United States Immigration History 1820-2005

Watchdog Vigilance Home Page

Lessons learned from the history of voluntary immigration to the United States from 1820 to 2005 should guide the public servants in our U.S. Congress as they consider immigration reforms.

The content of this web page is arranged under the following headings:
1. Irish American Immigration 1820-1900
2. German American Immigration 1830-1900
3. Immigration Impact 1840-1860
4. Immigration Impact 1860-1920
5. Polish, Italian & Jewish Immigration 1870-1920
6. Chinese American Immigration
7. Japanese American Immigration
8. Filipino American Immigration
9. Puerto Rican Immigration
10. Immigration Impact 1917-1929
11. World War II Immigration Impact
12. Vietnamese American Immigration
13. Latino American Immigration
14. Immigration Impact 1965-2005
15. LESSONS LEARNED
    15.A. Immigration Reasons, Initial Employment, Immigration Progress & Economic Impact
    15.B. Immigrant Assimilation
    15.C. Nativist Prejudices
    15.D. Job Fears
    15.E. Immigration Public Policy Decisions Summary

NOTE: The primary source of information on this web page is the fourteenth Advanced Placement edition of “The American Pageant: A History of the American People.”

1. Irish American Immigration 1820-1900

Virtually unrestricted immigration in the century preceding 1921 brought some 35 million newcomers to the United States – mostly from Europe. It should be noted that the total United states population increased from 9,638,453 in 1820 to 106,021,537 in 1920. Therefore, immigration was crucial to the growth in the United States population during this time period.

Before 1840 immigrants had been coming to the United States at a rate of sixty thousand a year, but suddenly the influx tripled in the 1840s and then quadrupled in the 1850s. During these two decades over a million and a half Irish immigrated to the United States.

Irish Immigration to the Unites States increased significantly between 1840 and 1900 as follows:
   207,381 during 1831-1840
   780,719 during 1841-1850
   914,119 during 1851-1860
   435,778 during 1861-1870
   436,871 during 1871-1880
   655,482 during 1881-1890
   388,416 during 1891-1900
3,818,766 TOTAL 1830-1900

These Irish immigrants – too poor to move west and buy the necessary land, livestock, and equipment – congregated in the larger seaboard cities, particularly Boston and New York. They were forced to live in the squalor of already vile slums. They were scorned by the older American stock, especially “proper” Protestant Bostonians, who regarded the scruffy Catholic arrivals as a social menace.

Barely literate “ Biddies” (Bridgets) took jobs as kitchen maids. Broad-shouldered “Paddies” (Patricks) were pushed into pick-and-shovel drudgery on canals and railroads, where thousands left their bones as victims of disease and accidental explosions. It was said that an Irishman lay buried under every railroad tie. It must be noted that many of the Irish immigrants in railroad construction gangs had fought in Union armies during the Civil War.

As wage-depressing competitors for jobs, the Irish were hated by native workers. “No Irish Need Apply” was a sign commonly posted at factory gates and was often abbreviated to NINA. The Irish, for similar reasons, fiercely resented the African Americans with whom they shared society’s basement. Race riots between African American and Irish dockworkers flared up in several port cities, and the Irish were generally cool to the abolitionist cause at the time of the Civil War.

The Irish tended to remain in low-skill occupations but gradually improved their lot, usually by acquiring modest amounts of property. The education of children was cut short as families struggled to save money to purchase a home. Irish immigrants began to gain control of powerful city political machines, notably Tammany Hall, and reaped the patronage rewards. Before long, Irishmen dominated police departments in many big cities.

2. German American Immigration 1830-1900

Before 1840 immigrants had been flowing in at a rate of sixty thousand a year, but suddenly the influx tripled in the 1840s and then quadrupled in the 1850s. During these two decades nearly a million and a half Germans immigrated to the United States.

German immigration to the United States increased significantly between 1840 and 1900 as follows:
   152,454 during 1831-1840
   434,626 during 1841-1850
   951,667 during 1851-1860
   787,468 during 1861-1870
   718,182 during 1871-1880
1,452,970 during 1881-1890
   505,152 during 1891-1900
5,000,519 TOTAL 1830-1900

The bulk of refugees from Germany between 1830 and 1860 were uprooted farmers who were displaced by crop failures and other hardships, but some were liberal political refugees. Many of the Germanic newcomers possessed a modest amount of material goods, and most of them pushed out to the lush lands of the Middle West – notably Wisconsin, where they settled and established model farms. German immigrants also built agricultural colonies in Texas and religious communities in Pennsylvania.

Germans had fled from the militarism and wars of Europe, and consequently came to be a bulwark of isolationist sentiment in the upper Mississippi Valley. Others, particularly Jews, Pietists, and Anabaptist groups like the Amish and Mennonites, coveted religious freedom.

Better educated on the whole than many Americans, Germans warmly supported public schools including their Kindergarten (children’s garden). As outspoken champions of of freedom, they became relentless enemies of slavery during the years before the Civil War. Yet the Germans – often dubbed “damned Dutchmen” – were occasionally regarded with suspicion by their old-stock American neighbors. Seeking to preserve their language and culture, they sometimes settled in compact “colonies” and kept aloof from the surrounding community. Their Old World drinking habits spurred advocates of temperance in the use of alcohol to redouble their reform efforts.

3. Immigration Impact 1840-1860

The arrival of so-called Irish and German immigrant “rabble” in the 1840s and 1850s inflamed the prejudices of American “nativists,” as many old-stock Protestants were called. They feared that these foreigners would outbreed, outvote, and overwhelm the old “native” stock. Not only did the newcomers take jobs from nativist Americans, but most of the immigrant Irish and a substantial minority of the Germans were Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome was still widely regarded by many old-line Americans as a “foreign” church; convents were commonly referred to as “popish brothels.”

