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Rethinking the Last 200 Years of US Immigration Policy
By Aristide Zolberg
The New School University
Conventional histories of US immigration policy generally present the starting point as laissez-faire, or open door, an attitude that only shifted to favor increased restriction after the Civil War. The door began to close with the exclusion of Chinese in the final decades of the 19th century and the imposition of annual quotas for Europeans in the 1920s.
While this timeline indeed highlights important aspects of US immigration policy, it distorts the larger reality. As its title suggests, my book A Nation by Design argues instead that from colonial times onward, Americans actively devised policies and laws that effectively shaped the country's population and hence its overall makeup. In this perspective, the United States is distinct from other overseas nations of European origin where immigration remained largely governed by the imperial governments or, in the case of the precociously independent South American states, hardly governed at all.
Since before the Revolutionary War, in which the country successfully gained its independence from England, Americans not only set conditions for membership but decided quite literally who would inhabit the land. They drove out and ultimately eradicated most of the original dwellers. They actively recruited those considered most suitable, kept out undesirables, stimulated new immigration flows from untapped sources, imported labor, and even undertook the removal of some deemed ineligible for membership.
On the positive side, American policy initially extended well beyond laissez-faire to proactive acquisition, reflected in multiple initiatives to obtain immigrants from continental Europe by insisting on their freedom of exit at a time when population was still regarded as a scarce, valuable resource preciously guarded by territorial rulers.
Such decision-making accounts in large part for the differences characterizing successive immigration waves and for the recurrent waves of nativism that punctuate US immigration history. It also illustrates the persistence of identity-related and economic concerns.
From the economic perspective, immigration is viewed essentially as a source of additional labor, which reduces its price, or at least prevents it from rising; in the case of the highly skilled, it also externalizes the costs of training. Therefore, business interests have been generally supportive of immigration. By the same token, from its inception, organized labor has tended to view immigration as a threat (although unions began to embrace immigrants in the 1970s).
Most labor migration brings in people who differ culturally from the bulk of the established population, as signified by language, religion, and ethnicity, often manifested in phenotypical characteristics. Hence, the tapping of new sources of immigration frequently triggers confrontations in what are now termed "culture wars" between those intent upon preserving the nation's established boundaries of identity and those more tolerant of their broadening, who include the new immigrants themselves and their descendants.
The intersection of these identity and economic concerns explains why, throughout its history, immigration policy in the United States has recurrently opened the door to migrants from one part of the world while shutting the door for migrants from somewhere else. "Strange bedfellow" political dynamics, with alliances straddling the usual "liberal/conservative" divide, have also resulted from identity and economic concerns.
Policies, labor-recruitment strategies, and popular sentiment from various time periods in US history reflect the tensions and unexpected political alliances. This article will highlight only some of those policies and strategies.
Colonial Period to 1860
The colonial settlers were active in the transatlantic slave trade, at least indirectly as the Puritan family farmers turned into Yankee commercial entrepreneurs. Their success was founded on the production of provisions for feeding the slaves and their supervisors in the southern continental and Caribbean colonies. On the mainland itself, the proportion of blacks rose rapidly from five percent of the population in 1660 to 21 percent in 1700.
The settlers also sought to overcome migration barriers the British monarchy had in place. The ability of British subjects to emigrate was tightly controlled, and the British sovereign prohibited the colonies from recruiting foreign settlers.
As formulated in the seventh grievance of the Declaration of Independence: "He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
But many American leaders, notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were also concerned about growing immigration from the German empire, as they considered the German language to be the bearer of a culture incompatible with republican democracy.
The Constitution was also written with migration in mind. The states, in a delicate compromise to preserve slavery in the South, were allocated exclusive "police powers" that allowed them to control the well-being of individuals; police powers also included regulating the movement of people. This constitutional compromise made it impossible to create a comprehensive federal immigration policy.
Americans from the industrializing Northeast pursued their recruitment policy even more vigorously after independence in 1776, seeking to lift European barriers to exit that were commonplace at that time. After independence, the new republic campaigned vigorously in the name of freedom to bring about an "exit revolution" throughout Europe.
From the 1830s on, railroad and shipping companies actively promoted emigration from northern Europe, and, in many cases, the multiplying US consulates functioned in effect as labor-recruiting and land-selling agencies, eventually reaching all the way to remote Norway. Simultaneously, American entrepreneurs enticed newcomers from across Western Europe by way of private missions.
