Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Larry Holzwarth - July 19, 2018

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
In the late nineteenth century Americans were demanding action to stem the tide of immigration. Wikimedia

The Immigration Act of 1882

The first federal bureaucracy established for the regulation and administration of American immigration policy and procedures was created under the auspices of the Immigration Act of 1882. Signed into law in September of 1882, it restricted certain individuals from entry into the United States and established a head tax for immigrants (of fifty cents) to be paid upon entry. The head tax was increased numerous times until it reached $8 by 1916, and since it was collected to defray the expense of administering the immigration process, through the Department of the Treasury, the government actually profited from the immigration process before the First World War.

The act created federal officials at all ports of entry and entitled them to meet inbound vessels and inspect their passenger manifests and the passengers themselves. It was the decision of the immigration official to allow or deny entry to passengers’ intent on immigrating, and the act provided the terms upon which entry could be denied if, “…found among such passengers any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge…” Criminals were to be returned to the port whence they came at the expense of the shipper. There was a special allowance for those convicted as a result of political motives.

The Act recognized the United States as being a “haven for those persecuted by foreign tyrants” and allowed them entry (unless they were also an idiot or lunatic) and once the inspection was completed and the head tax collected immigrants were allowed to enter the United States. Obviously the need to have inspectors qualified to make judgments regarding the potential immigrants’ suitability in every American port demanded some structure. They were placed them under the Department of the Treasury, within the Customs Houses and Offices in American ports, which were then political appointee positions often rewarded to supporters and party hacks by the administration in power.

The Immigration Act of 1882 authorized the Immigration Commissioner, who was an official of the US Department of the Treasury, to enter into contracts with the individual states, allowing the states’ to administer immigration within their ports. This remained the official policy of the Department of the Treasury until 1891. Through the 1880s a series of amendments to the Immigration Act were inconsistently followed by the states, which led to the federal government taking over the bureaucratic machinery of immigration in 1891, with the states no longer having any input into immigration policy or procedure.

Throughout the life of the Immigration Act of 1882 the definition of individuals as being unable to provide for themselves was used to exclude entry to individuals based on the judgement of the officials inspecting potential immigrants. Pregnant women, single women, the poor, and those simply deemed undesirable in the eyes of the inspectors were often turned away, at least initially, leading to bribery of the officials. The immigration system was fraught with bribery of officials, by immigrants trying to get in, and by other interests trying to keep them out. This was a period when the civil service system in the United States was often corrupt, since many positions were awarded on political rather than professional merit.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
By the end of the Civil War many Americans feared the nation was being swallowed by foreigners, particularly Asians. Library of Congress

The Canadian Agreement of 1893

As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close the United States tightened its previously wide open immigration policies, denying access to those immigrants it deemed undesirable in its ports and across the Mexican border. The long border between the United States and Canada, and the access across the Detroit River and at many other border crossings made bypassing America’s immigration laws a simple matter of entering Canada, and then crossing the border to the south. Bypassing the American east coast ports and entering via Canada became a favored method of entry, as it avoided the need to deal with often corrupt immigration officials.

Under the Page Act and the subsequent Immigration Act of 1882, it was the responsibility of transportation companies to return persons rejected for immigration into the United States to their nation of origin, or their point of embarkation, at the expense of the company. Companies which balked at performing this obligation were informed that their ships would be denied access to American ports, regardless of what cargo or passengers the ships were carrying. With trade between the United States and Europe booming, shippers were loath to lose the lucrative business, and equally loath to absorb the expenses of returning passengers rejected because of the intransigence of American inspectors.

The solution was to enter into Canadian ports, where the entry of individuals was not subject to the local whims and prejudices which infected American ports. By the 1890s entry into Canada was the favored route of many Europeans, especially those in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, who would then enter the United States through Minnesota, Michigan, or Wisconsin, where there were large communities of Scandinavian immigrants, or those of Northern European descent. Canadian shipping companies encouraged potential immigrants to travel on their ships to North America, on both coasts, and the cost of patrolling the northern border precluded the United States from stemming the tide from the north.

In 1893 the United States and Canada negotiated an agreement in which immigration inspectors from the United States were stationed in the major Canadian ports and granted the authority to deny entry into Canada individuals which would be denied entry into the United States based on existing immigration criteria. The authority extended to those requesting immigration into Canada, without expressing any desire or interest in entering the United States. American immigration officials were placed in Victoria and Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, and the major ports of Halifax, Montreal, and Quebec in the east.

Shipping companies were required to be signatories to the agreement, and for the next two decades Canada and the United States clashed over the execution of the policy. Both Canadian shipping companies and railroads were brought into compliance with American immigration requirements. Canadian shippers were required to complete US Shipping Manifests, and subsequent documentation allowing entry to the United States was completed by American inspectors. In effect, the United States, while not completely controlling immigration into Canada, imposed its requirements of entry on those coming to North America via Canadian ships.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
The Dillingham Commission poses for a photograph with Chairman Dillingham in the center front. Library of Congress

The Dillingham Commission

In 1907 the United States Congress formed a special, bipartisan committee to study the impact immigration had on the economy, culture, government, and security of the United States. The committee consisted of members from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and over the course of four years it compiled information and conducted hearings which studied the causes of immigration, its impact on American communities and schools, and the impact on various industries. It also studied legislation on all levels as a result of immigration, crime and housing, public health issues, and religious impact.

The committee became known as the Dillingham Commission, from Chairman William Dillingham of Vermont, and in addition to the Senators and Congressmen also included William Wheeler, Commissioner of Immigration for the State of California. It also included Jeremiah Jenks, a professor of history and political science at Cornell University. Jenks and Daniel Folkmar, an anthropologist, collaborated on a work entitled the Dictionary of Races, a work intended to demonstrate whether some races are superior to others, and if so establish,”…whether some may be better fitted for American citizenship than others.” The work became part of the Commission’s final report to Congress.