Seeking to protect their children from Protestant indoctrination in the public schools, Roman Catholics began in the 1840s to construct an entirely separate Catholic educational system. Older-stock Americans professed to believe that in due time the “alien riffraff” would establish the Catholic Church to the detriment of Protestantism and would introduce “popish idols.” Even uglier was occasional mass violence such as the 1844 flare-up in Philadelphia where two Catholic churches were burned and thirteen citizens killed in several days of fighting between Irish Catholics and nativists.

In 1849 the most strident American nativists formed the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which soon developed into the formidable American Party (more commonly known as the Know-Nothing party due to its secretiveness). Nativists agitated for rigid restrictions on immigration and naturalization and for laws authorizing the deportation of alien paupers. They also promoted a lurid literature of exposure, much of it pure fiction such as nuns secretly burying babies. The slogan was adopted that “Americans Must Rule America.”

The vigorous growth of the American economy in these years both attracted immigrants in the first place and ensured that, once arrived, they could claim their share of American wealth without jeopardizing the wealth of others. Their hands and brains, in fact, helped fuel economic expansion. Immigrants and the American economy, in short, needed one another.

4. Immigration Impact 1860-1920

Over 800,000 newcomers arrived between 1861 and 1865, most of them British, Irish, and German. Large numbers of them were induced to enlist in the Union army. Altogether, about one-fifth of the Union forces in the Civil War were foreign-born. For more than a decade after the Civil War, many recent immigrants served in the U.S. Army during the warfare with the Plains Indians in various parts of the West.

The breakdown of immigration from 1871 through 1920 was as follows:
1871-1880
    1,593,000 from primarily England, Ireland, and Germany
    181,000 from primarily Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia
1881-1890
    2,753,000 from primarily England, Ireland, and Germany
    926,000 from primarily Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia
1891-1900
    1,110,000 from primarily England, Ireland, and Germany
    1,847,000 from primarily Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia
1901-1910
    1,069,000 from primarily England, Ireland, and Germany
    5,789,000 from primarily Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia
1911-1920
    540,000 from primarily England, Ireland, and Germany
    2,928,000 from primarily Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia

In each of the three decades from the 1850s through the 1870s, more than 2 million migrants had stepped onto America’s shores. By the 1880s more than 5 million cascaded into the country. Until the 1880s most immigrants had come from the British Isles and Western Europe, chiefly Germany and Ireland. In the 1880s the character of the immigration stream changed. The so-called New Immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe. Among them were Italians, Jews, Croats, Slovaks, Greeks, and Poles. These new people totaled only 19 percent of the inpouring immigrants in the 1880s, but they constituted 66 percent of the total inflow by the first decade of the twentieth century. These New Immigrants lived together in “Little Italys” and “Little Polands” in cities like New York and Chicago.

Native-born Americans blamed the New Immigrants for the degradation of urban government where immigrant votes were secured by political bosses in return for jobs, housing, and other services. Some trade unionists assailed the alien arrivals for their willingness to work for “starvation” wages as strikebreakers and for importing in their intellectual baggage such seemingly dangerous doctrines as socialism, communism, and anarchism.

Antiforeignism, or “nativism,” earlier touched off by the Irish and German arrivals in the 1840s and 1850s, resurfaced in the 1880s with fresh ferocity. Nativists viewed the eastern and southern Europeans as culturally and religiously exotic hordes and often gave them a rude reception. Their high birthrate raised worries that the original Anglo-Saxon stock would soon be outbred and outvoted. Still more horrifying was the prospect of being mongrelized by a mixture of “inferior” southern European blood and that the fairer Anglo-Saxon types would disappear.

The American Protective Association (APA), an antiforeign organization, was created in 1887 and soon claimed a million members. In pursuing its nativist goals, the APA urged voting against Roman Catholic candidates for office and sponsored the publication of lustful fantasies about runaway nuns.

Some Americans revived old nativist fears that these New Immigrants would not, or could not, assimilate to life in their new land. The U.S. Congress passed the first immigration restrictive law in 1882, returning paupers, criminals, and convicts to their native lands at the expense of greedy or careless steamship operators. In later years other federal laws lengthened the list of undesirable immigrants to include the insane, polygamists, prostitutes, alcoholics, anarchists, and people carrying contagious diseases. A literacy test was enacted in 1917.

It should be noted that the U.S. steel industry was built at this time largely on the sweat of low-priced immigrant labor from southern and eastern Europe, working in two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

5. Polish, Italian & Jewish Immigration 1870-1920

Between 1870 and World War I, some 2 million Polish-speaking peasants boarded steamships bound for the United States. The first wave of Polish immigrants, driven from their homeland in part by the anti-Catholic policies that the German imperial government pursued in the 1870s, established a thriving network of self-help and fraternal associations organized around Polish Catholic parishes. Most of the Poles arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth century headed for booming industrial cities such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. In 1907, four-fifths of the Polish men toiled as unskilled laborers in coal mines, meatpacking factories, textile and steel mills, oil refineries, and garment-making shops. Although married women usually stayed home and contributed to the family’s earnings by taking in laundry and boarders, children and single girls often joined their fathers and brothers on the job.

Between 1880 and 1920, four million immigrants came to the United States from the southern provinces of Italy. These immigrant Italians, who had mostly been peasant farmers, were primarily young men that settled in large cities within tight-knit communities. They typically earned a living as industrial laborers – most famously as longshoremen and construction workers. Many Italian immigrants sent their children off to work as early as possible. However, after serving heroically in World War II, many then availed themselves of the GI Bill to finance the college educations and professional training their immigrant forebears had lacked.