By the 1830s, the "exit revolution" had been achieved, thanks also in part to a population boom in Europe that eliminated government fears of a population shortage. From this perspective, the onset of a huge immigration wave in the 1830s is not attributable merely to "push factors," including such frequently cited conditions as European population growth and the "Irish potato famine." The failure of the potato crop also affected the Low Countries, northern France, and much of Germany and Scandinavia, all of which experienced demographic growth following the introduction of the potato a century earlier.
Immigration of Roman Catholics from new origins — Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the German Rhineland, and the southern part of the Netherlands — challenged the established boundaries of American cultural identity, initially founded on Protestantism. These immigrants were thought to be subject to manipulation by that time period's "ayatollah of Rome." Indeed, the Pope then vehemently condemned republicanism and democracy.
Hence, in the 1830s and 1840s, there were renewed attempts to enact national-level immigration restrictions, which business interests (starting with the shipping companies themselves) successfully defeated by invoking the constitutional doctrine of police powers, repeatedly reasserted by the Supreme Court. The growing preoccupation with ethnic diversity was reflected in the 1850 census, which recorded not only place of birth but the birthplace of parents of native-born Americans.
Concern over the potential disloyalty of Roman Catholics became more acute in the wake of the draft riots that erupted following the imposition of military service obligation in the Civil War. In response, Roman Catholics did Americanize but also elaborated distinct social institutions ranging from parochial schools to universities and hospitals, as well as fraternal organizations.
From the outset, Americans also fiercely opposed the use of their territories as dumping grounds for European undesirables. For example, in a paper read before the Society for Political Enquiries at the house of Benjamin Franklin in 1787, Tench Coxe reminded his audience that "[w]ith a most preposterous policy, the former masters of his country were accustomed to discharge their jails of the vilest part of their subjects, and to transmit ship loads of wretches, too worthless for the old world, to taint and corrupt the infancy of the new."
No longer able to continue this practice, in 1776 the British government housed those awaiting transportation in old ships on the Thames and in southern naval ports, for possible use as labor in public works; however, this proved highly unpopular. Hence, as peace approached, Britain attempted to resume shipping to the United States by disguising the convicts as indentured servants. When this proved impossible in the face of effective American resistance, the authorities settled on remote Botany Bay, Australia, because of its suitability as a naval base, which might be built by convict labor, and the first deportation fleet sailed out three years later.
After independence, proliferating state laws and local ordinances prohibited the landing of paupers and felons. However, these were largely ineffective, as it was quite easy for shippers to dump them in the state next door (e.g., New Jersey instead of New York) to get around regulations and avoid fines. New Jersey did not protest as it was eager to attract the shipping industry and anticipated that the newcomers would move on to New York after landing.
Although the federal government couldn't regulate the movement of people, it had the power to regulate international and interstate trade, including ships that carried people. The first major enactment of this sort was the comprehensive Passenger Act of 1819. Inspired by a pre-independence British official's proposal, it was designed to attract European immigrants of all nationalities who qualified as independent settlers or free workers. The act succeeded in minimizing the dangers of the Atlantic crossing while simultaneously deterring the burdensome poor from embarking by limiting ship capacity, which raised the price of passage.
This federal law, together with state regulations governing ports of entry, created a rudimentary system of "remote control" that allowed the United States to select immigrants by projecting its boundaries into immigrant-source countries.
In addition, a complementary market-oriented land policy made land accessible to settlers of modest means but was simultaneously designed, once again, to keep out the burdensome poor. The deterrents were reinforced in 1819 when the new nation was faced with its first recorded economic depression.
Successive Republican administrations also harnessed American diplomacy to create a new African state (Liberia) that accepted freed slaves — notably from Virginia, the country's key state at the time — and provided incentives for them to do so because they were deemed unsuitable for membership in American society.
Civil War to World War I
After the Civil War ended, in 1865, slavery was abolished. The Civil War constitutional amendments also made it possible to shift immigration regulation from the state to the federal level. Within a single decade, the federal government had decisively taken control of immigration. This shift was a major turning point, but one that has been mistakenly understood as the beginning of US immigration policy.
