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The US is a nation of immigrants. Most countries have populations that have been there since before written history. By contrast, almost everyone in the US today is either an immigrant or descended from someone who immigrated to the US within the last 400 years.
American Indians are the one exception to this. I dislike the term "Native Americans" since technically anyone born in America is a "native". I know "Indian" is not an ideal name since it was mistakenly imposed by Columbus thinking he was in the Indies, but for lack of a better term, I'll use it here. Most Indians were wiped out primarily through European diseases. Many more died in wars or through deprivation caused by being forced to live in the least hospitable lands on the continent. While Indian relations would make a very interesting topic, it is not the one I plan to address today. So forgive me if I delay this discussion for another day.
The First Immigrants
So where did the first European settlers come to settle in what is today the United States? You may be forgiven if the first answer that comes to mind is the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. That answer is wrong, despite what we might have learned in school. The fact that Pilgrims often get the credit is due to the fact that New Englanders were more focused on history than other regions and tended to play up their own first immigrants.
The first British colonists settled in Roanoke Island in 1585. This was an island just off the coast of what is today North Carolina The colonists were dependent at first on the local Indians for food, and hoped to trade with them. But after they attacked and killed a local chief, relations with the locals were impossible and the colony began to starve. Fortunately for them, explorer Francis Drake stopped by to check on them in 1586 on his way back from attacking some Spanish colonies. All the colonists hopped on his ship and fled back to England. A second attempt to establish a Roanoke colony landed in 1587. But this group of settlers was wiped out, presumably by the Indians.
A permanent settlement would wait another 20 years until the Virginia Company established "Fort James" (later Jamestown) in what is today Virginia in 1607. The very next year introduced the first "foreigners" to the British inhabitants. In 1608, German, Polish, and Slavic immigrants arrived among a second group of colonists. These were all professional artisans with specific skills needed by the colony to produce goods from raw materials.
Records from these early years in Jamestown are sketchy. So we don't know exactly what happened. But these "foreigners" did have some problems with the British colonists. Several of the Germans ended up fleeing the colony and going to live with a local Indian tribe rather than continue to live with the British in the colony. Several other of the non-British workers ended up holding the first labor strike in North America after being refused the right to vote in local 1619 elections. From the very beginning, people could not get along as a result of language and culture. British colonists had been in America for all of one year before they started complaining about foreign immigrants and denying them certain rights.
Incidentally, these British colonies were not the first European colonies in what is today the US. There is some rather sketchy information about Vikings around 1000 AD who settled in Newfoundland (today Canada) moving further south into what is today part of the US, but if any remained, they intermarried with the local Indian populations and lost their distinct identity as Vikings.
Also, in 1564 the Spanish created a colony near the modern Pensacola Florida, which failed. In 1566, the French settled near Jacksonville Florida in 1566, but were quickly killed by the Spanish. The first successful colony was the Spanish colony in St. Augustine Florida, established in 1565. There was also a Spanish outpost, founded around 1598 in what is today New Mexico, which was part of the Spanish push north from their control of what is today Mexico.
Over the course of time, there were numerous attempts to establish additional colonies along North America. French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and other groups all attempted to establish colonies. But by 1700, the area along the east coast that would become the US (other than Florida) was pretty much under British control. This did not mean that all the colonists were ethnic English. Many of the colonists from other countries remained living and working in their colony. They simply had to pledge loyalty to the King of England (who by the way was German born and did not speak much English himself). After giving such political pledges, these colonists remained distinct in their use of languages other than English and practicing other traditions from their native lands.
Many immigrants who came to America, especially in the early 1700s were German. Germany was not a single nation at this time and never had much of a naval presence to create its own colony. But Germans were happy to settle in British colonies, leaving behind the war and deprivation of their native lands.
Immigration was a double edged sword for the colonies. On the one side, they needed more people in order to make the colony was established. Otherwise, it might be wiped out by Indians or taken by another power that would later decide to colonize the area for itself. But at the same time, colonists wanted to make sure that immigrants were not too different from themselves. Almost as soon as a colony was established, its people began to enact laws to ensure that only the "right sort" were able to enter the colony.
Most of the early restrictions were not racial or ethnic. They were religious. But of course at the time, religion was controlled by various European governments. So restriction by religion had the same impact as restriction by national origin or ethnicity.
