To truly understand the history of what is now the United States of America, and hence comprehend the country today, one must first grasp the history of its immigrants. Since its formation, the US has promised economic prosperity and cultural freedom to the outside world, drawing people away from the poverty, strife, and oppression of their homelands.
These incomers have shaped American history, forming the backbone of our nation’s economy and sharing ideas which have stimulated our culture, even while suffering discrimination from the “native born” americans. Nowadays, over 41 million immigrants live in the US, and everyone in the country has immigrant ancestry. Behind the genes of every man, woman, and child in this nation is an immigrant who has, in one way or another, impacted the development of the United States. To figure out how to act today, we should first analyze how we have acted previously, and to analyze that, we must first know our American history, a tale inseparably intertwined with immigration. If we in the United States wish to make informed decisions about our future, we must first learn the history of our immigrants in full.The first american immigrants were the nomads who traveled over the Bering Strait from Siberia and into North America 2,000 years ago, the ancestors of what we now consider the Native American population.
Vikings intermingled with these people a bit in the 11th century, but major colonization from another group didn’t take place until the year 1500, when European settlers from Britain, Dutchland, Spain, and Sweden began to immigrate to the “New World.” These settlers came as convicts sentenced to the Americas for being unable to pay their taxes, as followers of Puritanism, Quakerism, Mennonitism, Hugenottism, Judaism, and/or Catholicism seeking to practice their faiths without facing discrimination, and/or as people trying to increase their fortunes by grabbing land on the unexplored frontier. Many of these people, unable to pay for the three month journey by ship, agreed to work as indentured servants for richer colonizers, signing four to seven year contracts in exchange for safe passage, room, and board.
In 1619 though, this kind of labor began to subside as a very different group of immigrants began to arrive, slaves. These people were taken from Africa and the Caribbean islands, then forced to work on the tobacco plantations, building up the colonies’ economies for free. This exploitation helped the British colonize the majority of the East Coast in the early 1700s, at which point trained workers from that country also began to migrate to the area. When 1790 came, Britain had taken control of and was ruling over colonies filled with Europeans and African/Caribbean slaves.However, on July 4th, 1776, those colonies, filled with American immigrants, rebelled from Britain, forming the country known as the United States. From then on until 1820, immigrants continued to come in steady streams from the European countries (mostly British) as colonizers, and from Africa as slaves. Immigration during this time was higher than before, for those seeking political, religious, and economic freedoms now found them aplenty in an individualistic, democratic country, and large numbers of indentured servants were expiring, meaning that masses of slaves had to be brought in to replace them. The majority of non-slave immigrants during this time were white, British, and Protestant, and easily slipped into the American culture, however Jews, Catholics, and freed blacks, being seen as different, faced mild discrimination.
All immigrants faced political discrimination from the dominant Federalists thought, for the party viewed immigrants as dumb and ignorant, passing acts to require that they reside in the country for 12, not five years, to be eligible for citizenship. Immigrant’s real trouble during this time though, wasn’t becoming part of the US, but getting there. All the way from 1806 to 1814, French-British hostilities clogged up the Atlantic Ocean, making any journey to the US difficult and risky. This created a spike in immigration after 1814, for those who had been waiting to travel to the United States could finally come, and the slave trade ban of 1808 meant that jobs were opening up fast enough to support them. Unfortunately, the large numbers which followed overcrowded ships, inviting in malnutrition and diseases which slaughtered most travelers. This forced Congress to pass laws ordering ship-keepers to keep track of and maintain decent standards of living for their passengers. Soon however, those laws became unnecessary, for the development of clipper ships allowed captains to handle the crowds with ease. Paralleling this invention was the beginning of industrialization, which drove a whole new group of people to the United States.
From 1820-1880, immigrants poured into the US from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and China. These people were seeking the economic prosperity the country offered, for they had been replaced by machines or (in the case of the Irish) decimated by famine in their homelands. They also sought to posses the freedoms available in the United States, coming, for example, as Catholic Irish escaping the religious prejudice of the British’ Protestant rule, and as Germans trying to earn a right to vote after the failure of their democratic revolution.