The 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, defined US citizenship to include all children born on US soil (with some exceptions). Measures that most states favored, but the Supreme Court had previously barred because they fell within the sphere of international trade, became national policy.
Concurrently, in the 1860s, the cost of transatlantic travel underwent a dramatic drop thanks to technological improvements. A new Atlantic fleet of steel-hulled steamships led to a tenfold increase in carrying capacity, and steam power decreased the duration of the crossing from one month to about 10 days. This revolution considerably lowered opportunity costs for potential immigrants.
American and European industrialists and transporters also availed themselves of the expansion of the European railroad network eastward and southward to broaden their sphere of recruitment to include southern and eastern Europeans (many of the latter Jewish).
One consequence of the transportation revolution was the possibility, even for persons of modest means, to temporarily return to their country of origin when not employed, even seasonally in the case of construction workers. The development of cheap newsprint, arising from parallel technological developments, led to a proliferation of newspapers in the immigrants' mother tongues, providing information from "home" and contributing to the formation of what became the typical organization of American society along lines of hyphenated identities.
It is estimated that on the eve of World War I, one-third of European immigrants to the United States returned to their country of origin at least once during their lifetime, and often retired there at the end of their active economic life to take advantage of lower cost of living and the assistance provided by extended families. Polish-Russian Jews were the major exception, undoubtedly because their movement was not solely economic but also represented escape from perennial persecution or at least burdensome discrimination.
When the European flow ebbed in the second half of the 1850s because of the Crimean War, precisely at a moment when the US was experiencing major westward expansion, American entrepreneurs tapped labor reserves in Europe and Asia. In keeping with this trend, President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, pressed Secretary of State William H. Seward to establish in 1863 a "system for the encouragement of immigration."
Seward, a former senator from New York, secured congressional approval of a partnership between the private sector and the national government that imported European workers under conditions that reinstated elements of bondage; these conditions had been eliminated in the early decades of the century because, under the evolving doctrine of human rights and citizenship within Europe as well as the United States, they were considered inappropriate for white people. Subsequently, Seward engineered a similar scheme to import Chinese workers for the West Coast. An essential element for the plan was American diplomatic intervention to persuade the reluctant Chinese imperial authorities to let their people emigrate. Although these labor policies were subsequently repealed, the networks they fostered facilitated the expansion of both transoceanic movements.
In 1894, in search of an additional source of workers for West Coast development, the United States persuaded Japan "to let its people go" by way of a treaty providing for mutual free entry. Some 26,000 Japanese immigrated by the end of the decade and availed themselves of opportunities in commercial agriculture by buying farmlands. After the US acquired Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century, Japanese settled in the islands as well.
Despite the fact that it resulted from American initiatives, the expansion of the sphere of immigration to include "yellow races" on the Pacific side, as well as "not-so-white Europeans" from the south and east on the Atlantic side, prompted a new round of negative reactions from those concerned with maintaining the established boundaries of American identity. The diversity of white immigrants led critics to equate some of the newcomers with the despised Chinese. Also, return movement and the maintenance of links with the country of origin raised a great deal of concern regarding the willingness of "new" immigrants to assimilate. Hence, from the 1880s onward, the vast increase and growing heterogeneity of the immigrants once again precipitated a "crisis."
With regard to the Chinese, the cultural protectionists triumphed early on, first by effectively excluding Chinese females in 1895. This was seen as a way to prevent the birth of American citizens to Chinese parents. Eventually, all immigration from China was successfully banned.
The fast-growing flow of Japanese immigrants quickly set off negative reactions, signaled by the formation of a Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in 1905. Tensions were exacerbated by the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906. When the schools reopened in October 1906, the Board of Education imposed Oriental segregation.
Despite President Theodore Roosevelt's initial attempts at mediation, in March 1907 he availed himself of an amendment to the Immigration Act to exclude Japanese who entered the United States through a third country or territory. In what is known as the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, Roosevelt persuaded San Francisco to end its segregation of Japanese schoolchildren and Japan promised to withhold passports from workers intending to migrate to the United States.
However, far from being generated by a popular social movement, restrictionist policies were largely initiated by members of the political class, who drew their ideas selectively from intellectuals to whom they were connected via the intimate networks of elite education.