New England Colonial Immigration
In its first decade of existence, the Massachusetts colony found the need to pass a law to make sure that no local towns allowed any immigrant to settle without permission from the central government of the colony:
" It is ordered that no Town or person shall receive any stranger resorting hither with intent to reside ... or entertain any such above three weeks, except such persons shall have allowance under the hands of some one of the counsellors, or two other magistrates . . . upon pain that every Town shall forfeit £100 for every offense." Records of Mass. Bay Colony, i, 196.
(For anyone interested in reading more, this and most of the following quotes on Colonial Immigration laws comes from a book Colonial immigration laws: a study of the regulation of immigration by the English colonies in America by Emberson Proper (1900)).
Gov. John Wintrop justified the restriction: "... If we here be a corporation established by free consent, if the place of our cohabitation be our owne, then no man hath a right to come into us with-out our consent ... If we are bound to keep off whatsoever appears to tend to our ruine or damage, then may we lawfully refuse to receive such whose dispositions suite not with ours and whose society (we know) will be hurtful to us."
A Defence of an order of the Court, 1637.
Life and Letters of John Winthrop, 182.
Most of New England had laws banning Quakers from settling among them. At that time, Quakers had a habit of being particularly aggressive in their attempts to challenge other religions. This included barging in on Sunday services and telling parishioners everything they were doing was wrong. This did not go over well with the Puritans, or most anyone else. It is a practice that the religion, known today more for its silent prayer, has long ago abandoned.
Similarly, Catholics were barred from the colony, particularly Priests, who under Massachusetts law could be executed if they returned to the colony after being banished once. This was targeted particularly at Jesuit Priests who were from nearby French Canadian colonies and who engaged in missionary conversions of many Indians. It was feared that the French Priests would cause the Indians to rise up against the good Protestants of New England. The Catholic prohibition was also a concern that the ongoing religious wars in Europe would not be continued in the New World. Making sure everyone was a good Protestant was an attempt to keep things peaceful.
Religion was not the only restriction, however. Massachusetts law in 1709 provided that "No lame, impotent, or infirm persons, incapable of maintaining themselves, should be received without first giving security that the town in which they settled would not be charged with their support." Colonial life was difficult. There was often not enough food to go around and everyone depended on neighbors for group security. People with disabilities were seen as a problem for the whole community and therefore should stay away.
The result of such laws not only deeply restricted immigration and growth, but had a negative impact on trade as well. Legal reforms eventually allowed other immigrants, provided they had a certain amount of wealth (had to bring personal property worth at least £50) or have certain skills: (able-bodied husbandmen, marines, hand carpenters, laborers, and indentured servants provided they were "not persons of vicious habits," were permitted without the property requirements.
Still, the result of these laws meant that immigration to Massachusetts and most of New England remained very limited. Population growth in this region tended to be much slower, but also with the much desired lack of diversity among the population.
Immigration in the Middle Colonies
The Middle Colonies took a quite different approach to immigration but nevertheless maintained restrictions.
New York had originally been settled by the Dutch as "New Netherlands". These early settlers did not encourage any sort of immigration and remained rather small. As a result, it was a rather simple task for the English to take control of the entire colony in 1664. Still, the Dutch settlers were permitted to remain and incorporate themselves into the new English Colony now called New York.
To counter this Dutch Population, the English greatly encouraged (Protestant) immigration in the early 1700s in order to make sure the Dutch culture did not remain dominant. As enough Englishmen could not be encouraged to make the move, the colony opened up to other European Protestants who wished to immigrate. The English encouraged about 3000 German Palatines (a southwestern region of what is today Germany) to move to New York. Not to the City, of course, but to set up their own villages in the interior parts of the State where they could serve as a buffer between the English and the Indians.
Again, there were disputes that arose between the English establishment and the German Immigrants. The immigrants were not given promised land and were forced to work under slave like conditions to pay back loans for their travel. Unlike later indentured servants, these debts were not paid off individually, but laid on the whole community of immigrants to repay through labor. As a result, many German immigrants ended up leaving the colony, and the bad reputation discouraged many more from moving there.
Instead, many moved to Pennsylvania, which ended up being one of the most open colonies for immigration. Pennsylvania had almost no restrictions on immigration and instead actively courted and encouraged, mostly German Protestants to move to the colony.
