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The History of Immigration Policies in the U.S.

Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free;

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

The United States has long been a destination of freedom and opportunity for millions of men and women around the world. Immigration is an essential element of the development of this nation, economically and socially. The United States has relied on the constant flow of newcomers to diversify society and boost the economy. Unfortunately in times of unrest abroad and internal economic struggles, anti-immigrant sentiments rise. It is easy to blame the foreigner when we fail, instead of studying policy decisions that have led us to fail. Loud voices are able to convince the country when we need immigrants and when they think we don’t. History tells us that from the beginning immigration is beneficial to the country when we have a system that allows them to migrate freely and legally become a citizen of the United States.

NETWORK believes learning and teaching others about the history of both welcoming and despising immigrants will help us to debate current policy more effectively based on fact rather than fear. It will also help us avoid mistakes of the past.

THE BEGINNING

The first immigrants to come to the United States arrived voluntarily from Europe during the Colonial period. Many were merchants looking to trade and barter or settlers in search of religious toleration. When they reached North America, also known as the New World, they encountered groups of indigenous people who welcomed them. Other groups of immigrants arrived involuntarily. English convicts were sent over as they were not wanted in their own country and, beginning in 1619, African slaves were forcefully transported over as part of the slave trade.

Slaves, without rights, were commonly wanted for cheap labor but convicts were a nuisance to the Colonies. The act of dumping English convicts led to the first passage of immigration enforcement legislation. The Colonies fought against the English Parliamentary Law that allowed criminals to be sent over and passed their own laws against that practice. Ironically these laws were passed by recent descendants of criminals that had been sent over previously.

FOUNDING FATHERS?

With the creation of the United States, there was much debate over who were the “founding fathers”. At the time the population was a combination of Europeans of all different nations and languages, Native Americans and African slaves. However, neither Native Americans (the original founders) nor African Slaves were even considered citizens. It was a question of whether the United States was a country of one specific group; White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant men and women or one that welcomed newcomers from different countries, different religions and who spoke different languages. Difference of opinion on this point created the first political party, the Federalists.

The Federalist Party was fearful of French immigrants influenced by the French Revolution. They feared them coming to the United States and causing a political disturbance. Their fear convinced Congress to pass a stricter Naturalization law in 1795. Immigrants were required to be a resident for 2 to 5 years to be considered a citizen. In 1798, Federalists took power and changed the law to 14 years of residence and additionally passed the Alien Enemies Act, Friends Act and the Alien Sedition Act signed into law by John Adams. These laws allowed the President to deport any immigrant who he believed posed a threat to national security, all out of fear.

In 1800, the new Democratic Party under Thomas Jefferson, took power and eliminated the Alien and Sedition Acts deeming them as unconstitutional and as violations of the First and Tenth Amendment. Furthermore the Jefferson administration moved the citizenship requirement back to five years of permanent residence (where it is today).

EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION

During the 19th century a large wave of Europeans immigrated to the United States. Conditions in other countries (push factors) caused many immigrants to leave their home country and specific conditions in the United States made those immigrants choose to immigrate here (pull factors). Several of the first European immigrants were Irish and German. The potato famine in Ireland and the loss of land from the British pushed the Irish to immigrate to other countries. Likewise, Germany was under severe economic depression and religious intolerance that forced many Catholics to leave.

The flow of European immigrants was beneficial to the quickly changing economy in the United States. Immigrants chose the United States for several reasons but two pull factors played a major role. First, rapid industrialization increased the need for cheap labor. Second, the United States was beginning to claim land from the Spanish and native people in the western half of North America. However, the large influx of immigrants frightened certain groups of people. In a report from the Congressional Select Committee in July 1838 congressional members thought the increased immigration rates was a threat to the “peace and tranquility of our citizens” and classified immigrants as “paupers, vagrants, and malefactors...sent hither at the expense of foreign governments to relieve them from the burden of their maintenance”.

