America’s Stance on Immigrants: A Review of Laws and Policies

Immigration Laws: To what extent has America welcomed immigrants?

Immigration Laws: To what extent has America welcomed immigrants?


The story of America is intrinsically woven with the tales of immigrants. The narrative of a land built by those who came from afar in search of better opportunities, freedom, and hope is deeply entrenched in the country’s identity. Indeed, the United States has been frequently referred to as a “nation of immigrants,” acknowledging the significant contributions of newcomers to its culture, economy, and societal fabric. Yet, the question remains: To what extent has America truly welcomed immigrants? This essay aims to dissect this query by embarking on a historical journey, exploring pivotal legislations, societal perspectives, and the ongoing challenges of modern immigration.

Immigration, in its myriad forms, has constantly redefined the American landscape. Be it the early settlers who braved treacherous seas, the laborers who built the country’s infrastructure, or the intellectuals who revolutionized industries, immigrants have played a vital role in America’s ascension on the world stage. However, this influx has not always been met with open arms. At various junctures in history, the nation has grappled with its stance on newcomers, swaying between embracing diversity and enforcing restrictive policies.

Through an in-depth exploration of key immigration laws, societal influences, and modern-day issues, this essay will attempt to chart the balance between America’s aspirational identity as a welcoming haven and the practicalities and politics that have sometimes marred this ideal.

Historical Overview of American Immigration

The foundations of America were laid by immigrants. From its very inception, the land that would become the United States attracted individuals and groups seeking refuge, opportunity, or adventure. This influx can be categorized into several key waves, each contributing uniquely to the fabric of the nation.

Early Settlers and Colonization

Long before the United States was established, the continent was home to Native American tribes. The first significant wave of immigrants consisted of European explorers and settlers. The Spanish established the earliest permanent European colonies in the late 16th century, notably in Florida and the American Southwest. The 17th century saw the English establishing colonies along the Eastern Seaboard. The pursuit of religious freedom played a prominent role, with groups like the Pilgrims and Puritans escaping persecution in Europe. Over time, the number of colonies grew, and so did the diversity of settlers, including the Dutch in New York and the French in Louisiana.

Waves of European Immigrants in the 19th and Early 20th Century

The 19th century marked a substantial increase in European immigration. Fueled by economic opportunities and the allure of available land, millions arrived from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s, for instance, led to a significant influx of Irish immigrants. Similarly, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw large numbers of Italians, Poles, and Jews escaping economic hardships and persecution. These waves significantly influenced American culture, politics, and labor movements.

Asian Immigration in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Asian immigrants, particularly the Chinese, began arriving in significant numbers during the mid-19th century, primarily driven by the Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. However, they were often met with hostility and discrimination, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Japanese immigration followed, with many settling in the West Coast, but they too faced severe prejudice, especially during World War II with the internment of Japanese Americans.

Latin American and Caribbean Immigration in the 20th Century

The 20th century saw a shift with an increase in immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. Political upheavals, economic challenges, and the promise of better opportunities in the U.S. led many to migrate northwards. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, for example, led to a significant number of Cubans seeking refuge in America. Similarly, civil wars in Central America during the 1980s prompted many to seek asylum in the U.S. The latter part of the century and into the 21st has seen a continued flow from Mexico, driven by a combination of economic opportunities and family reunification.

Each of these waves added layers to the American story, bringing with them cultures, traditions, and aspirations. While many sought the promise of the American dream, their journeys were often fraught with challenges, both externally from restrictive policies and internally from societal reactions.

Key Legislation and Policies

While the narrative of immigration paints a rich tapestry of diverse cultures melding together, the legal framework governing this movement reveals a more complex interplay. Over the years, American immigration policies have oscillated between inclusivity and exclusivity, reflecting both the nation’s ideals and its socio-political climate of each era.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

One of the earliest and most explicit discriminatory immigration laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, specifically targeted Chinese laborers, barring them from entering the United States. Enacted in 1882, this legislation was a response to widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, fueled by economic competition and xenophobic beliefs. While the Act was initially meant to last ten years, it was later extended and remained in effect until 1943.