William Penn had founded the colony in 1683. As a Quaker, he was unwelcome in England and most other colonies. He hoped to make his colony a refuge for other victims of religious persecution. It was one of the few colonies that did not actively block Catholics (although Protestants were courted much more aggressively). A small Jewish community thrived in the colony from the time of its founding as well.
At first look, there was little attraction for immigrants. The only port city was Philadelphia, which was not on the Atlantic Ocean. Rather, one had to travel up the Delaware River to reach the city. Beyond Philadelphia, most of the State could not be reached by water, making trade more difficult. This inability to trade would potentially limit the wealth of the colony and its inhabitants. Still, the promise of religious freedom, cheap land, and political rights made it an attractive destination for many.
Germany was the largest contributor. At the time, England was ruled by King George I. George, as well as his son George II, were natives of Hanover Germany and did not even know how to speak English. So German ties with England were at a historic high at this time. One advertisement distributed in the Palatine region of Germany read:
"the King offers to them for a habitation the country west of the Allegheny Mountains, usually considered a part of Pennsylvania, but not yet belonging to it. Each family shall have fifty acres of land in fee simple, and for the first ten years the use, without charge, of as much as they shall want, subject only to the stipulation that after that time the yearly rent of one hundred acres shall be two shillings. There is land enough for 100,000 families, and they shall have permission to live there, not as foreigners, but on their engagement, under oath, to be true and obedient to the King, and to have the same rights as his natural-born subjects.”
Many Palatines moved to Pennsylvania as a result of continuing wars in their home land with Catholic France. Included in this group were many French Huguenot families who had been forced to leave France because of their religion, and had lived in southern Germany for a generation or two. Upon finding a receptive land for immigrants, the first immigrants strongly encourage friends and family to make the trip to Pennsylvania. Immigration continued to grow throughout the early and middle 1700s.
At a meeting of the Governor and Council in 1717, the Governor noted "that great numbers of foreigners from Germany, strangers to our language and constitution were lately imported into the Province and daily dispersed themselves without producing any certificates from whence they came or what they were." This unrestricted immigration alarmed officials since "by the same method any number of foreigners from any nation whatever, enemies as well as friends might throw themselves upon the present settlers." Council did not put restrictions on immigration but did order that the masters of vessels who had imported to provide lists of all immigrants and ensure that they took an oath of allegiance to the king of England.
This openness encourages thousands more to arrive in the years that followed. In 1727 Governor Patrick Gordon warned the Council of his concerns: "A vessel has just arrived with four hundred Palatines on board, and they are soon to be followed by a much greater number. . . . They transport themselves without any leave obtained from the Crown of Great Britain, and settle themselves upon the proprietor's lands without any application to his commissioners or the government. Measures ought to be taken at once for the peace and security of the province which may be endangered by such numbers of strangers daily poured in, who being ignorant of our language and laws, and
settling in a body together, make, as it were, a distinct people from his Majesty's subjects."
English Pennsylvanians shared this alarm at having people of a different language, culture, and traditions from living among them:
"why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they
can acquire our complexion?"
Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries &c., 1755.
Amazingly, Franklin continues his article by spouting even more racist rants:
"Which leads me to add one remark: That the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion ; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind." Ibid.
I find it startling that Franklin does not count most Germans as "white people" (or Swedes for that matter). I guess it just goes to show how the border lines on racism have changed over time.
Many of the immigrants were poor, too poor to pay for their own passage. As a result, they often had to serve as indentured servants for 3-7 years to pay for their passage. While many see indentured servitude as better than slavery since it was voluntary and only for a short period of time, we should not overlook the cruelties that resulted from the system. Many died on the passage over. Once arrived, they were auctioned off like property to whomever had the money and the need. Families were separated by this. Many were literally worked to death in swamps, mines, and other inhospitable environments as the owner attempted to get his money's worth before the end of the indenture. There is also evidence that some indentured servants did not come voluntarily. Some were brought aboard ships by fraud and some outright kidnapped by ship captains who profited from their sale in the new world.
There also came an influx if Irish immigrants around this same time. Irish immigrants from the colonial period seemed to have integrated well. They already spoke English. Most of the Irish immigrants from this time were Protestant. They tended to be "Scotch-Irish". These were Protestants from Scotland, brought to Northern Ireland by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600's to displace Catholics. Many of their descendants grew weary of the limited opportunities and continued religious fighting in Ireland and sought a new life in Pennsylvania and other colonies.