Jews had experienced city life in Europe – a circumstance that made them virtually unique among the New Immigrants. Many of them brought their urban skills of tailoring or shopkeeping to American cities. Destitute and devout, eastern European Jews were frequently given a frosty reception not only by old-stock Americans but also by those German Jews who had arrived decades earlier and prospered in the United States, some as garment manufacturers who now employed their coreligionists as cheap labor.

6. Chinese American Immigration

The breakdown of Chinese immigration from 1850 through 2000 was as follows:
    1850 to 1860 = 41,397
    1860 to 1870 = 64,301
    1870 to 1880 = 123,201
    1880 to 1890 = 61,711
    1890 to 1900 = 14,799
    1960 to 1970 = 34,764
    1970 to 1980 = 124,326
    1980 to 1990 = 346,747
    1990 to 2000 = 419,114

Between 1850 and 1900 more than 300,000 Chinese had entered the United States to contribute their muscle to building the West, mining minerals from stubborn rock, and helping to lay the transcontinental railroads that stitched together the American nation. Some 10,000 Chinese railroad laborers proved to be cheap, efficient, and expendable (hundreds lost their lives in premature explosions and other mishaps). Most of these immigrants were unskilled country folk.

Chinese workers made up nearly a quarter of California’s manual laborers by 1860, even though they were only a tenth of the population. Of the very few Chinese women who ventured to California at this time, most became prostitutes – many of them had been deceived by the false promise of honest jobs.

Employers nationwide viewed the Chinese as cheap labor, recruiting them to cut sugar cane in the South and break strikes in New England shoe factories. “Chinatowns” sprang up wherever economic opportunities presented themselves – in railroad towns, farming villages, and cities. Chinese in these settlements spoke their own language, enjoyed the fellowship of their own compatriots, and sought safety from prejudice and violence. An example of prejudice was that the National Labor Union (1866-1872), which was one of the earliest national-scale American labor unions, excluded Chinese Americans.

A treaty negotiated with China in 1868 by the American diplomat Anson Burlingame guaranteed important civil right to Chinese immigrants. Mounting anti-Chinese agitation forced the repudiation of this Burlingame Treaty in 1880.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred nearly all Chinese from the United States for six decades and sharply reduced the Chinese population in the United States. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 prohibited American employers from recruiting and importing foreign laborers by promising them jobs on arrival in America – this law targeted primarily Chinese immigrants on the East and West coasts who worked for lower wages than those demanded by unionized American citizens.

Some exclusionists tried to strip native-born Chinese Americans of their citizenship, but the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the United States. This doctrine of “birthright citizenship” (or jus soli, the “right of the soil,” as contrasted with jus sanguinis, the “right of blood-tie,” which based citizenship on the parents’ nationality) provided important protections to Chinese Americans as well as to other immigrant communities.

Early Chinese immigrants suffered from discrimination, eking out their living in jobs despised by Caucasian laborers or taking daunting risks in small entrepreneurial ventures. Yet many hard-working Chinese did manage to open their own restaurants, laundries, and other small businesses. These enterprises formed a solid economic foundation when a liberalization of American immigration laws and Chinese policies in the 1970s led to a great increase in population of Chinese ancestry in the United States.

7. Japanese American Immigration

In 1884 the Japanese government permitted Hawaiian planters to recruit contract laborers from among displaced Japanese farmers. By the 1890s many Japanese were sailing beyond Hawaii to the ports of Long Beach, San Francisco, and Seattle. Between 1885 and 1924, about 200,000 Japanese migrated to Hawaii, and around 180,000 more ventured to the U.S. mainland. Japanese immigrants to America arrived with more money and better education than their European counterparts. In Hawaii most Japanese labored on the vast sugar cane plantations. On the mainland they initially found migratory work on the railroads or in fish, fruit, or vegetable canneries. A separate Japanese economy of restaurants, stores, and boardinghouses soon sprang up in cities to serve the immigrants’ needs.

From such humble beginnings, many Japanese – particularly those on the Pacific coast – quickly moved into farming. As early as 1910, Japanese farmers produced 70 percent of California’s strawberries, and by 1940 they grew 95 percent of the state’s snap beans and more than half of its tomatoes.

Japanese immigrants on the West Coast had long endured racist barbs and social segregation. After the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, a new wave of Japanese immigrants began pouring into the spacious valleys of California. Although Japanese residents never amounted to more than 3 percent of the state’s population, white Californians ranted about a new “yellow peril” and feared being drowned in an Asian sea. Bowing to pressure for immigration restrictions, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 negotiated the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” under which the Japanese government voluntarily agreed to limit immigration. In 1913 the California legislature denied Japanese immigrants already living in the United States the right to own land.

Legally barred from becoming citizens, Japanese immigrants (the “Issei,” from the Japanese word for first) became more determined than ever that their American-born children (the “Nissei,” from the Japanese word for second) would reap the full benefits of their birthright. Japanese parents encouraged their children to learn English, to excel in school, and to get a college education.

Education and cultural assimilation did not protect the Nissei from the hysteria of World War II where the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, under the authorization of Executive Order No. 9066, ordered the forced evacuation of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast – families (two-thirds of them American-born U.S. citizens) had no choice but to pack up whatever they could carry and move to the “relocation centers” hastily erected farther inland. A wave of post-Pearl Harbor hysteria, backed by the long historical swell of anti-Japanese prejudice on the West Coast, temporarily robbed many Americans of their good sense – and their sense of justice. The internment camps deprived these uprooted Americans of dignity and basic rights; the internees also lost hundreds of millions of dollars in property and foregone earnings. More than four decades later, in 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized for its actions and approved the payment of reparations of $20,000 to each camp survivor.