The anti-immigrant fears led to organized groups against European immigrants such as Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Know Nothing Party. In particular they wanted to ban Catholic immigration. In order to ease the tension between the requests of anti-immigrant groups and the government, in 1875 Congress passed an exclusion law banning prostitutes and convicts from entering the United States ending a more open immigration policy.  

Between 1860 and 1915 another wave of European immigrants entered the United States. Many came from Russia, Austria and Italy and a large portion of this new group were Jewish. Although immigrant labor continued to be needed, there were strong anti-immigrant feelings toward this new growing population. Congress decided that immigrants should be required to pass a medical exam and have no criminal record in order to immigrate to the United States. The 1891 Act barred people having any contagious diseases or history of crime. In 1903, people in the United States were also fearful of European radicals entering the country and so the government added anarchists and subversives to the 1891 Act.

Fear was so widespread that Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt decided to establish the Dillingham Commission to report the effects of immigration on the country. The results concluded that the United States was not benefiting from immigration because the immigrants were inferior to United States citizens. The Commission recommended that the United States no longer accept immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and furthermore all immigrants were to pass a literacy test. In 1917, under the Wilson administration, Congress passed the first comprehensive immigration act which included a literacy test requirement. In 1924 the National Origins Act was passed putting a quota system on the number of immigrants who entered the United States. The law effectively stopped anymore large flows of European immigration.

CHINESE IMMIGRATION

Similar to the start of European immigration, the Chinese started immigrating to the United States after a population explosion and a food shortage in China. Other push factors were the Opium War and the Taiping rebellion. While in the United States the Chinese endured constantly changing U.S. immigration priorities. When immigrants could be used for cheap labor they were instantly recruited and embraced but the second an economic shift took place in the United States, immigrants were given the cold shoulder.

Initially, United States businesses recruited Chinese men to work as day laborers. The idea was that they would come and work temporarily, save money and return back to their families in China. California in particular was supportive of Chinese immigration and lured a lot of immigrants to settle in the western half of the country. However, priorities shifted when gold was discovered in California mines in 1848. Several mines banned Chinese immigrants from mining. After the Civil War the Chinese were recruited again to build levees and the railroad. When all the projects were complete the Chinese did not return to their country because there weren’t any economic opportunities for them there. They remained in the United States and entered the service industry instead.

The welcoming of Chinese immigrants stopped abruptly as fear grew that they were taking over jobs and a threat to society. Several laws were passed to exclude them from society. In 1882 the first of three Chinese Exclusion Acts was passed, banning more Chinese immigration. It was not until 1943 that China and the United States became allies during World War II and the exclusion laws were repealed.

MEXICAN IMMIGRATION

After the Mexican War in 1849 the United States claimed the territory that now includes California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada. The Mexicans in these areas had an option to return to Mexico or stay living in what was newly considered the United States. Most did not return and the United States did not enforce any border laws. The lack of structure caused a culture to develop along the border. People would work in one country and live in another. The United States did not seem to be concerned with this issue as they were not included in the quota system of the National Origins Act of 1924.

Between 1900 and 1930, Mexican immigration into the United States rose dramatically as cheap U.S. labor was once again needed. Employers recruited Mexicans to work in agriculture after Chinese and Japanese immigrants were excluded from working in the United States. However Mexican workers were at a great disadvantage as they had no working rights. Anytime they organized a strike against abuse from employers they were simply deported.

In the 1930’s the United States suffered from the Great Depression, and the first campaign against Mexican immigration began. Border patrol and police officers sent hundreds of thousands of people back to Mexico, some whom were citizens of the United States.

Once again during World War II there was a labor shortage and immigrants were needed to fill the gap. In 1942 the “Bracero” program was created. Temporary workers were brought in mainly from Mexico but also Barbados, the Bahamas, Canada and Jamaica to work in agriculture. Working conditions were awful for immigrants. They were paid very little and their children were not allowed to attend schools. Farmers used the program long after the war ended because farmworkers were not allowed to form unions or organize, allowing employers to pay their workers as little as they wanted. Congress ended the program in 1964.

