We are told…
Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants or children of immigrants.
True enough – true as well for the “Native Americans.” By the way, open borders didn’t work out so well for this group.
The entire history of the United States, until recently, is one of open borders and open immigration.
We are also told. I would like to examine the validity of this statement.
Before beginning, I offer a very interesting time-lapse map, depicting immigration into the United States; each dot represents 10,000 people. Visualizing this history will tell you much about what it meant to be a country of immigrants; more specifically…immigrants…from where? When? What changed? Why? The map raises important questions.
To be more complete, I should include social / welfare legislation in this post as I believe it to be an important part of the story. But I am already at 2900 words, and I think most readers understand that this grew significantly during the twentieth century and especially during the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression and more so during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. Further, the differences in open and available land should be considered.
Unless otherwise noted, sources are identified at the end of this post.
Colonial Era to 1790
The period from 1607 – 1775 marks the longest sustained period of meaningful immigration in North American history. Not counting slaves (who clearly did not come by choice), virtually all of the immigrants were of northern European and Protestant origin. Large numbers came as indentured servants (perhaps half or more), with passage paid in exchange for a fixed term of indenture to the sponsor; not all indentured servants came voluntarily.
By 1790, it is estimated that there were 950,000 immigrants, of which 360,000 were from Africa. Of the 590,000 remainder, 425,000 were from Britain and almost 110,000 were from Germany or the Netherlands. The origins of most of the rest are unknown, but presumed to be from Northern Europe.
The population by 1790 is estimated to be 3.9 million, of which 757,000 were from Africa. Of the remaining 3.15 million, almost 2.6 million were of British descent. About 370,000 were of German and Dutch descent; most of the rest are of unknown origin, presumed to be from northern Europe.
Great Britain exported its convicts to America – about 50,000 up to the end of the Revolution (Australia got them thereafter).
1790 to 1849
From the beginning of the Revolutionary War until about 1830, there was little immigration. There was a meaningful emigration from the US to Canada; about 75,000 British loyalists, but also some German farmers. The year 1815 might mark the low point in terms of the percentage of the population that was foreign born – perhaps 1%. Even by 1830, this percentage was estimated at only 2%.
Immigration in some quantity resumed beginning around 1830. The list of countries is similar: Britain, Ireland, Germany, and other parts of Central Europe as well as Scandinavia. The numbers from 1831 – 1840 are about 207,000 Irish, about 152,000 Germans, 76,000 British, and 46,000 French.
From 1841 – 1850, there were about 1,713,000 immigrants, including at least 781,000 Irish, 435,000 Germans, 267,000 British, and 77,000 French. By 1850, the population was about 90% native born; the percentage of the population that was Catholic doubled in this period – from 5% to 10%.
The Mexican-American War and subsequent treaty brought about 70,000 formerly Mexican residents into New Mexico and California; the California Gold Rush brought immigrants from Latin America, China, Australia, and Europe.
There was a rise of anti-Catholicism in the later part of this period – against German and Irish Catholic immigrants. Thus was born the Native American Party (“Native American” having a meaning different than what we ascribe to it today), renamed the American Party – but commonly known as the Know Nothing Party – as its members would claim to “know nothing” when asked about their affiliation.
Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati's crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston's expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period.
— James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 131.
The party gained significant results:
The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings, up to then an informal movement with no centralized organization, that they formed officially as a political party called the American Party, which attracted many members of the now nearly defunct Whig party as well as a significant number of Democrats. Membership in the American Party increased dramatically, from 50,000 to an estimated one million plus in a matter of months during that year.
Massachusetts was a stronghold; a chapter was formed in California, against the rise of Chinese immigrants; the “know nothing” mayor of Chicago banned immigrants from city jobs.
The party soon lost momentum, as the issue of slavery divided the country far more than the issue of (primarily) white immigration.
1850 – 1900
In this period, the largest portions of immigrants were from Germany, Ireland and Britain; French Canadians were also represented. Shortly after the Civil War, some states began to pass their own immigration laws; the Supreme Court struck this down in 1875, stating the immigration was a federal issue. That same year, the Federal government passed the Page Act – aka the Asian Exclusion Act. This was followed in 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The names of these acts are descriptive of the content.
In 1892, Annie Moore was the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island. Call it a wall – a big, beautiful wall!
1900 – 1915
The first years of the new century saw an increase in immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Poland, and Italy. There were also immigrants from Lebanon and Syria – primarily Christian, but also Jews and Muslims. There were also about 2 million immigrant Jews from Russia.
The peak year of legal immigration was 1907, with about 1.3 million entering the country.
The twentieth century saw an explosion of laws regulating and restricting immigration:
Immigration Act of 1917
…was the most sweeping immigration act the United States had passed until that time. It was the first bill aimed at restricting (as opposed to regulating) immigrants, and marked a turn toward nativism. The law imposed literacy tests on immigrants, created new categories of inadmissible persons, and barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone.
Emergency Quota Act of 1921
…restricted immigration into the United States. Although intended as temporary legislation, the Act "proved in the long run the most important turning-point in American immigration policy" because it added two new features to American immigration law: numerical limits on immigration and the use of a quota system for establishing those limits. These limits came to be known as the National Origins Formula.
The Immigration Act of 1924
…was a United States federal law that limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States as of the 1890 census, down from the 3% cap set by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which used the Census of 1910. The law was primarily aimed at further restricting immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians and Eastern European Jews. In addition, it severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
Equal Nationality Act of 1934
This law allowed foreign-born children of American mothers and alien fathers who had entered America before the age of 18 and had lived in America for five years to apply for American citizenship for the first time.