Immigration during this period was significantly higher than before, for the new clipper ships and railroads made transportation to the US easier. Though it temporarily dropped after the Civil War, this Immigration rose back up after the victory of the Union. It wasn’t necessarily met with open arms however. Both before and after the war, cultural differences between the new immigrants and previous British settlers of the first prompted many citizens to subscribe to Nativism. Believing that people born in the US were of superior race to the immigrants, nativists resented the immigrants for their religion, consumption of job positions, participation in labor and socialist groups (which were social taboo), and/or concentration in cities (which went against the Jeffersonian idea of an ideal, rural country). They were politically represented by the Know Nothings (who swore secrecy and responded to all questions by saying, “I know nothing”), a group of politicians who sought to increase the naturalization requirement to 21 years in the US, restrict immigration, and bar foreign born from elected positions. The party was at first successful, and elected six nativist governors, but the opposing Republican party, which believed that immigrants would benefit the country’s economy as they had in the past, took precedence after the Civil War, for the Irish had fought courageously for Union states.
However, discrimination continued in the West, where Chinese immigrants, though composing only 0.002% of the total number of people migrating to the US, were viewed as the “Yellow Peril,” a growing threat which was stealing the country from its rightful, anglo-saxon owners while bringing immorality, cheap labor, bribery, robbery, and drugs into the United States. As a result, laws were passed limiting the Chineses’ ability to work as shopkeepers or laborers.
These laws were topped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted all Chinese immigration to the United States and wouldn’t be repealed until 1943. With it, a wave of immigration began to slow, the first in the United States to openly challenge the country’s ethnic makeup and culture. A whole new type of immigration however, driven by worldwide industrialization, was just getting started.This next phase of US immigration lasted from 1880-1930, drew 23 million immigrants from Asia and South and East Europe, and ended with the lowest immigration levels in our country’s history. The people who came during this wave had been pushed from their country by overpopulation and mechanization (much like those of the previous group) as well as, in the case of the Jews, religious persecution. Companies in the US needed workers, so they drew in the crowds by advertising a land where, “Even the maid’s maids have maids.” Ship-lines using newly-created steamships to export goods from the United States to foreign countries realized they could make extra cash by taking the immigrants on their return voyage, offering package deals where migrants could go to the nearest city, be transported by railroad to a coast town, and boarded onto a ship bound for America. Saving up then spending what little they had, immigrants buying such package deals would find themselves in crowded, sometimes frightening scenarios, for they would be packed up on the train with very little belongings, inspected to make sure they were healthy (shipowners were fined $100 for every immigrant they took to the US which was turned away), doused in antiseptic showers (a very new experience for the rural majority), sardined in a quarantined hotel for three to four days, then dropped into the hold of a steamship, where they would be lucky to get a metal bunk.
For most immigrants, the trip lasted only for a handful of days, and one could escape the sickening conditions of the hold by coming up to the top, but for a few, longer distances and storms made the journey last several terrifying weeks, with seasickness, disease, and limited food making the United States appear an unattainable dream. Many pushed through however, and would cheer when they saw either the Statue of Liberty, or, for those arriving on the West Coast, Angel Island. At first, such hopefuls were young men, seeking jobs so as to save up and pay for the crossing over of the second type of immigrants which came during this time, their families.
If either wished to make it to America, they first had to unload from the ship they had crowded together on and pass through one of the two great centers of immigration, Ellis or Angel Island. They would be screened for sickness, insanity, and anarchist and communist attachments, being marked with chalk and redirected for further examination if they were suspected of such. Curable or non-contagious disease meant detainment, anything else prompted expulsion from the country. Interestingly, this strict policy actually actually affected very few (only 2% on Ellis Island), what actually turned people away were foreign policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Gentleman’s agreement with Japan (the United States agreed it would not pass an act which turned away Japanese immigrants, but would turn them away anyways, so as to keep the Japanese influx out without publicly shaming that country). Those who did make it to the US would settle in ethnic sectors of major cities, banding together in ghettos with others from their homeland. They were often discriminated against by renters and employers, who resented their foreign culture, job consumption, and poverty. Since the government turned a blind eye to these practices, immigrants could only get help from churches and ethnic associations.