Elites became persuaded that, under conditions of democracy, mass armies, a free-for-all labor market, social cohesion, and social control required the populace to be socialized into a well-defined and homogeneous national culture. Since culture was still believed to be largely rooted in biological inheritance (as expressed by the concept of "atavism"), heterogeneity of ancestry was perceived as a major political liability. Therefore, immigration came to be viewed as a necessary but problematic factor of national development, subject to systematic regulation.
Within this general climate, the course of policy was shaped by the changing structure of congressional politics, notably the formation of a conservative alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats. This coalition sought to maintain the cultural and political hegemony of northern European, mostly Protestant whites, who, within the ideology of race founded on "Social Darwinism" prevailing by then on both sides of the Atlantic, considered themselves "Anglo-Saxons," the most evolved group. The nascent American labor movement — albeit led mostly by outsiders to this group, including some of eastern European Jewish origin — saw itself as being undermined by immigration. Consequently, the labor movement entered a de facto alliance with the cultural restrictionists on socioeconomic grounds.
Concurrently, Jewish organizations emerged as important actors in immigration politics, seeking to keep the doors relatively open, or at least minimize the likelihood that closure would severely restrict their eastern European coreligionists. The Catholic Church joined in to some extent as well. Together, and with the support of industrialists, they fought against nativist restrictionism.
Escalating restrictive measures did little to reduce the immigration flow from Europe which, just before World War I, reached a historical high as a proportion of the total US population. Population growth, the steady expansion of the European railroad system into the less developed southern and eastern regions of the continent, as well as the lowering costs of sea travel (fares and time loss from gainful employment) had steadily enlarged the pool of potential emigrants.
As the supply of Chinese labor dwindled, the development of the West, and especially California's emerging vocation as a fruit and vegetable exporter, was threatened. Southwestern entrepreneurs then turned to Mexico, which had experienced rapid population growth and where it had become more difficult for peasants to live off the land. Entrepreneurs responded to the concerns of cultural conservatives by arguing that Mexicans were merely "birds of passage" with no interest in settling in the United States. In the same vein, the United States stimulated emigration from its new territory, the Philippines, as a substitute for the Japanese.
In US immigration history, this closing of the door for Chinese has been given considerable attention, but the consequent recruitment from Mexico has not.
The outbreak of World War I extinguished transatlantic movement precisely when the increasing demand for industrial products created a labor shortage. American companies in the industrial Midwest recruited Mexican workers, creating Mexican-American communities in Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, among other states. Similarly, industrialists such as Henry Ford encouraged African-American migration from the South to northern cities such as Detroit and Chicago. This move from South to North demonstrates how internal and international migrations can be related.
1920s to 1964
After World War I, the United States, in effect, proclaimed to the world that it would cease being a nation of immigrants. In one of the most spectacular displays of legislative power in American history, Congress sought to make European and Asian immigration disappear with legislation passed in 1921 under the leadership of Senator Charles Dillingham and again in 1924 (usually referred to as the Johnson Act).
Admissions were allocated so as to severely limit the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans by way of national origin quotas. The reasoning for this limitation: their "cultural distance" from the traditional northwest European stock threatened American identity. The system was devised by commissioning sympathetic social scientists to trace the origins of the American populations to its alleged European roots. The researchers then collated annual entry visas in proportion to the share of each nationality in the current population.
Obviously, the most ancient groups, notably British, German, and other northwest European (Dutch, Belgian, and Luxemburgers) were assured the largest representation, and the latecomers, such as Greeks, Italians, and Poles, received the smallest. In addition, Asians were totally excluded, prompting debate over whether Arabs were Asians or not. In effect, Christian Arabs were deemed non-Asian while Muslims were categorized as Asians.
Thanks to the regulatory opportunities provided by the technology of transoceanic transportation, the transformation was radical. Within a decade, the flow of people was reduced to less than one-fourth of its prewar level, with the reduction from Europe most evident as Asians had already been largely excluded before the 1924 law.
The new legislation imposed even more draconian restrictions on Asian immigration, especially from China. Consequently, there were fewer Chinese in the United States in 1940 than in 1900 — one of the few immigrant groups that were, in effect, extinguished. This was also the case with the much smaller Indian community, who were not allowed to bring over wives and were denied US citizenship following a 1923 Supreme Court decision (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind).