The Immigration Act of 1924 (National Origins Act)

The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act, was designed to maintain the racial and ethnic composition of the United States, favoring Western and Northern Europeans over other groups. This legislation imposed strict quotas based on national origin, severely limiting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and almost entirely excluding Asians. The Act remained a cornerstone of American immigration policy until its revision in the 1960s.

Bracero Program (1942-1964)

During World War II, there was a labor shortage in the United States due to the wartime economy and the draft. The Bracero Program, a series of agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, allowed Mexican laborers to temporarily work in the United States, primarily in agriculture. While the program did address labor demands, it was also criticized for its treatment of workers and its impact on wage levels.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

This transformative legislation marked a significant shift from the quota systems of the past. Championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Act abolished the national origins quota, focusing instead on reuniting families and attracting skilled labor. As a result, there was a surge in immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, reshaping the demographic composition of the immigrant population in the U.S.

Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986)

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, this Act aimed to address the issue of illegal immigration. It provided amnesty to certain undocumented immigrants who had been in the U.S. since before 1982, while simultaneously strengthening border enforcement and imposing sanctions on employers hiring undocumented workers. The Act was a significant attempt at a comprehensive approach to immigration, balancing between regularization and deterrence.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans)

Introduced under President Barack Obama’s administration, DACA (2012) sought to provide relief to undocumented young adults, often referred to as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. as children. This policy allowed them to apply for a renewable two-year deferral from deportation and become eligible for a work permit. DAPA (2014), though never fully implemented due to legal challenges, aimed to grant deferred action to parents of American citizens or lawful permanent residents.

These laws and policies offer a lens through which to view America’s evolving stance on immigration. The interplay of economic needs, global events, racial and ethnic biases, and societal sentiments have continuously shaped the nation’s legal responses to immigration, illustrating the tension between its founding principles and practical challenges.

Social and Economic Factors Influencing Immigration Policies

While legislative acts offer a structured glimpse into America’s approach to immigration, underlying these laws are a myriad of social and economic factors that have influenced policy decisions. These factors, at times complementing and at other times conflicting with each other, have played a pivotal role in shaping the immigration landscape of the nation.

Labor Demands and Economic Growth

Throughout its history, America’s economic needs have significantly influenced its immigration policies. The Industrial Revolution, for instance, required an influx of laborers, leading to a surge in European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, the post-World War II era, marked by rapid economic expansion, saw policies like the Bracero Program come into play to address labor shortages. Even in modern times, sectors like technology, agriculture, and healthcare rely heavily on both skilled and unskilled immigrant labor, prompting debates about visa policies and worker rights.

Social Perceptions and Xenophobia

Societal attitudes towards immigrants have oscillated between acceptance and xenophobia. Economic downturns, such as the Great Depression, often heightened anti-immigrant sentiments, with immigrants blamed for job losses and strained resources. Cultural and religious differences have also played a role, with waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and more recently, Muslim immigrants facing varying degrees of discrimination. Such societal pressures have, at times, translated into restrictive policies, as seen with the Chinese Exclusion Act or the national origins quotas of the 1924 Immigration Act.

Domestic and International Political Pressures

Political considerations, both domestic and international, have also swayed immigration policies. The Cold War, for instance, influenced America’s stance towards refugees from communist countries, often viewing them as allies against communist regimes. Domestic politics has seen parties leveraging immigration as a rallying point for their bases, with debates around border security, amnesty, and “sanctuary cities” becoming politically charged topics in recent decades.

In conclusion, while the legal framework provides a formalized view of America’s stance on immigration, it is the interplay of these social and economic factors that truly drive policy decisions. Recognizing this complexity is essential to understanding the multifaceted nature of immigration in the United States and the challenges that lie ahead in forging policies that resonate with the nation’s ideals while addressing practical realities.