8. Filipino American Immigration

Lessons learned from the history of voluntary immigration to the United States from 1820 to 2005 should guide the public servants in our U.S. Congress as they consider immigration reforms. This particular Watchdog Vigilance E-mail Update primarily focuses on Filipino American immigration.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States found itself in possession of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. With Chinese immigration banned, Hawaii and the Pacific Coast states turned to the Philippines for cheap agricultural labor. Beginning in 1906, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association aggressively recruited Filipino workers. Enlistments grew slowly at first, but by the 1920s thousands of young Filipino men had reached the Hawaiian islands and been assigned to sugar plantations or pineapple fields.

Many Filipinos venturing as far as the American mainland worked seasonally – in winter as domestic servants, busboys, or bellhops; in summer journeying to the fields to harvest lettuce, strawberries, sugar beets, and potatoes. Eventually Filipinos, along with Mexican immigrants, made up California’s agricultural work force.

California and many other states prohibited the marriage of Asians and Caucasians in demeaning laws that remained on the books until 1948. White vigilante groups roamed the Yakima valley in Washington and the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys in California, intimidating and even attacking Filipinos whom they accused of improperly accosting white women.

Filipinos did not become eligible for American citizenship until 1946. The number of Filipinos in the United States nearly doubled between 1950 and 1970. Today the Philippines sends more immigrants to American shores than does any other Asian nation.

9. Puerto Rican Immigration

The Spanish-American War in 1898 landed Puerto Rico in American hands. When the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917, thereby eliminating immigration hurdles, many islanders hurried north to find jobs. Over the ensuing decades, Puerto Ricans went to work in Arizona cotton fields, New Jersey soup factories, and Utah mines. The majority, however, clustered in New York city and found work in the city’s cigar factories, shipyards, and garment industry.

Migration slowed somewhat after the 1920s as the Great Depression shrank the job market on the mainland and as World War II made travel hazardous. When World War II ended in 1945, the sudden advent of cheap air travel sparked an immigration explosion. The Puerto Rican population on the mainland quadrupled between 1940 and 1950, and tripled again by 1960. In 1970, 1.5 million Puerto Ricans lived in the United States (one-third of the island’s total population).

To a far greater degree than most immigrant groups, Puerto Ricans kept one foot in the United States and the other on their native island. This transience worked to keep Puerto Ricans’ educational attainment and English proficiency far below the national average. At the same time, the immigrants encountered a deep-seated racism in America unlike anything on their multiracial island. Throughout the postwar years, Puerto Ricans remained one of the poorest groups in the United States, with a median family income below that of African Americans and Mexican Americans. In recent years Puerto Ricans have attained more schooling and become more politically active, electing growing numbers of congressmen and state and city officials.

10. Immigration Impact 1917-1929

The patriotism of millions of immigrants was hotly questioned in World War I. German Americans numbered over 8 million, counting those with at least one parent foreign-born, out of a total U.S. population of 100 million. On the whole they proved to be dependably loyal to the United States. Yet rumor-mongers were quick to spread tales of spying and sabotage. As emotion mounted, hysterical hatred of Germans and things Germanic swept the nation. Both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 reflected current fears about Germans and anti-war Americans. Especially visible among the nineteen hundred prosecutions pursued under these laws were antiwar Socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World. Some critics claimed the new laws were bending, if not breaking, the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment. But in Schenck v. United States (1919) the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed their legality, arguing that freedom of speech could be revoked when such speech posed a “clear and present danger” to the nation. A few victims prosecuted under the laws remained behind bars into the 1930s. The prosecutions form an ugly chapter in the history of American civil liberty.

Isolationist America of the 1920s had little use for the immigrants who came to the country after World War I. Some 800,000 stepped ashore in 1920-1921, about two-thirds of them from southern and eastern Europe. Many of the most recent arrivals, including the Italians, Jews, and Poles, lived in isolated enclaves with their own houses of worship, newspapers, and theaters – a patchwork of ethnic communities in the 1920s were separated from each other and from the larger society by language, religion, and customs. The “one-hundred percent Americans” cried that the famed poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty was all too literally true; they claimed that a sickly Europe was indeed vomiting on America “the wretched refuse of its teeming shore.”

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted newcomers from Europe in any given year to a quota set at 3 percent of the people of their nationality who had been living in the United States in 1910.

The Immigration Act of 1924 changed the quotas for foreigners to 2 percent of the people of their nationality living in the United States in 1890. Southern Europeans bitterly denounced the Act as unfair and discriminatory – a triumph for the “nativist” belief that blue-eyed and fair-haired northern Europeans were of better blood. The purpose was clearly to freeze America’s existing racial composition, which was largely northern European. A section of the Act also slammed the door absolutely against Japanese immigrants. Exempt from the quota system were Canadians and Latin Americans, whose proximity made them easy to attract for jobs when times were good and just as easy to send back home when they were not.

The Immigration Act of 1929 used 1920 as the 2 percent quota base and virtually cut immigration in half by limiting the total to 152,574 a year.