In 1729, there was enough concern over the immigration that the Colony enacted a tax in immigrants. The exact amount is in question, but it was enough that several ships took their immigrants over to New Jersey or the Carolinas to avoid the tax. The tax was repealed after only a few months, but even liberal Pennsylvania was moved over its concern for immigration.
Immigration in Southern Colonies
Maryland was similarly tolerant of immigrants, although it never advertised as aggressively as its northern neighbor Pennsylvania. Still, many "Pennsylvania Dutch" began moving from Western Pennsylvania into lands available in Western Maryland over the mid to late 1700s. Many of these German speaking Palantines were born in Pennsylvania, meaning they were not technically foreign immigrants. But they did continue to use the German language and did not easily assimilate into the English speaking culture.
Farther south, the colonies again adopted many of the immigration restrictions of New England. Virginia barred the immigration of Catholics and Quakers. But many immigrants allowed to enter were not the best sort. England shipped many felons to the colony, including a large number of Irish forced to serve as slaves. Of course, African slaves arrived early on as well. I'm trying to avoid getting side tracked into a discussion of slavery here, but will cover that in another post. I'll only point out here that slavery discouraged many poor free whites from settling in Virginia because of the lack of jobs. Rich whites who had slaves did not need to hire others for much of the menial labor that needed to be done.
Many of the poor free people who did immigrate were forced to settle further inland, much like the Germans of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to serve as a buffer between the Indians and the richer whites on the coast. Many of these were Scotch-Irish. But the wealthy were not happy about these poorer sorts immigrating. One Virginian commented ''that the people sent to inhabit in Virginia are most of them the scum and off-scouring oi the nation, vagrants or condemned persons, or such others as by the looseness and viciousness of their lives have disabled themselves to subsist any longer in England.''
Because Virginia was very interested in pushing out its western boundaries as far as possible, it needed a great influx of people to settle that land for the colony. In 1705, it offered greater inducements to immigrants
(a) Every person, male or female, ''imported" and coming into the colony free had the right to 50 acres of land.
(b) Every Christian servant, on becoming free, had the right to 50 acres.
(c) Every person "importing" a wife or children under age had a right to 50 acres for the wife and each child.
(d) A charge of 5s. for every 50 acres was the only fee imposed.
Despite this desire for immigrants, Virginia passed laws banning the importation of convicts, as well as Catholics. Servants other than those from England or Wales were taxed on importation. These inducements encouraged heavy immigration. But the immigrants did not integrate at first. The best lands along the coast were settled by wealthy land owners from aristocratic families. Inland were Englishmen of less wealthy families. Poorer immigrants who were not slaves or servants to the wealthy families settled in groups well inland and in relatively wild and mountainous areas.
The Carolinas had policies similar to Virginia, settling wealthy planters and slaves and servants along the coast, and immigrants from other countries further inland. Again, no Catholics were permitted. Most of the immigrants were German and Swiss Palatines, as well as a large influx of French Huguenots (French Protestants kicked out of northern France by the Catholic King),
So even while the colonies had been desperately trying to increase their numbers, they remained very picky about who they would allow to immigrate. They did permit immigrants from other countries with their own languages and cultures, but generally drew the line on requiring Protestants, in order to avoid the ongoing wars in Europe that had pitted Catholics and Protestants in continual battle for centuries.
Once the US became an independent nation and established its Constitution, the States handed over all authority for immigration to the Federal Government. Almost right away, fear of the "wrong sort" of immigrants showed up in legislation.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed primarily out of a fear of French Catholics fleeing the French Revolution and spreading their wild revolutionary ideas to America. The Alien Act raised the amount of time an immigrant had to live in the US to vote from five years to fourteen. It also authorized the President to deport any alien considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". These laws were largely seen as an attempt by the Federalists to prevent immigration that tended to benefit he opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson. If that was the intent, these laws backfired and resulted in the election of more Democratic-Republicans who repealed the Alien Act in 1802.
But the Alien Act aside, the Federal Government simply did not concern itself with immigration during the first few decades of the Republic. It did not even both to track who was immigrating. With land and other incentives now gone, and with Napoleonic wars making transatlantic trade difficult, immigrants from Europe (or anywhere else) simply were not coming to America in very large numbers.