Modern Challenges and the Path Forward

As the 21st century progresses, America grapples with new challenges related to immigration. Technological advancements, global conflicts, and changing socio-political landscapes have introduced nuances that require both reflection on historical policies and innovative forward-thinking approaches.

Technological Advancements and Globalization

The digital age has facilitated a globalized workforce, allowing individuals to work from virtually anywhere. While this presents opportunities for a diversified economy, it also raises questions about visa policies, worker rights, and competition in the job market. The rise of multinational corporations with a global talent pool further complicates traditional notions of immigration and labor dynamics.

Climate Change and Environmental Refugees

Increasingly, environmental challenges, driven by climate change, are causing migrations. From rising sea levels displacing Pacific Island populations to drought-driven migrations in parts of Africa and Central America, the United States, like other nations, will need to address the concept of environmental refugees. This requires a rethinking of asylum and refugee policies, moving beyond traditional definitions centered around conflict and persecution.

Political Polarization and Immigration

Immigration has become a deeply polarized issue in American politics. Debates around border walls, detention centers, and Dreamers often transcend the actual policy discussions, reflecting deeper divisions about national identity, societal values, and the definition of American citizenship. Bridging this divide requires bipartisan efforts and a focus on the foundational ideals of the nation.

Path Forward

To navigate these challenges, America must approach immigration with a blend of pragmatism and empathy. This involves:

  • Comprehensive Reforms: Addressing issues holistically, from border security and visa policies to pathways for citizenship and addressing the undocumented population.
  • Collaborative International Efforts: Working with global partners to address root causes of migration, be it conflict, economic disparities, or environmental challenges.
  • Engaging Diverse Voices: Incorporating insights from immigrants, businesses, advocacy groups, and local communities in policy-making.
  • Reaffirming America’s Ideals: While practical challenges exist, policies should resonate with the foundational values of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

In conclusion, while the challenges of modern immigration are intricate, they also present an opportunity for America to reassert its identity as a nation that, while grappling with complexities, ultimately aspires to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for all.

Conclusion: America’s Evolving Relationship with Immigrants

The narrative of immigration in America is both rich and complex, reflecting the nation’s ongoing struggle to balance its foundational ideals with the realities of socio-political and economic dynamics. From the early settlers seeking religious freedom to the skilled professionals of today’s digital age, immigrants have continually shaped the fabric of American society.

While the nation has, at times, opened its doors wide in a grand gesture of welcome, there have also been periods marked by hesitation, restriction, and outright discrimination. This duality underscores the challenges inherent in crafting policies that cater to the needs of a diverse and evolving population while ensuring the nation’s well-being and security.

Yet, the essence of America lies in its capacity for renewal and growth. Just as the Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of hope and opportunity for those who’ve journeyed to America’s shores, the country’s resilience and adaptability hint at a future where immigration policies can be both practical and compassionate.

In the words of former President John F. Kennedy, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” As America moves forward, it has the opportunity, and indeed the responsibility, to ensure that this statement remains as relevant in the future as it has in the past.

A Professor’s POV: 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 America?

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 Europe. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions about America's Support of Immigration:

The evolution of U.S. immigration policies can be traced through different phases, reflecting the nation’s economic needs, societal attitudes, and geopolitical considerations. Initially, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, America had relatively open immigration policies. This period was marked by vast territorial expansion and a need for settlers to populate the newly acquired lands.

However, as the 19th century progressed, specific restrictions began to emerge, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was a direct response to economic concerns and xenophobic sentiments. The early 20th century saw the implementation of the National Origins Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from certain parts of the world, favoring Western and Northern Europeans.

Post World War II, there was a significant shift. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished previous quota systems and refocused on family reunification and skilled labor. This change led to a surge in immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In recent decades, immigration policies have focused on a balance between addressing the issue of undocumented immigrants, border security, and catering to the nation’s labor needs.

Numerous social and economic factors have shaped America’s stance on immigration over the years. Economic growth and labor demands have often driven more open policies. For instance, during the Industrial Revolution and post-World War II era, there was a significant need for labor, which led to a surge in immigration.