A new Ku Klux Klan mushroomed fearsomely in the early 1920s. Despite the familiar sheets and hoods, it more closely resembled the antiforeign “nativist” movements of the 1850s than the antiblack nightriders of the 1860s. It was antiforeign, anti-Catholic, antiblack, anti-Jewish, antipacifist, anti-Communist, anti-internationalist, antirevolutionist, antibootlegger, antigambling, anti-adultery, and anti-birth control. It was also pro-Anglo-Saxon, pro-“native” American, and pro-Protestant. In short, the besheeted Klan was an extremist, ultraconservative uprising against many of the forces of diversity and modernity that were transforming American culture. The KKK was an alarming manifestation of the intolerance and prejudice plaguing people anxious about the dizzying pace of social change in the 1920s. One brutal slogan was “Kill the Kikes, Koons, and Katholics.” At its peak in the 1920s, the KKK claimed about 5 million dues-paying members and wielded potent political influence. This reign of hooded horror, so repulsive to the best American ideals, collapsed rather suddenly in the late 1920s.

11. World War II Immigration Impact

When the United States suddenly found itself at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan in December 1941, noncitizen German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants became “enemy aliens” and were required to register with the authorities. Several hundred resident Germans and Italians were detained in internment camps, but the harshest treatment was meted out to the Japanese, some 110,000 of whom (noncitizens and citizens alike) were eventually interned.

Nevertheless, millions of Italian Americans and German Americans loyally supported the nation’s war program – World War II actually speeded the assimilation of many ethnic groups into American Society. Also, the loyalty and combat record of Japanese Americans proved to be admirable. However, only 150,000 Jews, mostly Germans and Austrians, found refuge in the United States during World War II.

Because of manpower shortages during World War II, an agreement with Mexico in 1942 brought thousands of Mexican agricultural workers (called braceros) across the border to harvest the fruit and grain crops of the West. The Bracero program outlived the war by some twenty years, becoming a fixed feature of the agricultural economy in many western states. President Eisenhower responded to the Mexican government’s worries that illegal Mexican immigration to the United States would undercut the Bracero program of legally imported farmworkers. In a massive roundup of illegal immigrants, dubbed Operation Wetback in reference to the migrants’ watery route across the Rio Grande, as many as 1 million Mexicans were apprehended and returned to Mexico in 1954.

12. Vietnamese American Immigration

Before South Vietnam fell in 1975, few Vietnamese ventured across the Pacific. However, the war-weary Vietnamese were at the forefront of new immigration in the 1960s, so much so that in 1966 the U.S. Immigration authorities designated “Vietnamese” as a separate category of newcomers.

Most of the early Vietnamese immigrants were the wives and children of U.S. Servicemen. In a few hectic days in 1975, some 140,000 Vietnamese escaped before the approaching communist gunfire. From Saigon they were conveyed to military bases in Guam and the Philippines. Another 60,000 less fortunate Vietnamese escaped at the same time over land and sea to Hong Kong and Thailand, where they waited nervously for permission to move on.

To accommodate the refugees, the U.S. government set up camps across the United States. Arrivals were crowded into army barracks affording little room and less privacy. A rigorous program trained the Vietnamese in English, and children were forbidden from from speaking their native language in the classroom. The refugees were dispersed to Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, and California. But the settlement sites, many of them tucked away in rural districts, offered scant economic opportunities. The immigrants, who had held mainly skilled or white-collar positions in Vietnam, bristled as they were herded into menial labor. As soon as they could, they relocated to established Vietnamese enclaves around San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Soon a second contingent of Vietnamese immigrants pushed into these Little Saigons. Usually less educated than the first arrivals and receiving far less resettlement aid from the U.S. government, they were more willing to start at the bottom. Today these two groups total more than half a million people.

13. Latino American Immigration

Latinos, among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, include:
(a) Mexicans;
(b) Puerto Ricans – frequent voyagers between their native island and northeastern cities;
(c) Cubans – many of them refugees from the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro, concentrated in Miami and southern Florida;
(d) Central Americans – fleeing the ravages of civil war in Nicaragua and El Salvador;
(e) South Americans; and
(f) people from the Caribbean.

The sources of Latino population in the United States in 2000 were 20.6 million Mexicans, 3.4 million Puerto Rican, 1.2 million Cuban, and 10.1 million Central or South American and other Latino.

The first significant numbers of Mexicans began heading for El Norte (“the North”) around 1910, when the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution stirred and shuffled the Mexican population into more or less constant flux. Their northward passage was briefly interrupted during the Great Depression, when thousands of Mexican nationals were deported. But immigration resumed during World War II, and since then a steady flow of legal immigrants has passed through border checkpoints – joined by countless millions of their undocumented countrymen and countrywomen stealing across the frontier on moonless nights.

For the most part, these Mexicans came to work in the fields, following the ripening crops northward to Canada through the summer and autumn months. In winter many headed back to Mexico, but some gathered instead in the cities of the Southwest ( El Paso, Los Angeles, Houston, and San Bernardino) where they had the chance to join a mutualista mutual aid society. They found regular work in the cities, even if the lack of skills and racial discrimination often confined them to manual labor. Relatively few Mexican immigrants became U.S. citizens, and it was a badge of dishonor in many Mexican American communities to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Since 1965, the Southwest felt the Latino immigrant impact especially sharply as Mexican migrants concentrated heavily in that region. By 2000, Latinos made up nearly one-third of the population in Texas, Arizona, and California and 40 percent in New Mexico. Latinos became the nation’s largest ethnic minority, outnumbering even African Americans, in 2003.

Since World War II, the American-born Latino generation has carried on a fight for political representation, economic opportunity, and cultural preservation.

14. Immigration Impact 1965-2005

Congress abolished the national-origins quota system, which had been in place since 1921, with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation capped the level of immigration at 170,000 per year but made exceptions for children, spouses, and parents of persons already arrived – these “family unification” exceptions totaled more then 100,000 additional persons per year in the decades after 1965. It also restricted immigration from any single country to 20,000 people per year, while for the first time setting limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere at 120,000. The sources of immigration shifted heavily from Europe to Latin America and Asia, changing the racial and ethnic composition of the American population.