Catholic Immigration and the Reaction
After few decades of low immigration, however, the trends began to change. Between 1820 and 1870, the total number of immigrants to the US exceeded the entire US population in 1810. This was a period of massive immigration, most of which took place in the 1840's and 1850's. Roughly 1/3 of these immigrants were Irish. Another 1/3 were Germans. But unlike earlier immigrants, most of these new Immigrants were Catholics. This caused great concern among the many native Protestants about how American might be changed as a society.
Irish immigration was primarily the result of the Potato Famine in their home country. Potatoes had become a staple crop in Ireland. When a blight killed off almost all of the crop, and England refused to send in any relief supplies to feed the starving mass of poor people, millions began to starve, many dying from starvation. To avoid this fate about 1.5 million to 2 million Irish came to America. Large coastal cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, once hostile to Catholics, were now willing to tolerate the immigrants.
During this same period, a new German immigration grew as well. More than 2 million Germans immigrated to America to escape continuing wars in Europe. Like the Irish, most of the Germans in this wave were Catholic. Most of these immigrants settled in the mid-west.
Many Mexican Catholics also became Americans during this period. But not because they crossed the US border. The border crossed them. The US acquired a huge part of Mexico, between what is today Texas and California, bringing a great many Spanish speaking Catholics into the United States.
Americans reacted to this wave of immigration with some alarm. A new political party formed called the "American Party" based on being anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant. The party was rather secret about its membership. A party member if asked about the Party was supposed to respond by saying "I know nothing". As a result, the Party was nicknamed the "Know Nothing" Party.
Many of the anti-immigrant writings of the time sound very similar to the arguments made today: Lyman Beecher was a famous Massachusetts minister, the father of the famous Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe. He wrote the following in 1835:
"In the first place, while the language of indiscriminate discourtesy towards immigrants, calculated to wound their feelings, and cast odium on respectable and industrious foreigners, is carefully to be avoided ; an immediate and energetic supervision of our government is demanded to check the influx of immigrant paupers, thrown upon our shores by the governments of Europe, corrupting our morals, quadrupling our taxation, and endangering the peace of our cities, and of our nation.
It is equally plain, also, that while we admit the population of Europe to a participation in the blessings of our institutions and ample territory, it is both our right and duty so to regulate the influx and the conditions of naturalization, that the increase shall not outrun the possibility of intellectual and moral culture, and the unregulated action of the European population bring down destruction on ourselves and them."
A plea for the West, Lyman Beecher (1835).
Beecher's book also focused on the dangers of Catholics in particular since they were essentially stooges of the Pope and clergy back in Europe, who would tell them how to vote and would destroy democracy in America. His fear was that Catholic immigrants would dominate western States which did not yet have the good Protestant built infrastructure to guide new immigrants in the American way of life. Therefore, immigration to these areas should be greatly limited until Protestant Americans could develop the government and institutions necessary to move Catholic immigrants into a more Protestant way of life.
Others shared a view that Catholic immigration was part of a larger conspiracy by the Church to take control of the US. The immigrants themselves were seen largely as dupes, unaware of the larger plot, but nevertheless a danger.
"I readily concede that there has been, and are now, many true patriots among this sect [Catholocism], many estimable men of sound political views, sincere in supporting the democratic institutions of the country ; but making the most ample allowance, they are but exceptions to the rule. The sect, as a sect, is still justly chargeable with the tendency of its acknowledged principles. If a Roman Catholic in the United States is a Democratic Republican, it is so in spite of, and in opposition to, the system of his church, and not in accordance with it. To the truth of this fact, the arguments of Schlegel, a Catholic, and the profoundest investigator of the subject in the present age, are unanswerably conclusive. From their principles of passive obedience, and the denial of the right of private judgment alone, Roman Catholics, as a sect, must be ignorant and willing slaves to the schemes of any despotic ecclesiastic that a foreign povjer may see fit to send to this country to rule over them. The secret plans, the real designs of the Jesuits may be confined to few bosoms, it is by no means necessary that the mass of the sect should have any knowledge of the plot for from the nature of their system they may be blind instruments of the few."
Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States by Samuel Morse (1841).
There were a number of anti-Catholic riots in various cities during this period. Immigrants were beaten or lynched. Catholic Churches were burned. One of the more famous riots was the burning of the Ursuline Convent near Boston in 1834. This riot was inspired by several sermons by Rev. Lyman Beecher, the author quoted above. Of course, Beecher did not participate in the riot and condemned it after the fact. Jobs and neighborhoods also remained highly segregated.