They had escaped the desperate conditions of their former life though, and were a major part of a bustling nation’s economy, something which was not even a possibility for many after 1914. With the advent of World War 1, people began to view immigrants as possible spies and terrorists, so the huge influx after the war, combined with the Russian Communist Revolution and Red Scare Bombings, caused a revival of the Klu Klux Klan, which targeted Blacks, Catholics, and Jews and rallied for immigration restrictions. This in turn caused the Immigration Quotas Act of 1921 to be passed, limiting annual immigration to 350,000 and placing maximums on the totals from each country, rigged to limit South and East Europeans and completely restrict Asians. With a 1924 revision of the act cutting the annual max to 150,000 and the Great Depression eliminating any reason to come to the United States, by 1930, for the first and only time in history, immigration to the United States was nonexistent.Luckily, with the advent of WW11, US immigration began to return to the playing field. First, growing prosperity in the United States (from the selling of weapons and goods to countries at war) began to attract refugees who had been persecuted by the Nazis. At first, most of these people were turned away by the National Quotas Act, but after the United States began to fight against the Axis Powers, a growing conscience prompted Congress to pass the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, allowing a reasonable (though still small) percentage of the refugees to enter the United States.
Most of these immigrants were quickly absorbed into the country, adding their skills to the work force and war effort, but people were suspicious of those from Germany, Italy, and Japan, fearing them to be spies. As a result, immigrants from the former two were detained for inspection before entering the country, and those from Japan (in fact even those native born Americans with Japanese ancestors), were interned in prison camps until the end of the war (Congress apologized for the cruelty in 1988). After the end of World War Two, immigration rose further as the US began to take in refugees from the Cold War. These immigrants were primarily women, contrary to the makeups of previous inflows, brought to the country as wives of newly wed GIs, joining back up with family who had came to the US during the previous war, and/or coming to take part in the economic boom going on in the United States. As time went on, pro-immigration views spread, until, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, encouraged by the public, signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act into law, and eliminated the National Quotas.This signing marked the beginning of a gargantuan wave of US immigration which continues to this day. More than 30 million legal immigrants have come during this wave, pouring into the US from Asia and Latin America to escape overcrowding, poverty, civil war, Communism, and government repression. 8-20 million others have become undocumented residents by crossing over the Mexican border or coming to the United States on temporary visas, then staying permanently.
These huge numbers have been created by the terms of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Instead of limiting the number of immigrants from certain countries, the act allows people who are reuniting with their families, have specialized skills needed by the US, or were fleeing their home countries as refugees to enter the United States and work to become registered citizens. The act also eliminates the need for a center of immigration in the United States, as it requires that migrants be processed in their home country to receive visas. These properties allow for chain immigration, since immigrants can send one qualified member of their family to the United States to become a citizen, then emigrate by family relation to the US at a later date. The large crowds which this has generated have been handled by the recent development of the airplane, which distributes immigrants across the US. A large number of poor, unskilled farmers from Latin America who can’t get registered as refugees though, must instead sneak into the United States if they wish to save their families, as the act doesn’t allow them into the US.
Interestingly, this group is vital to the economy of many states, as it is willing to work the jobs of the very bottom class. In the 80s and 90s, it became the basis of much debate, as the illegal immigrant population was swelling over an estimated 5 million. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1968 sought to deal with the problem by establishing security protocols to keep out further illegal aliens, setting up fines for companies for hiring them, and granting legality to all of the ones in the US at the time of its passing. Since the Immigration and Naturalization Service was underfunded however, the act failed to deter future illegals, it was too easy to get a fake ID, and too costly to inspect workplaces. As a result, illegal immigration continued to climb, and with unemployment high in the early 2000s, the views of many turned against immigration.