U.S. immigrants numbered nearly one million persons per year from the 1980s into the early twenty-first century – the largest inflow of immigrants in America’s experience. Europe still contributed far fewer people than did Asia and Latin America. And unlike their predecessors, many of the new immigrants settled not only in traditional ethnic enclaves in cities and towns but also in the sprawling suburbs of places like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta where many of the new jobs were to be found.

Although some of these new immigrants found their way into middle-class jobs with skills and professional degrees, most came with fewer skills and less education seeking work as janitors, nannies, farm laborers, lawn cutters, or restaurant workers.

Asian Americans were America’s fastest-growing minority by the 1980s, with their numbers reaching nearly 12 million by 2002. Once feared and hated as the “yellow peril” and consigned to the most menial and degrading jobs, citizens of Asian ancestry were now counted among the most prosperous Americans.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 attempted to choke off illegal entry by penalizing employers of undocumented aliens and by granting “amnesty” to many of those already here. The amnesty provisions of this 1986 Act resulted in 478,814 people being granted permanent residence status in 1989; 880,372 people in 1990; and 1,123,162 people in 1991.

The Immigration Act of 1990 limited the annual number of immigrants to 700,000. It also emphasizes that family reunification is the main immigration criterion, in addition to employment-related immigration.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 vastly changed the immigration laws of the United States. Previously, immediate deportation was triggered only for offenses that could lead to five years or more in jail. Under this 1996 Act, minor offenses such as shoplifting may make individuals eligible for deportation. The Act states that immigrants unlawfully present in the United States for 180 days but less than 365 days must remain outside the United States for three years unless they obtain a pardon. If they are in the United States for 365 days or more, they must stay outside the United States for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. If they return to the United States without the pardon, they may not apply for a waiver for a period of ten years. Among other things, the Act also explicitly gave the Attorney General broad authority to construct barriers along the US-Mexico border.

Foreign-born people accounted for only about 12.1 percent of the American population in 2005, a smaller proportion than the historical high point of nearly 15 percent recorded in the census of 1910. Critics charged both that immigrants robbed citizens of jobs and that they dumped themselves on the welfare rolls at the taxpayers’ expense. But studies showed that immigrants took jobs scorned by Americans and that they paid more dollars in federal taxes (withholding and Social Security taxes, as well as excise taxes) than they claimed for welfare payments. The story was different at the state level, where expenditures for immigrant education and health care often exceeded the net tax contribution of the immigrants themselves. Yet the inclusion of young immigrants and their offspring was just what the country needed when faced with the challenges of an aging population.

15. LESSONS LEARNED

The history of voluntary immigration to the United States from 1820 to 2005 included regrettable public policy decisions that responded to the misinformed fears of some Americans who acted on “nativist” prejudices.

15.A. Immigration Reasons, Initial Employment, Immigration Progress & Economic Impact

IMMIGRATION REASONS. Reasons for immigration included economic hardships, political differences, and religious persecution.

INITIAL EMPLOYMENT. Most new immigrants were poor, and a lack of skills and discrimination limited them initially to employment as laborers in low-skilled occupations. However, some new hard-working immigrants established their own family farms, restaurants, and other small businesses. Furthermore, some new immigrants with skills and professional degrees found their way into middle-class jobs.

IMMIGRANT PROGRESS. Most new immigrants were poorly educated, and many sent their children off to work as early as possible. Roman Catholic immigrants began in the 1840s to construct a Catholic educational system. After serving heroically in World War II, many immigrants availed themselves of the GI Bill to finance the college educations and professional training their forebears had lacked. More immigrant parents began to encourage their children to learn English, excel in school, and get a college education. Most immigrants gradually improved their lot, usually by acquiring modest amounts of property and achieving some degree of political influence.

ECONOMIC IMPACT. Immigration was an important factor in United States population growth, thereby helping grow the American economy. The inclusion of young immigrants and their offspring was often just what the country needed when faced with the challenges of an aging population. The vigorous growth of the American economy generally attracted immigrants while enabling them to claim their share of American wealth without jeopardizing the wealth of others. Immigrants made up a significant portion of the manual labor market in several states. Immigrant hands and brains were mostly cheap and efficient, and helped build the canal, cannery, child care, construction, garment-making, hotel, landscaping, meatpacking, mining, oil refinery, railroad, restaurant, shipyard, steel, and textile industries. Migrant and plantation laborers were important to the agricultural economy in many states. Immigrants and the American economy, in short, needed one another.

15.B. Immigrant Assimilation

Seeking to preserve their language and culture, new immigrants sometimes settled within tight-knit communities in large cities such as Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Pittsburgh, San Bernardino, and San Francisco. Other new immigrants lived in enclaves that sprang up wherever economic opportunities presented themselves, such as railroad towns and farming villages. Many of the new 1980s immigrants settled not only in traditional ethnic enclaves in cities and towns but also in the sprawling suburbs of places like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta where many of the new jobs were to be found.

New immigrants often established a thriving network of self-help and fraternal associations organized around churches expressing their religious beliefs. Seeking safety from “nativist” prejudice and violence, they frequently spoke their own language, enjoyed the fellowship of their own compatriots, patronized their own businesses and boardinghouses, and kept aloof from the surrounding community.

New immigrants appeared to defy the ideal of an American melting pot with their non-Protestant religious affiliations and alien languages. Many in the United States doubted that the newcomers could shed old ways or abandon “un-American” habits, as had the northern and western Europeans who had preceded them. It was feared that these groups could never be turned into citizens who fully accepted Anglo-Saxon economic and political traditions.