The anti-immigrant movement and violence began to subside the 1850's. National issues turned more toward slavery and abolition and away from immigration. Although immigration continued to increase in the 1850's most Americans realized after living with these new Catholic immigrants for several decades was not going to destroy the country. Anti-immigrant sentiment and violence remained, but not at the levels of the 1830's and 1840's.
Anti-Catholic sentiment, however, continued in legislation for decades to come. Congress proposed a Constitutional Amendment: "No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations"
The "Blaine Amendment" named for Con. James Blaine who proposed it, failed to reach the necessary 2/3 vote in the Senate. However, a great many States added similar amendments to their State Constitutions, many of which remain to this day.
One may recognize the first sentence as being taken from the First Amendment. Why repeat that right? Because at the time, the Courts had only applied the First Amendment to the Federal Government. The Courts did not decide those restrictions applied to the States until the early 20th Century. States at this time were free to have whatever religious laws they liked..
While couched in neutral terms, the Amendment in the context of its time was clearly aimed at the Catholic Church. During this time, Catholics were upset at the Protestant religious instruction in public schools and wished to create Catholic schools that would receive State funding under the same terms as the "public schools" which taught Protestant religious practices. When the US was overwhelmingly Protestant, teaching generic Protestant religious ideas in school was not controversial. But as Catholics became a larger part of the population and objected, the need to extend the Separation of Church and State to the schools became the popular solution to end or at least limit the controversy.
While this wave of immigration brought changes, Americans grew to accept them over time. There was violence and resistance, but it was during this period that the US began to think of high immigration as the norm and that the idea of a melting pot of immigrants making American a larger and more powerful nation took hold.
Industrial Revolution Immigration
The Civil War and the economic slow down of Reconstruction greatly reduced immigration for a time. But when the Industrial Revolution began to demand more laborers, immigration filled that need. Another wave of Irish Immigration began in the 1870s and 1880s. Since these new immigrants were not terribly different from those who had arrived a generation earlier, they were not met with quite as much hostility. Still Irish immigrants tended to live in segregated areas and had to work in some of the worst jobs.
The larger numbers of immigrants from northern Europe and Protestant countries continued as well, but with little controversy. New immigrant groups began to appear in large numbers, including Eastern Europeans and Russians, many of whom were Jews. Also Italian Catholics began in immigrate in large numbers. Most of these new immigrants settled in large northern cities, finding work in the many factories and new industries that needed labor.
By this time, most Americans had gotten used to the idea that the US was a nation of immigrants. But there remained hostility. A newly reformed Ku Klux Klan developed with a major focus on opposing immigration, especially Jewish and Catholic immigrants. This new KKK became rather popular, with over five million members. It elected many politicians, judges, and other government officials that made life difficult for the new immigrants. Aside from advocating racial segregation (considered legal and widely practiced as the time) the KKK was a strong proponent of greater restrictions on immigration, gained a powerful dislike of Catholics and Jews (who again were mostly immigrants), and supported a growing temperance movement - which tended to find its highest support among Protestants, and greatest opposition among Catholics.
Also now that the US had taken control of the West coast, a concern over the rise of Chinese Immigrants grew. The first major Chinese immigration took place in the 1850's with the California Gold Rush. Restrictions at the time did not allow Chinese immigrants to bring their wives or children. So many returned after a time, or died in the US without children, thus limiting any growth of influence. In 1882 the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which even more severely restricted any Chinese or other Asian immigration.
In the 1920's Congress passed a series of laws that greatly reduced the total number of immigrants that could enter the country each year. Even more significantly, there were quotas put on the number of immigrants that could enter from any country, based largely on what percentage of Americans came from that country originally. As such, it was very easy for someone from England, Germany, or Ireland, to immigrate. But immigrants from countries without a long history of movement to the US found it nearly impossible.
These new laws led to a severe drop in immigration. During the first decade of the 20th Century, over 8 million immigrants came to the US. That number began to drop precipitously in each following decade so that less than a million came in the 1930's. The drop in the 1930's was in part due to the Great Depression, but it was a trend was already dropping, only about 4 million arriving int he 1920's.