1965 ACT

When John F. Kennedy was elected President he realized the need to reform the immigration laws. He had written a book called A Nation of Immigrants which explained why the United States should change the National Origins Act’s quota system. Kennedy proposed a bill that created a system for allowing immigrants into the country based on family ties and special skills called the Immigration and Nationality Act also known as the Hart-Cellar Act. President Johnson signed the bill into law.

The new system had a major effect on countries in the Western hemisphere, especially Mexico. Without quotas there was a long waiting list of Mexicans wanting to immigrate into the United States. European immigration was among the most prevalent before 1960, but with the 1965 Act large masses of immigrants from Asian and Hispanic countries rose dramatically. This caused fear and racial concerns to rise as well. President Nixon focused on applying stricter enforcement laws to counter those fears. He implemented large scale raids and deportations in Mexican communities. President Ford then created the “Domestic Council Committee on Illegal Aliens” to study the effects of undocumented workers in the United States. The results of the study showed that immigrants were good for the economy and they gave more in taxes than they took in welfare or health care.

REFUGEE ACT

Before 1980 there weren’t any standards in dealing with refugees. Immigrants claiming refugee and asylum status were brought legally to the United States on an ad hoc basis. The Attorney General could have refugees enter the United States for emergency reasons. At the time there were several groups that came fleeing Communist regimes, specifically Hungarians, Chinese and Cubans. In 1975 Southeast Asians were also admitted after the Vietnam War.

It was not until 1980 that the Refugee Act was enacted. This law laid out a refugee policy separate from immigration policy. Any person in fear of persecution in their home country could apply to enter the United States under the Refugee Act. The passage of the bill saw a mass of applications by immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. However, their approval rates were very low demonstrating flaws in the bill.

During the Reagan administration the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed. It allowed legalization of status for both undocumented people who had lived in the United States before 1982 and agricultural workers. It also included that all employers check the immigration status of their employees. This bill addressed the needs of the then undocumented residents but failed to solve the overall problems of the immigration system in the United States.   

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION REFORM AND IMMIGRANT RESPONSIBILITY ACT OF 1996

At the end of the Cold War anti-immigrant sentiments began again, specifically in California. The state suffered a prolonged recession in which many people were left without jobs. This lead to a large anti-immigrant movement since California had the largest immigrant population. In 1994 California passed Proposition 187 which banned undocumented children from attending public schools and denied them public health services. Portions of this law were struck down by the courts, but it caused the President and Congress to focus on enforcement. Border control was enforced by the building fences and the hiring of border agents.

In September of 1996 the Clinton administration passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The bill intended to make deportations easier and focused on immigrants with criminal convictions. It also penalized employers who hired undocumented workers. That same year Congress passed the 1996 Welfare Bill which put up barriers to undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefits and any legal immigrant from receiving food stamps. That year a large group of naturalized immigrants went out to vote and raise their voice. The following year Congress returned some but not all of the benefits to legal permanent residents.

THE PRESENT

After the September 11th attacks in 2001 the government quickly implemented several enforcement measures to protect our national security. In 2002 the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act was passed which created new verification methods of documents when traveling into the United States from other countries and stricter security checkpoints. In 2006 a bill was passed that allowed the construction of an 850 mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since then the United States government has continued to spend billions of dollars on enforcement only policies and has failed to create a comprehensive immigration strategy that combines rational and practical legalization policies and smart enforcement measures.

The history of immigration policy demonstrates a clear pattern of policy decisions catered towards the need of the economy followed by fear of the stranger. During the years when the economy was rapidly moving and cheap labor was necessary to fill a particular industry, immigrants were welcomed into the United States with open arms. The surge of immigrants followed by the decline of the economy fueled fear in Americans and politicians who then closed up borders and threw out immigrants. Our policy decisions have not been long term solutions. We need an immigration system that is practical and reasonable around all aspects of immigration in the United States and addresses future waves of immigrants entering the United States.

NETWORK urges Congress and the president to find a solution to our broken immigration system that is fair and practical for immigrants and our national priorities.