However, the loyalty and combat record of immigrants in our armed services speeded the assimilation of many ethnic groups into American Society. About one-fifth of the Union forces in the Civil War were foreign-born. For more than a decade after the Civil War, many recent immigrants served in the U.S. Army during the warfare with the Plains Indians in various parts of the West. Millions of Italian Americans, German Americans, and Japanese Americans loyally supported the nation’s war program in World War II.

In retrospect, nativist fears of successful immigrant assimilation into the American way of life were completely unfounded. Second and subsequent generations of immigrants have always acclimated and embraced American citizenship. Today we wonder why prejudiced nativists questioned the desirability of Irish Americans, German Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Puerto Ricans, Vietnamese Americans, and other American immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

15.C. Nativist Prejudices

The arrival of new immigrants inflamed the prejudices of American “nativists,” as many native-born Protestants were called. Antiforeignism, or “nativism,” earlier touched off by the Irish and German arrivals in the 1840s and 1850s, resurfaced in the 1880s with fresh ferocity.

Chinese and Japanese immigrants endured racist barbs, social segregation, and nativist rants about a “yellow peril.” White vigilante groups in the states of Washington and California intimidated and attacked Filipinos whom they accused of improperly accosting white women. A new Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s was antiforeign and pro-“native” American, anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant, antiblack and pro-Anglo-Saxon, anti-Jewish, antipacifist, anti-Communist, anti-internationalist, antirevolutionist, antibootlegger, antigambling, anti-adultery, and anti-birth control. World War II hysteria led to the misidentification of German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants as “enemy aliens” – several hundred resident Germans and Italians were detained in internment camps, while the long historical swell of anti-Japanese prejudice on the West Coast resulted in the forced internment of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. Puerto Rican immigrants more recently encountered a deep-seated racism in America unlike anything on their multiracial island.

Nativists scorned non-Protestant immigrants as culturally and religiously exotic hordes that were a social menace. Many new immigrants were Roman Catholics, and older-stock Americans often believed that the Catholic Church would be established to the detriment of Protestantism. The American Protective Association, which was created in 1887 and soon claimed a million members, urged voting against Roman Catholic candidates for office and sponsored the publication of fictional fantasies about runaway nuns who secretly buried babies. Eastern European Jews were also frequently viewed with suspicion and subjected to prejudice.

Nativists feared that the high birthrate of new immigrants these would outbreed, outvote, and overwhelm the old “native” Anglo-Saxon stock. The new immigrants were blamed for the degradation of urban government where immigrant votes were secured by political bosses in return for jobs, housing, and other services. New immigrants were also accused of supporting dangerous doctrines such as socialism, communism, and anarchism.

Some nativist fears were simply the result of racism. New immigrants presented the horrifying possibility of America being mongrelized by a mixture of “inferior” blood resulting in the disappearance of the fairer Anglo-Saxon types. The forces of diversity and modernity were transforming American culture, and the dizzying pace of social change prompted the intolerance and prejudice of ill-informed extremists.

In summary, nativist prejudices resulted from fears that new immigrants don’t look like us, talk like us, act like us, and worship like us – thus, they are a threat to us because they are not as good as us. These un-American prejudices must be recognized for what they are, and the public servants now in our U.S. Congress must not be allowed to repeat our past mistakes as they consider immigration reforms.

15.D. Job Fears

Many new immigrants were hated by nativist workers as wage-depressing competitors for jobs. However, lower-wage jobs meant that American consumers benefited from lower costs for goods and services. All Americans wanting higher-wage jobs have always needed to respond to ever-changing economic trends by improving their skills and education to prepare themselves for more rewarding occupations.

Some employers exploited new immigrants willing to work for “starvation” wages to increase monopolistic corporate profits and break strikes. Trade unionists sometimes assailed the alien arrivals, such as the National Labor Union (1866-1872) which excluded Chinese Americans. Eventually, businesses were better regulated to end many abusive labor practices.

New immigrants generally suffered from discrimination, often eking out their living in jobs despised by native Americans or taking daunting risks in small entrepreneurial ventures. Critics charged both that immigrants robbed citizens of jobs and that they dumped themselves on the welfare rolls at the taxpayers’ expense. But studies showed that immigrants took jobs scorned by Americans and that they paid more dollars in federal taxes (withholding and Social Security taxes, as well as excise taxes) than they claimed for welfare payments. The story was different at the state level, where expenditures for immigrant education and health care often exceeded the net tax contribution of the immigrants themselves – but, the American economy in general benefited from healthier and better educated workers and consumers.

15.E. Immigration Public Policy Decisions Summary

The 1868 Burlingame Treaty guaranteed important civil rights to Chinese immigrants. Mounting anti-Chinese agitation forced the repudiation of this Treaty in 1880.

The U.S. Congress passed the first immigration restrictive law in 1882, returning paupers, criminals, and convicts to their native lands at the expense of greedy or careless steamship operators. In later years other federal laws lengthened the list of undesirable immigrants to include the insane, polygamists, prostitutes, alcoholics, anarchists, and people carrying contagious diseases. A literacy test was enacted in 1917. These public policy decisions were made in response to nativist fears that new immigrants would not, or could not, assimilate to American life.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred nearly all Chinese from the United States for six decades and sharply reduced the Chinese population in the United States.

The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 prohibited American employers from recruiting and importing foreign laborers by promising them jobs on arrival in America – this law targeted primarily Chinese immigrants on the East and West coasts who worked for lower wages than those demanded by unionized American citizens.

