The Immigration Question
History and Misconceptions about Immigration in the United States
September 12, 2018
By modern standards, the colony of Jamestown was a neighborhood of illegal immigrants. Plymouth was a sanctuary city. For some reason, our immigrant-phobic nation hails these colonists as heroes. We teach our children about the first Thanksgiving before we teach the American Revolution.
Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, immigrated from the French Caribbean. Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, was born in then Czechoslovakia. Joseph Pulitzer, one of America’s most prestigious journalists, was a Hungarian immigrant. According to Clifton B. Parker, 22 percent of the United States’ labor force was comprised of first-generation immigrants by 1910. The United States built its modern reputation on the success of prominent immigrants and built up industry on the backs of immigrant workers.
Over the years, immigration has devolved from a policy debate to one of pointed fingers between parties and moral accusations. Politicians abandoned facts for fear, for unfounded claims of immigrants being the driving force behind unemployment and crime. Our nation has abandoned our own narrative; we have ignored our own history.
The naturalization act of 1790 was the first step towards United States’ immigration laws, and the law would be considered lenient in comparison to modern standards. While it did not restrict the flow of immigrants, it required a foreign-born resident to live in the country for two years and for one year in a specific state before they could apply for citizenship. As of 2018, you must hold a permanent resident green card for a minimum of five years, be able to read, write, and speak English, be 18 years old, and meet standards of moral character all before you can begin a ten step naturalization process that includes a citizenship test and an interview to become a U.S. citizen.
The first law relating specifically to immigration was passed in 1819 and called for all human passengers brought into the country to be reported as well as specific laws for sustenance of those leaving United States’ ports for Europe. Control over immigration was not centralized until 1864. 1875 marked the first time specific groups of people were prohibited from coming to live in the United States when laws passed to ban convicts and prostitutes. The Chinese exclusion act passed in 1882.
Misconceptions exist that immigration laws have become progressively more lenient, but firm laws relating specifically to immigration did not begin to appear until the late nineteenth century. These laws only came into place as a result of anti-immigrant rhetoric that mirrors modern calls for stricter immigration laws to be enacted.
Much of our historical perspective of immigration is centered around the influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth and the anti-Irish sentiment that flared up as Irish families fled famine in the wake of the potato blight. The average adult male, according to John Keating in “Irish Famine Facts,” ate fourteen pounds of potatoes a day while a woman ate just over eleven pounds of potatoes on average. With their only major food source near nonexistent, the masses starved and tried to survive on clumps of grass ripped up by the roots from the ground.
Others sought refuge in the United States. They were met with contempt.
5,000 ships equipped for cargo and slaves carried the refugees fleeing famine across the Atlantic to the United States. Each adult was allowed eighteen inches of bed space. Children were allotted half of that. Passengers lacked sufficient food and water, and they were kept in dark, cramped quarters. The Irish did not come to the states with wide-eyed hopes of freedom or the American Dream; they came with empty stomachs and hopes to eat. Unfortunately for these immigrants, Americans viewed them as blights on society, not the upstanding Scots-Irish immigrants of the past, and despised them for their lack of wealth as well as their open practice of Catholicism.
While German immigrants of the time were held in contempt, the fact that the majority of Irish were Catholic caused resentment to blossom, and conspiracy theories that the Pope planned to conquer the United States began to take root in the American consciousness. The Know-Nothing political party thrived with anti-Irish rhetoric at the core of their agenda, declaring that “America must be ruled by Americans,” and signs declaring No Irish Need Apply decorated storefronts and the classified ads. Nativists turned violent such as in a riot on election day in Kentucky in 1855. Somewhere between 20 and 100 people died in the resulting chaos including a German priest. Much of this anger was fed by the fact that immigrants were willing to take low-paying jobs with poor conditions, and this led to unskilled citizens having to accept the same low wages in order to keep the job from falling to an Irish immigrant.
The narrative is similar to that of today with accusations of immigrants stealing jobs from American citizens such as farm hands, and people have responded with vitriol to the information that tech companies such as Apple have hired employees from outside of the United States and acted as sponsors for skilled foreign workers to secure H-2B work visas, visas that allow workers to temporarily reside in the United States to work in a non-agricultural industry.
Early 20th century immigration policies gave birth to the idea of English as a requirement for citizenship that persists today. Despite never being made the official language of the United States, a law passed in 1906 made knowledge of English a requirement for naturalization, and 1907 laws required immigrants to meet certain standards of health. Japanese immigration was restricted in 1917, and the exclusion list expanded to prohibit illiterates, people immigrating for immoral reasons, alcoholics, stowaways on immigrant ships, and people with either mental or physical defects. Along with this, the head tax on immigrants increased when these restrictions were put into place.
Numeric limits by country were first established in 1921 and made permanent in 1929, set to shift the quotas every year. Immigrant farm workers were allowed under the bracero program established in 1943 that allowed immigrants to temporarily reside in the United States to ensure plentiful employment pools for the agricultural industry while still denying the benefits of citizenship to these migrant workers.
Political beliefs became a deciding factor in citizenship status when, in 1950, communists were banned from immigrating to the United States despite free speech laws meant to protect varying beliefs that citizens held. One of the first comprehensive immigration laws came in The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that set preferences for skilled and educated immigrants, reaffirmed the quota system that had been in place since the 1920s, and restricted incoming Eastern Europeans. This, along with the ban on communist immigrants, was a result of the Cold War between the eastern European Soviet Union and the Red Scare as communism spread through Europe and Korea. Thirteen years later, The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the quota system although limits were placed generally on hemispheres and countries alike and preference was given to close relatives of United States’ citizens, those with needed professional skills, and refugees.
Modern immigration was born in 1990, and overall immigration caps were set as well as categories for immigration such as family and employment-based immigration. Since then, the majority of new immigration laws have been mere reforms of the system established in 1990. Worthwhile to note is that, until 2006, the United States and Mexican border was unprotected by so much as a border fence.
While people in 2018 shout for a border wall, according to a New York Times article by Jay Root, the majority of immigrants and drugs enter not through the border but on boats across the Gulf of Mexico, and many agents that guard the border can be bribed. Additional border patrol does not present a real threat to the influx of immigrants and drugs; instead, it is an additional bloat to the government payroll. No border wall can defend against this. Additionally, while President Donald Trump claimed in his 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, funds for the project have yet to materialize and would be an additional weight on the national debt that weighs in somewhere around 22 trillion dollars.
Even the idea that immigrants steal jobs is unfounded according to a New York Times article by Julia Preston. She goes as far as to claim that high-skilled immigrants have spurred innovation in technology fields and filled jobs that America did not have the resources to on their own. At its worst, immigration has merely lowered hours of those working minimum wage job, mostly in the case of natural born high schoolers. Even then, unemployment has not persisted as a result of immigration. Additionally, non-U.S. citizens, while still required to pay taxes on their wages as a condition of work visas, are not able to benefit from welfare programs unless their child is eligible and was born in the United States.
The United States is a nation of immigrants that remains terrified of immigrants, and politicians latch onto this fear to further their own agendas. Rises of anti-immigrant sentiment reoccur like clockwork from the Irish to the Chinese to the communists. Mexican immigrants are just our latest target. Fighting this hatred requires knowledge of history, acknowledging that much of what we perceive to be true about immigration is not backed up by facts.