With the border wall becoming the Holy Grail for the Trump administration, there has been much debate about immigration in the United States. As before, I am not writing about modern immigration policy, but I want to comment on the often repeated phrase that America has always been open to immigrants and so what Trump is doing is un-American. Yes, America is a nation of immigrants, but that does not mean they were always welcomed. This piece is not meant to condone or condemn immigration, only to clear up any misconceptions and give the historical truth.
In the nation’s first century, immigration was open and encouraged, not for any high multicultural ideals, but as human capital to increase American’s growing industrialization. But even then, not everyone was happy about the open immigration policy. Between the fall of the Whig Party and the creation of the Republicans in the 1840s and 1850s, one of the largest political parties in the nation was the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed immigration, especially from Catholics. The party received its name because it started as a secret society and, when asked about their organization, said, “I know nothing.”
Congress got involved in restricting immigration in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese labor was replaced by Japanese and other Asian workers until 1917, when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, barring all Asians from entering the country. The Act also prevented Asians from obtaining citizenship. The 1917 Act officially banned the Japanese, but in 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt had already practically banned many Japanese with an executive order restricting any immigration from Hawaii. Yes, Obama and Trump were not the first to use executive orders for immigration.
The 1917 Act was the most restrictive act to date. On top of preventing Asian immigrants, it also created literacy requirements as a way of excluding those from less educated areas of Eastern and Southern Europe. Lastly, it gave a list of those deemed undesirable, including criminals, diseased, and anarchists. It may seem natural to restrict categories like criminals, but surprisingly we had not been doing it before. The change by 1917 was that the nation no longer needed as many immigrants. Technological advances were more important than human capital. Henry Ford and the assembly line made it so we did not need as many workers.
By 1924, the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act brought even more restrictive measures. Johnson-Reed established numerical limits on immigration based on race and nationality. It then ranked the immigrants based on desirability. The quota system was based on national and ethnic origins of those already in America and deemed that immigrants from those areas would better integrate into American culture. So countries like Great Britain received a quota of 65,721 and Germany 25,957 based on the census, while most nations received only 100 possible immigrants. However, while the 1924 Act allowed nations like China and Japan 100 each, Asians were not allowed citizenship so were denied entrance.
With new immigration restrictions, the idea of illegal aliens was born, which gave rise to new deportation laws. Many critics felt that deportation laws were immoral, especially when it separated families. As I have said in previous columns, I am not condoning separating families, only that this is an argument that goes as far back as the 1920s.It did not start with the Trump presidency.
Interestingly, not all nations fell under quota restrictions, including, most notably, Mexico and the Philippines. The 1924 Act did give quotas to countries in North America, meaning Mexicans were exempt. Many Mexicans already lived in the U.S. and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, conquered Mexicans were given citizenship. Also under the 1924 Act, Mexicans were excluded from immigration based on race because they were officially considered white at the time. However, the real reason for Mexican immigration was that American farmers needed laborers.
As for Filipinos, they were colonial subjects and so were also exempt from immigration restrictions. Americans justified colonizing the Philippines as a part of Manifest Destiny. We thought we could give them a better life if they copied us, but changed our tune when they immigrated to the U.S. and demanded better wages and danced with our women.
Mexican labor proved much more acceptable, with the idea that most would return home after growing seasons. It was not until the depression, when jobs became scarce, that problems arose between whites and Mexicans. With growing resentment, whites created labor contracts with Mexicans, called bracero programs, as well as Jim Crow type restrictions.
Immigration arguments are as old as America. The John Adams’ administration saw restrictions in citizenship. When we needed the labor, we have always been open to immigration, but shut it down when it was seen as taking jobs from Americans. The arguments we are hearing now are not new, but immigrants are being used in our current political climate as political pawns. As always the answer is studying the past to see what has worked or not and then to make arguments about immigration, but being sure to make them accurately.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.