The act reclassified all Filipinos, including those who were living in the United States, as aliens for the purposes of immigration to America. A quota of 50 immigrants per year was established.
Nationality Act of 1940
The law revised "the existing nationality laws of the U.S. into a more complete nationality code"; it defined those persons who were "eligible for citizenship through birth or naturalization" and clarified "the status of individuals and their children born or residing in the continental U.S., its territories such as Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Philippines, Panama and the Canal Zone, or abroad." The law furthermore defined who was not eligible for citizenship, and how citizenship could be lost or terminated.
McCarran Internal Security Act
The Internal Security Act of 1950, 64 Stat. 987 (Public Law 81-831), also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 or the McCarran Act, after its principal sponsor Sen. Pat McCarran (D-Nevada), is a United States federal law. Congress enacted it over President Harry Truman's veto.
The Act required Communist organizations to register with the United States Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate persons suspected of engaging in subversive activities or otherwise promoting the establishment of a "totalitarian dictatorship," either fascist or communist. Members of these groups could not become citizens and in some cases were prevented from entering or leaving the country. Citizens found in violation could lose their citizenship in five years.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
…also known as the McCarran–Walter Act, codified under Title 8 of the United States Code (8 U.S.C. ch. 12), governs immigration to and citizenship in the United States.
The Act defined three types of immigrants: immigrants with special skills or relatives of U.S. citizens who were exempt from quotas and who were to be admitted without restrictions; average immigrants whose numbers were not supposed to exceed 270,000 per year; and refugees.
The Act allowed the government to deport immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in subversive activities and also allowed the barring of suspected subversives from entering the country.
The back-and-forth of this act is worth considering:
President Harry Truman, a Democrat, vetoed the Act because he regarded the bill as "un-American" and discriminatory. His veto message said:
Today, we are "protecting" ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic. ... We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again....These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law.
In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.
Truman’s last sentence is worth reading twice – immigration restrictions are part of the national life and history of the nation.
Truman's veto was overridden by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.
Speaking in the Senate on March 2, 1953, McCarran said:
I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.
There are many Americans who would nod in agreement with this statement today.
That’s the real name!
The program was implemented in May 1954 by U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell and utilized special tactics to deal with illegal border crossings into the United States by Mexican nationals.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
Until 1965, immigration was virtually all European and all Christian, with a minor portion from the Americas (to include a good amount from Canada). This changed with this act.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (H.R. 2580; Pub.L. 89–236, 79 Stat. 911, enacted June 30, 1968), also known as the Hart–Celler Act, changed the way quotas were allocated by ending the National Origins Formula that had been in place in the United States since the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Representative Emanuel Celler of New York proposed the bill, Senator Philip Hart of Michigan co-sponsored it, and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts helped to promote it.
The Hart–Celler Act abolished the quota system based on national origins that had been American immigration policy since the 1920s. The 1965 Act marked a change from past U.S. policy which had discriminated against non-northern Europeans. In removing racial and national barriers the Act would significantly, and unintentionally, alter the demographic mix in the U.S.
I suspect some would disagree with that “unintentionally” part.
The Hart–Celler Act of 1965 marked a radical break from the immigration policies of the past. Previous laws restricted immigration from Asia and Africa, and gave preference to northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans.
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Pub.L. 99–603, 100 Stat. 3445, enacted November 6, 1986, also known as the Simpson–Mazzoli Act, signed into law by Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986, is an Act of Congress which reformed United States immigration law. The Act:
…required employers to attest to their employees' immigration status; made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants knowingly; legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants, and; legalized illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously…
America has always been hostile to immigrants
Look, I didn’t write that – it comes right from the Washington Post:
You know Ellis Island, the place textbooks portray as the welcoming ward for generations of dreamers?
“We think of Ellis Island as this great monument to immigration. It’s really the monument to border control,” says Morris Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which painstakingly reconstructs the squalor and ambition of 19th- and 20th-century immigrants. Ellis Island was, Vogel notes, “the first wall,” often used to repel undesirables.
Border control…in 1892! But there is more:
Benjamin Franklin denounced the scourge of “swarthy” German immigrants who refused to speak English, for example.
“In the infancy of the country, with a boundless waste to people, it was politic to give a facility to naturalization; but our situation is now changed,” [Alexander Hamilton] wrote in 1802.
One could say that the United States (and the colonies beforehand), were reasonably “open borders” until the 1870s, with the more sweeping regulation beginning in the 1910s. One could also say that virtually all of the immigration until this point was from Europe, and the bulk of this from northern and western Europe. One could also say that the vast majority of immigrants were Christian – not to minimize the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.
One could also say that the bulk of the immigrants had to find their own way – both to get to the country and to carve out a living once they arrived. This would exclude, of course, slaves and those indentured servants brought by force – call them white slaves, albeit typically not for life.
One could say that this fundamentally changed in 1965 – both in immigration patterns and in social and welfare legislation.
One could say that the United States had reasonably open borders as long as immigrants were white and Christian; one could say that legislation began to grow meaningfully when this began to change – in other words, people grew less fond of open borders when those who immigrated didn’t look and act like them.
One could say that everything changed beginning in 1965, due to government forced and subsidized immigration.
One could say all of these things because these are factually based.
One could not say that the history of the United States is one of open borders and free immigration; this would be inaccurate without the following clarification: it was reasonably true when immigrants were primarily white and Christian; it ceased to be true as this changed.
But…but…but…we are all children of immigrants (again, with the one reasonable exception).
True. Exponential math explains why this must be so. For example, from the 24 males on the Mayflower that had children, 35 million today claim to be descendent. In other words, the statement is meaningless for a country that was virtually unpopulated 425 years ago.