911 that differentiated between "desirable" and "undesirable" immigrants based upon ethnicity, race, and religion, with northern European Protestants favored over southern or eastern European Catholics and Jews. The Commission concluded that immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was a serious threat to American society and culture and should be greatly reduced, along with continued restrictions on individuals from China, Korea, and Japan. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1917 implemented many of the recommendations of the Dillingham Commission.

A few years later Congress further restricted entry by these “undesirables” with the Immigration Act of 1924 which created a quota system that restricted entry to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census. The system was meant to favor immigrants from Western and Northern Europe and limit those from Southern and Eastern Europe. The act also excluded immigrants from Asia.

In the 1960s, Congress recognized that anti-immigrant sentiment had subsided and believed that immigration could be a powerful tool to attract workers to fuel our growing economy. They passed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 which did away with the quota system based on nationality and created a priority system giving preference to relatives of persons already in the United States and to individuals with special skills and advanced degrees.

The Immigration Act of 1965 unleashed one the greatest migrations of intellectual talent in history, which foreign critics came to label as the great American “brain drain.” Hundreds of thousands of highly educated professionals, including many Asians, left their native lands to come to America seeking greater freedom and economic advancement. Opponents abroad saw it as America’s attempt to poach the world’s best and brightest minds.

But, at about the same time, Congress mismanaged another immigration policy which has consequences even today. In 1964 they terminated an initiative known as the Bracero program which had been used to recruit temporary agricultural workers from Mexico to fill labor shortages in the agricultural sector. When the guest worker program ended, many former Bracero workers continued to cross the border, but now illegally. The combination of the end of the Bracero program and increasing demand for laborers fueled an increase in illegal immigration.

By the 1980s, millions of these laborers had put down roots in the United States and found jobs in the construction, agricultural, dairy, and meat-packing industries. In 1978 the Congressional Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy estimated that there were between 3 and 6 million undocumented individuals living in the country. In 1986, the Simpson–Mazzoli Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan to regain control of the situation by hiring more border patrol officers and by fining the employers of undocumented workers. The Act also legalized immigrants who had lived here for 5 years, paid a fine and back taxes, had a clean criminal record, and spoke English. About 3 million received amnesty via the law.

However, undocumented workers continued to cross the border to meet the demand for their services, especially after the North American Free Trade Agreement decimated Mexico’s agricultural sector. Additionally, the border control elements of Simpson–Mazzoli were funded slowly by Congress and employers found it easy to circumvent the fines for hiring foreign workers. As a result, the number of illegal immigrants peaked at about 12.2 million in 2007 but decreased during our 2008-09 recession as the economy slowed and has leveled off at about 10.5 million.

Recently, the composition of illegal immigration has begun to change. With greater opportunities at home, the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico steadily declined after 2007 and makes up less than half of illegals today. While Mexicans have been returning home, there has been an uptick in visitors, workers and students overstaying their temporary visas, and today the majority of new undocumented immigrants originally entered the country legally.

Over the last decade, Congress has debated updates to the 1965 Immigration Act to address America’s labor needs and the millions of undocumented workers living here. Despite attempts during both the Bush and Obama administrations, legislators have been unable to craft a comprehensive immigration law that satisfies both political parties and it has become a highly partisan and divisive issue.

The Future of Immigration:

Today, immigrants, legal and otherwise, account for about 13.6% of the U.S. population, still below the highs recorded in the late nineteenth century, but substantially above the levels of the 1950s. And, according to Pew Research, “Immigrants are projected to drive future growth in the U.S. working-age population through at least 2035. As the Baby Boom generation heads into retirement, immigrants and their children are expected to offset that decline by contributing about 18 million people of working age between 2015 and 2035.”

George Mason professor, Jack Goldstone recently made the argument in a piece for Reason that we need to stop talking about kicking people out and start crafting policies to welcome more immigrants in order to guarantee America’s future growth. It’s an argument gaining steam across the political spectrum as baby boomers retire and American fertility rates continue to decline.

Professor Jack Goldstone, Reason: "If we want our economy to grow, what America needs more than anything is workers. Domestic fertility rates are plummeting even as the boomers are rushing into retirement. The U.S. birth rate hit an all-time low in 2017: 1.7 children per woman, well below the "replacement rate" of 2.1. At the same time, the number of immigrants entering the country has slowed considerably, thanks in part to the Great Recession of 2007–09. Not only do these trends put enormous pressure on the country's entitlement system, they are already causing a drag on the economy. And this problem will only get more serious in the decades to come. Unless the U.S. finds a way to welcome more foreigners, and quickly, it is headed for a demographic crisis."


Goldstone is correct. While there certainly is a political constituency for anti-immigrant policies right now, it's difficult to argue that such views are based on the long-term economic interests of average Americans. If we create policies to welcome hard working and talented immigrants we can enhance our economic opportunities, but if nativism persists, we condemn the nation to slower growth and a less competitive economy.


Read more here: Why America Needs More Immigrants, Not Less


#immigration #research #economics

By: Don Lam & Curated Content

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