However, economic downturns, such as the Great Depression, often heightened anti-immigrant sentiments, with immigrants sometimes blamed for job losses. Cultural and religious differences also influenced perceptions; waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and, in recent years, Muslim immigrants have faced varying degrees of discrimination.

Politics, both domestic and international, have played a role too. Cold War dynamics influenced America’s approach to refugees from communist countries, while recent political polarization has made immigration a contentious issue in domestic politics.

Modern immigration in the U.S. is characterized by several new dynamics, distinguishing it from past patterns. Technological advancements have led to a more globalized workforce, introducing nuances in visa policies and labor dynamics. The nature of global conflicts has changed, with issues like climate change leading to the rise of environmental refugees, requiring a redefinition of asylum and refugee policies.

Moreover, the sources of immigration have shifted over time. While earlier waves were predominantly from Europe, recent decades have seen a more significant influx from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The reasons for immigration have also diversified, with a mix of economic opportunities, family reunifications, and conflict-driven displacements driving people to the U.S.

Furthermore, the discourse around immigration has changed. Modern debates often revolve around border security, the status of “Dreamers,” and the implications of a globally connected world on traditional notions of citizenship and national identity.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the U.S., was a manifestation of several converging factors. Economic anxiety played a significant role. Following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, many Chinese laborers who had been employed in its construction faced unemployment, leading to competition for jobs. Given the economic downturns of the era, Chinese immigrants were often scapegoated for wage suppression and job scarcity.

Moreover, there were prevailing racial and xenophobic attitudes. Chinese immigrants faced cultural and racial prejudice, with stereotypes portraying them as threats to “American values.” The notion of the “Yellow Peril” emerged, suggesting that East Asians posed an existential threat to Western civilization. Such fears, amplified by sensationalist media and political rhetoric, paved the way for the enactment of this exclusionary legislation.

Public perception of immigrants in America has oscillated between acceptance and suspicion, often influenced by prevailing socio-economic conditions, political narratives, and global events. In periods of economic prosperity, immigrants have often been viewed more favorably, credited with contributing to the nation’s growth and cultural diversity. However, during economic downturns or times of societal upheaval, immigrants have sometimes been viewed as competitors for resources or as threats to cultural or national identity.

Historically, specific immigrant groups faced prejudice based on religious, cultural, or racial differences, be it Irish Catholics in the 19th century or Muslims in the post-9/11 era. Yet, with time, many of these groups have become integral to the American fabric, reshaping perceptions in the process.

It’s important to note that while certain political or media narratives might amplify negative stereotypes, numerous Americans advocate for immigrants’ rights and celebrate the nation’s diverse heritage.

U.S. immigration policies, while unique in many respects, share similarities and differences with those of other nations. Like many countries, the U.S. uses a mix of family reunification, skilled labor needs, and humanitarian reasons (like asylum) to determine entry. However, the sheer scale of immigration to the U.S., both legal and undocumented, often results in more complex and contentious policy debates.

Compared to countries like Canada or Australia, which use point-based systems emphasizing economic contributions, the U.S. places a stronger emphasis on family reunification. The U.S. also has a more significant undocumented population, leading to debates around amnesty, border security, and deportation.

In terms of refugee intake, the U.S. historically led in absolute numbers, but recent years have seen a decline, with countries like Canada and Germany accepting more, relative to their populations.

Absolutely. Immigration has brought numerous benefits to the U.S., making it one of the world’s most diverse and dynamic countries. Economically, immigrants have founded many of America’s most successful companies, fueled innovation, and filled essential roles in various sectors. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco owe much of their vibrancy and global appeal to their diverse immigrant populations.

Culturally, immigrants have enriched American society with diverse foods, music, literature, and traditions. Events like St. Patrick’s Day or the Lunar New Year are celebrated widely, reflecting the nation’s multicultural fabric.

Moreover, the constant influx of new ideas, perspectives, and energies has ensured that America remains adaptable and forward-looking. The nation’s history of immigration reinforces its global image as a land of opportunity and a beacon of hope for many.