Post WWII Immigration
These new laws, combined with the Great Depression and WWII again created a period of reduced immigration to America. In the post-war era, demand for immigration remained, but the national quotas remained in place until 1965. As a result, illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico, grew significantly. By this time, the argument was focused less on blatantly racist arguments and more on the economic ones. Mexican workers were pushing down wages by competing for jobs with American born workers.
In 1954 President Eisenhower appointed General Joseph Swing to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Shortly thereafter, the shockingly named “Operation Wetback” was launched. Border Patrol agents for the first time began catching large numbers of illegal aliens were and sending them back to Mexico. The efforts were largely successful, with illegal immigration dropping 95% by the end of the 1950s.
The system, however, was in desperate need of reform. In 1965, Congress abolished the national quotas and greatly increased the overall number of immigrants who could enter each year. Immigrant applicants were given priority based on the following priority list:
1. Unmarried adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
2. Spouses and children and unmarried sons and daughters of permanent resident aliens.
3. Members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability.
4. Married children of U.S. citizens.
5. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens over age twenty-one.
6. Skilled and unskilled workers in occupations for which there is insufficient labor supply.
7. Refugees given conditional entry or adjustment — chiefly people from Communist countries and the Middle East.
8. Applicants not entitled to preceding preferences — i.e., everyone else.
Over time, this led to a greater increase in Asian and Latin American Immigrants, but still not nearly enough to meet demand, particularly for Latin American Applicants. Levels of illegal immigration continued to grow.
A few tweaks were made in the 1970's and early 80's to the system, but the next major change came with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This law, signed by President Reagan, gave amnesty to virtually all of the millions of illegal aliens residing in the US. But it also for the first time made it a crime for an American to hire an illegal alien. Up until then, only the government was responsible for tracking the immigration status of those entering the US. If caught, they could be deported, but there had been no obligation for employers to confirm the immigration status of employees. Under the new law, failure to do so could subject the American employer to legal liability for hiring an illegal alien.
Thoughts on Current Immigration Controversy
Today immigration remains a divisive issue. Despite the great restrictions on illegal immigrants, many people, particularly from Latin America, enter the country illegally in search of a better life. With the restrictions on employers, most work in an underground cash economy, with the related danger and instability.
Opponents of immigration generally do not oppose all immigration. It is generally couched in terms of legal vs. illegal immigration. The government must be able to regulate the flow of immigration. But the reasons to have immigration laws at all are the same arguments that have been made historically. Benjamin Franklin's fears that German speaking immigrants might cause Pennsylvania to lose its Anglican character are similar to modern fears levied against today's large numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants. Lyman Beecher's fears that immigrants would increase taxes for social services for the poor, ill educated, and morally corrupt immigrants are heard in anti-immigrant arguments today as well. Fears of Catholics fundamentally changing the American character are today levied against Muslim immigrants.
The truth, of course, is that immigrants do change the nature of our society. The US is very different today than it was 200 or 300 years ago. The Puritans of Boston once barred Catholic Immigrants and rioted against the Irish. Today, there are more people of Irish Catholic descent living in the greater Boston area than live in all of Ireland. Much of modern American cuisine, arts, literature, fashion, religion, etc. has been greatly impacted by repeated waves of immigration.
With each group that arrived, there was some apprehension, resistance, and even violence. With every new wave, opponents of immigration said, this time it is different. This time the immigrants would be a negative rather than a positive. Sometimes immigration can overwhelm an area. The American Indians probably feel this way. Mexico once welcomed American immigrants into Texas and ended up losing part of its nation as a result. Such is an unlikely result in the US since the immigrants would have to come from a more powerful country. In today's world, that simply does not exist.
Much of societal change is also due to changes in the economy, science, technology, etc. Immigrants, contributed to those advances as well. The rate of change in the US is much different than if one compares the same time period in a large country that has not seen a great deal of immigration, like say India. Some change, is inevitable in all countries, but immigration accelerates it. Some people fear that change. Others embrace it.
There is little demand today for immigrant labor as there was when we were expanding the country across the continent or feeding the demand of the Industrial Revolution. Further, because the US has established a social welfare system that attempts to create a minimum standard of living, there is a greater fear that poor uneducated immigrants will create more cost to those already here than they will add. As a result, the immigration rate as a percentage of the population is much lower today than it was a century ago, or two centuries ago.
Perhaps it is true that the rate of growth over the last two centuries could not continue. But how that change will affect the growth of American wealth, power, and influence remains to be seen.
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