Ironically, Mexican immigration was encouraged in the 1920s. The national-origins quota system was not applied to any country in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico.
During the Great Depression, Mexican residents and even US-born citizens of Mexican origin were massively deported to make room for unemployed non-Latino citizens. Yet temporary labor migration from Mexico, in the form of the Bracero Program (1942 to 1964), was promoted once again after the outbreak of World War II. Internal migrations of African-Americans, whites from the rural South, and Puerto Ricans to the industrial regions were stimulated on economic grounds as well.
Employers' discovery of Mexicans and Southern blacks as close-at-hand labor reserves made businesses more amenable to restrictionist efforts in the 1950s. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act maintained the Western Europe-biased quotas and set aside a sizeable portion of each country's quota for permanent residents' family members and highly skilled workers whose services were in short supply among the native labor force, but breached Oriental exclusion by establishing token quotas for immigrants from Asian countries.
In response to the growing Soviet threat in Europe, the McCarran-Walter Act opened a side door for displaced persons and other European refugees, defined to include Italian earthquake victims subject to mobilization by the Italian Communist Party as well as Greeks caught in the midst of a civil war.
Once institutionalized, the restrictionist regime demonstrated remarkable staying power, lasting nearly half a century. It was overthrown only in the 1960s, when the descendants of groups targeted for restriction gained unusual political power in key constituencies and succeeded in shifting the boundaries of American identity so as to include them.
Although President John F. Kennedy led initial efforts to reform immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality of Act passed after his assassination, thanks to the astute political maneuvering of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
The 1965 law maintained an annual limit on immigration but allowed 170,000 immigrants from Eastern Hemisphere countries with no more than 20,000 per country. It even imposed, for the first time, an annual limit on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Preference was decisively given to the close relatives of US citizens, including married brothers and sisters (critics called it "the brothers and sisters act") with a share of annual entries from outside the Western Hemisphere reserved for persons qualifying as refugees under the new international definition and another set aside for persons with skills certified as being in shortage.
Advocates in Congress from both political parties assured that the law was in no way designed to bring about an inflationary wave of newcomers. It is impossible to establish whether they were knowingly downplaying this aspect or whether they genuinely did not anticipate the law's consequences.
After a slow start, the law's preference for relatives catalyzed a chaining effect, which, within two decades, raised the number of annual legal newcomers back to levels not seen since before World War I. However, given the much larger US population, these numbers constituted a smaller proportion of the total population. Thanks to the elimination of Asian exclusion and the national-origins system, as well as decolonization in Africa and Asia, the new wave — which includes the first flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa since slavery — has been more diverse than any of its predecessors.
Although the 1965 law imposed limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, it was evident from the start that the United States did not possess the police capacity to prevent undocumented movement across its southern border. In addition, the creation of such a capacity would have required radical actions, notably the enlistment of private employers nationwide in immigration law enforcement.
Arguably, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) did require employers to enforce immigration law by mandating that they hire only workers who could prove their legal status. This was the price liberals had to pay for securing their primary goal: the legalization of several million unauthorized residents, most of whom were from Mexico.
The employer verification component was essentially abandoned after IRCA passed, with unauthorized immigrants able to submit forged documents that employers accepted. Several attempts were made in the 1990s to devise effective strategies for controlling entry through the southern border, but none of those enacted to-date have succeeded in stopping unauthorized immigration; the matter remains on the national agenda.
While the principal political alignment remains that of the vocal cultural conservatives, who object to the changing character of American identity, against employers eager to insure a continued supply of cheap unskilled labor, the balance seems to be leaning toward maintenance of the messy but relatively liberal status quo. This is because, beginning in the 1970s, some unions changed their position on immigration once they realized that immigrants, legal and unauthorized, provided the most fertile source of replenishment for their depleting ranks, initially in the garment industry and subsequently in a variety of service occupations.
Moreover, Hispanics — currently the target of most restrictive efforts — are rapidly achieving significant political power and are therefore being courted in an unprecedented manner by both parties. Therefore, the "strange bedfellows" are likely to remain at center stage for the predictable future.
Aristide Zolberg is Walter A. Eberstadt Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Faculty at the New School University in New York City and Director of its International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship. This article is based on his latest book, A Nation By Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America, published in 2006 by Harvard University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.
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