Groups such as the “Minutemen” began to guard the Mexican border without jurisdiction, and laws were passed to inspect for, and deport, illegal immigrants. At the federal level, bipartisan groups attempted to pass further immigration reforms (under Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2013), however such attempts collapsed, with the government instead opting to increase border security or work to deport undocumented workers already in the country, actions which have decreased illegal immigration, but torn families apart and left open job spaces which others refuse to fill in the process. Nowadays, discussion on undocumented immigration continue as immigrants both legal and illegal gather in states such as California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. These immigrants have brought ethnic diversity to our country, bringing Muslims and Buddhists, Mexicans and Chinese, Indians and people from the many countries of the Middle East into our country and culture. Still today, their hard work brings economic stability to our country, while their unique ideas keep us pushing towards the future.As these immigrants and the ones before them have moved to the US, equally impactful migrations have also been occurring within the US.
At first, during the 19th century, people populated the West by as they used railroads to get over the mountains and seek out economic prosperity (by participating in the Gold Rush or the cattle industry) and/or cultural freedom (as the Mormons did when they moved to Utah to escape religious persecution). Later, from 1900-1970, industrialization caused the migration of over 10 million people, shifting them to where there labor was needed for the growth of the country. At first, these migrants were laborers from the South who had been pushed from their jobs by farmland mechanization, and decided to seek out work in the new factories of the North and the military bases of the West. Racial tensions in the South also lent to this move, with Jim Crow laws and the KKK helping to push out over 50% of the region’s black population.
These Northern immigrants ended up getting many of the civil rights laws of the 50s passed, for the black majority was recognized as a way to tip what had previously been swing states, causing both parties to vie for their support. A portion of them also helped form the American middle class, as the infrastructure of the North created a small population of educated Blacks which could lead small businesses and work specialized jobs. Towards the earlier end of this migration, the Okies, farmers who had been decimated by the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl (over farming in the Midwest drained all nutrients from the soil), also migrated, moving west to California in search of jobs. Around 20 years after they did this (in the 50s and 60s), wealthier white citizens began to relocate to the suburbs of cities all across the country, for improved transportation was allowing them to get away from degrading infrastructure and minority groups without sacrificing their jobs.
This, of course, created demand in industries such as construction, causing them to grow. Finally, migration began to lead back to the South in the 70s as companies, leaving the North’s high wage demands and taxes, moved out of country and to the South, causing infrastructure, tolerance, and opportunity in the South to increase, and leading retirees (who were seeking warm weather) and job seekers to the region. Nowadays, the newer generations are immigrating back to the cities, renovating them in a process called gentrification.
The final effects of this are hard to determine, but we do know that it, like every phase of immigration before it, will have some far reaching consequences upon our country.The history of immigration, as you have seen, is long and complex, but we must understand it if we wish to comprehend our country today. Every immigrant has changed the United States in their own little way, and immigration as a whole has been essential to our economic and cultural growth. Discussions on these people has always been constant, with the government swinging back and forth on whether to admit certain groups into the United States, today we see this manifest in the discussions on illegal immigration.
One can’t help but notice though, that in the long run, immigration has always had positive effects, building economy, and keeping people thinking, helping to keep our country culturally up to date. Immigration eventually serves to increase the happiness of many, gradually assisting people within the United States while serving as a beacon of hope for many without. Sure, letting more people into the country today may cause a few to lose their jobs, but the available labor will most likely either be grabbed by large corporations, or even better, organize into small businesses led by a newly supported middle class. Furthermore, allowing people to vote who did not previously have the ability would hopefully increase voter turnout, making political elections harder to corrupt and keeping the power with the people of America. We have seen that in the entire history of the United States of America, allowing immigration has always benefited us in some way or another. It is clear that, despite our apprehensions about those different from us, we should allow immigration whenever possible.