Some exclusionists tried to strip native-born Chinese Americans of their citizenship, but the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the United States. This doctrine of “birthright citizenship” (or jus soli, the “right of the soil,” as contrasted with jus sanguinis, the “right of blood-tie” which based citizenship on the parents’ nationality) provided important protections to Chinese Americans as well as to other immigrant communities.

Bowing to pressure for immigration restrictions, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 negotiated the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” under which the Japanese government voluntarily agreed to limit immigration.

New Japanese immigrants were legally barred from becoming U.S. citizens.

In 1913 the California legislature denied Japanese immigrants already living in the United States the right to own land.

The U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917.

Both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 reflected World War I fears about Germans and anti-war Americans. Especially visible among the nineteen hundred prosecutions pursued under these laws were antiwar Socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World. In Schenck v. United States (1919) the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of these Acts, arguing that freedom of speech could be revoked when such speech posed a “clear and present danger” to the nation. A few victims prosecuted under the laws remained behind bars into the 1930s.

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted newcomers from Europe in any given year to a quota set at 3 percent of the people of their nationality who had been living in the United States in 1910.

The Immigration Act of 1924 changed the quotas for foreigners to 2 percent of the people of their nationality living in the United States in 1890. The purpose was clearly to freeze America’s existing racial composition in favor of blue-eyed and fair-haired northern Europeans at the expense of southern Europeans. A section of the Act also slammed the door absolutely against Japanese immigrants. Exempt from the quota system were Canadians and Latin Americans, whose proximity made them easy to attract for jobs when times were good and just as easy to send back home when they were not.

The Immigration Act of 1929 used 1920 as the 2 percent quota base and virtually cut immigration in half by limiting the total to 152,574 a year.

At its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan claimed about 5 million dues-paying members and wielded potent political influence. This reign of hooded horror, so repulsive to the best American ideals, collapsed rather suddenly in the late 1920s.

When the United States found itself at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan in December 1941, noncitizen German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants became “enemy aliens” and were required to register with the authorities. Several hundred resident Germans and Italians were detained in internment camps, but the harshest treatment was meted out to the Japanese backed by the long historical swell of anti-Japanese prejudice. Some 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast were forced to evacuate to “relocation centers” hastily erected farther inland. These internment camps deprived these uprooted Americans of dignity and basic rights; the internees also lost hundreds of millions of dollars in property and foregone earnings. In 1988 the U.S. government officially apologized for its actions and approved the payment of reparations of $20,000 to each Japanese camp survivor.

During World War II, only 150,000 Jews fleeing Nazi expansion across Europe (mostly Germans and Austrians) found refuge in the United States because of immigration limits. There was resistance to changing the immigration limits not only from anti-Semitists in the Deep South and West but also from competing urban ethnic groups like the Irish and Italians.

Because of manpower shortages during World War II, an agreement with Mexico in 1942 brought thousands of Mexican agricultural workers (called braceros) across the border to harvest the fruit and grain crops of the West. The Bracero program outlived the war by some twenty years, becoming a fixed feature of the agricultural economy in many western states.

Filipinos did not become eligible for American citizenship until 1946.

California and many other states prohibited the marriage of Asians and Caucasians in demeaning laws that remained on the books until 1948.

President Eisenhower responded to the Mexican government’s worries that illegal Mexican immigration to the United States would undercut the Bracero program of legally imported farmworkers. In a massive roundup of illegal immigrants, dubbed Operation Wetback in reference to the migrants’ watery route across the Rio Grande, as many as 1 million Mexicans were apprehended and returned to Mexico in 1954.

Congress abolished the national-origins quota system (which had been in place since 1921) with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation capped the level of immigration at 170,000 per year but made exceptions for children, spouses, and parents of persons already arrived – these “family unification” exceptions totaled more then 100,000 additional persons per year in the decades after 1965. It also restricted immigration from any single country to 20,000 people per year, while for the first time setting limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere at 120,000. The sources of immigration shifted heavily from Europe to Latin America and Asia, changing the racial and ethnic composition of the American population.

To accommodate the first wave of Vietnamese refugees after South Vietnam fell in 1975, the U.S. government set up camps across the United States. Arrivals were crowded into army barracks affording little room and less privacy. A rigorous program trained the Vietnamese in English, and children were forbidden from from speaking their native language in the classroom. The immigrants, who had held mainly skilled or white-collar positions in Vietnam, bristled as they were herded into menial labor.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 attempted to choke off illegal entry by penalizing employers of undocumented aliens and by granting “amnesty” to many of those already here. The amnesty provisions of this 1986 Act resulted in 478,814 people being granted permanent residence status in 1989; 880,372 people in 1990; and 1,123,162 people in 1991.

The Immigration Act of 1990 limited the annual number of immigrants to 700,000. It also emphasizes that family reunification is the main immigration criterion, in addition to employment-related immigration.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 vastly changed the immigration laws of the United States. Previously, immediate deportation was triggered only for offenses that could lead to five years or more in jail. Under this 1996 Act, minor offenses such as shoplifting may make individuals eligible for deportation. The Act states that immigrants unlawfully present in the United States for 180 days but less than 365 days must remain outside the United States for three years unless they obtain a pardon. If they are in the United States for 365 days or more, they must stay outside the United States for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. If they return to the United States without the pardon, they may not apply for a waiver for a period of ten years. Among other things, the Act also explicitly gave the Attorney General broad authority to construct barriers along the US-Mexico border.

IN SUMMARY, most immigration public policy decisions were the result of prejudiced nativist fears that resulted in agitation for rigid restrictions on immigration and naturalization – and for laws authorizing the deportation of more unlawful immigrants.

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This page was last updated on 12/16/17.