Immigration Laws

To what extent has America welcomed immigrants?

At the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor is this
famous poem by Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles…
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus’ poem is a message to all potential immigrants as well as
a statement of philosophy. By placing this message on the base of
America’s most recognizable symbol we establish what are policy
should be. America, as previously stated, is a nation founded by and
for immigrants. Everyone in America, with the exception of native
Americans, are immigrants.

This being the case one would think that we have, or should, live
up to the ideals in the poem. Yet America has not always had an open
immigration policy. In fact it has often been restrictive.

Immigrants at Ellis Island

I. Immigration Policy

A. Who are the immigrants that have come to

The century following 1820 may be divided into three great
periods of immigration to the U.S. During the first period, from 1820
to 1860, most of the immigrants came from Great Britain, Ireland, and
western Germany. In the second period, from 1860 to 1890, those
countries continued to supply a majority of the immigrants; the
Scandinavian nations provided a substantial minority. Thereafter the
proportion of immigrants from northern and Western Europe declined
rapidly. In the final period, from 1890 to 1910, fewer than one-third
of the immigrants came from these regions. The majority of the
immigrants were natives of southern and Eastern Europe, with
nationals of Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Russia constituting more
than half of the total. Until World War I, immigration had generally
increased in volume annually. From 1905 to 1914 an average of more
than a million aliens entered the U.S. every year. With the outbreak
of war, the volume declined sharply, and the annual average from 1915
to 1918 was little more than 250,000. In 1921 the number again rose;
800,000 immigrants were admitted. Thereafter the number fell in
response to new conditions in Europe and to the limitations
established by U.S. law.

1. Old Immigrants (1620 – 1840) – Immigrants
arriving during this time period were primarily from Western Europe.

They shared backgrounds:

Religion: Protestant

Nations: England, Germany, Netherlands

Appearance: Fair skin, hair and eyes.

2. New Immigrants (1840 – 1920) – Immigrants arrived in
America from a variety of places. Early in this period many Asian
(Chinese and Japanese) immigrants arrived. Asian immigrants helped to
build the trans continental railroad. In the 1870’s Irish immigrants
began to arrive. In the 1880’s Italians began to arrive in America.
Around 1900 Eastern European immigrants began to arrive in America
from Poland and Russia.

  • These immigrants were different from the Old Immigrants.
  • Asians were different physically and religiously.
  • The Irish and Italians were Catholic and many Italians were
    also darker in coloring than the Old Immigrants.

  • Many of the Eastern European immigrants were Jewish.

B. How did the Old Immigrants (those currently in America) react
to the influx of New Immigrants?

1. Old immigrants were mostly angered by the new wave
of immigration. There was a rise in the membership of so called
nativist” groups like the know nothings who carried on
anti immigrant activities.

2. Many felt that the new immigrants would take jobs away from
Americans. No one complained when Asian immigrants were building the
transatlantic railroad but when they were finished there was suddenly
an emergence of anti Asian sentiment. What cause this, most likely
racism but fear of job loss played a role as well. These anti Asian
feelings led to two restrictive and discriminatory immigration laws
designed to curb Asian immigration to the United States.

3. After 1917 there was a national paranoia that immigrants would
bring communism to America. This idea will be further developed in
the next lesson.

C. What have been some of America’s key immigration policies?

1. The first measure restricting immigration enacted
by Congress was a law in 1862 forbidding American vessels to
transport Chinese immigrants to the US.; 20 years later Congress
passed the Chinese Exclusion Act excluding Chinese immigrants.

2. Gentlemans’s Agreement – A diplomatic agreement made in
1907 by the U.S. and Japan provided that the Japanese government
would not issue passports to Japanese laborers intending to enter the
US.; under the terms of this agreement, the U.S. government refrained
until 1924 from enacting laws discriminating Japanese immigrants.

3. In 1917 Congress passed an immigration law that imposed a
literacy test
and created an Asiatic Barred Zone to shut out
Asians. Aliens unable to meet minimum mental, moral, physical, and
economic standards were excluded, as were anarchists and other
so-called subversives.

4. Emergency Quota Act – After World War I a marked
increase in racism and the growth of isolationist sentiment in the
U.S. led to demands for further restrictive legislation. In 1921 a
congressional enactment provided for a quota system for immigrants,
whereby the number of aliens of any nationality admitted to the U.S.
in a year could not exceed 3 percent of the number of foreign-born
residents of that nationality living in the U.S. in 1910.

5. McCarren Walter Act – In 1924, the basic immigration
quotas were changed; the new law provided for annual immigration
quotas for all countries from which aliens might be admitted.
Quotas were based on the presumed desirability of various
nationalities; aliens from northern and Western Europe were
considered more desirable than those from southern and Eastern
Aliens who fulfilled lawful residence requirements were
exempt from quotas, as were alien wives, children, and some husbands
of U.S. citizens.

6. Immigration Act of 1965 – The 1965 amendments to the
Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the national-origin quotas
and established an annual limitation of 170,000 visas for immigrants
from eastern hemisphere countries. Another law, effective in 1968,
provided for an annual limitation of 120,000 immigrants from the
western hemisphere, with visas available on a first-come,
first-served basis.

7. Immigration Act of 1985 – In the 1980s concern about
the surge of illegal aliens into the U.S. has led Congress to pass
legislation aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. The Immigration
Act of 1985 allows most illegal aliens who have resided in the U.S.
continuously since January 1, 1982, to apply for legal status. In
addition, the law prohibits employers from hiring illegal aliens and
mandates penalties for violations.

What should be clear is that America has not lived up to the
standards expressed in the poem by Emma Lazarus. America has on many
occasions acted in a restrictive (and hypocritical manner it should
be noted) towards immigration.