When the Commission concluded its work in 1911, it issued 41 volumes of reports covering its research, statistics, analysis, and recommendations. Among the findings which it reported to Congress were higher rates of violent crime among foreign born in comparison to natives, a high rate of immigration for the means of immoral purposes (prostitution), a high concentration of immigrants in the poorest sections of major cities, and a slow rate of assimilation of immigrants into American culture, a process discouraged by immigrants of several nationalities, who preferred to retain their own. The Commission found this policy detrimental to the nation as a whole.

The Commission opined that the exclusion of Chinese immigrants should be continued, as well as restricting the immigration of Japanese and Koreans. It recommended that “an understanding should be reached with the British Government whereby East Indian laborers would be effectively prevented from coming to the United States.” The Commission found that a surplus of unskilled labor existed across American industry and agriculture, and recommended curtailing all immigration of unskilled labor, as well as excluding the illiterate regardless of language, and suggested a test of educational level be required for entry.

In addition to recommending the exclusion of Chinese and severely restricting entry of other Asians, the Commission found that immigrants from southern Europe (Italians and Greeks) and Eastern Europe (Slavs and Poles) posed a threat to American society, culture, and traditions, and recommended that their immigration to the United States be severely reduced, while those from Northern and Western Europe were far more likely to become assimilated into American society. The recommendations of the Dillingham Commission were used as guidelines by the Congress when writing immigration laws for the next several decades.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
US Navy physicians examine newly arrived Jewish immigrants in 1907. US Navy

The New Immigration

From 1880 to 1924, more than 2 million Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, fled from the pogroms and difficult living conditions within the Russian Empire to the United States. During the first decade of the twentieth century, immigration from Italy to the United States reached its peak. During the same time period as the Jewish immigration over 5 million Italians went to the United States. White protestant Americans viewed the influx of the largely Catholic Italians and the Jews with alarm. Most entered the United States through New York and other Eastern ports, and efforts were made to redirect them to other states, in a veiled attempt to prevent the creation of large potential voting blocs by those attaining citizenship.

The increase in immigration from countries other than those of Northern Europe, which had been predominant prior to 1880, was called the New Immigration. The growing communities which featured their native languages, customs, holidays, and religious practices were a concern for many Americans. Many cities of the Midwest had large German communities, where the German language was spoken and newspapers were published in German. These were tolerated, and even patronized by Americans descended from northern Europeans. Emerging Italian and eastern European ethnic neighborhoods were less readily accepted.

World War I changed the way the German communities were perceived, and many German place names and street names were changed to reflect American patriotism. Public clamor for immigration reform, which had begun before the war, was taken up by Congress in its immediate aftermath. In 1921 Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, a supposedly temporary measure which caused permanent changes to American immigration policy. The Emergency Quota Act used the most recently fully analyzed census in the United States, that of 1910, to establish the number of immigrants which would be allowed to enter the United States each year.

The Act restricted immigrants from a given country to 3% of the number coming from that country residing in the United States as of 1910. In other words, if 100 Italians were living in the United States in 1910, 3 would be allowed to enter the United States in 1922, 3 in 1923, and so on. The limits were known as the National Origins Formula. The limits did not apply to professionals, that is, doctors, certified engineers, scientists, and others. No limits were established for immigrants coming from South America and Mexico. The exclusion of Chinese and other Asian nations was continued, and literacy tests (which had been imposed in 1917) extended.

Despite the reduction in immigration resulting from the Emergency Quota Act, many Americans believed that it did not sufficiently curtail new immigration. It was believed that the Act would cause a larger number of Northern Europeans entering the United States – because they were represented by larger numbers in the US population in 1910 – than those of Southern and Eastern Europeans. But the influx of the latter had been large during the decades between 1890 and 1910. This allowed for what to many Americans was a still too large immigration from the Catholic and Jewish populations of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, and Congress was prodded to create further restrictions.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
The Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to curtail immigration from specific regions, including Italy, where these women came from. Library of Congress

The Immigration Act of 1924

On May 24, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed further limitations on immigration from the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, while allowing unlimited immigration from Latin America. It also included funding for the enforcement of the provisions. The act amended the Immigration Act of 1921 by changing the National Origins Formula. Its intent was the immediate reduction of the number of immigrants coming into the United States from the above mentioned regions without having a significant impact on those from Northern Europe and other more desirable areas.

It accomplished its goal by first modifying the National Origins Formula, reducing the percentage to be used to calculate the annual permissible number of immigrants to 2%. It further reduced the number by using the base population from a given nation as recorded in the census of 1890, rather than the 1910 census which had been used since 1921. The peak immigration years for people from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe occurred between 1890 and 1910, thus the total number of people from Italy, for example, was much lower during the 1890 census than that of 1910.

Using the old formula had led to almost 360,000 immigrants entering the United States in 1923. Using the new calculation reduced the number of immigrants to just under 165,000 in 1924. Immigration from Italy dropped in 1924 by 90%, but from Great Britain, from which far fewer people had immigrated between 1890 and 1910, the drop was less than 20%. Within the new quotas established under the act additional preferences were created, including for those with relatives already in the United States. For the first time, control of immigration was placed in the hands of American consulates overseas, which had to provide a visa to anyone desirous of immigrating to the United States.

The requirement for a visa divided the responsibility for immigration between the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department, which employed the consuls which provided the visas. This made it doubly difficult for some persons to immigrate to the United States as fascism and Nazism grew in Europe. In 1924 nearly 86% of the immigrants authorized under the act were from Northern European countries. In 1924 more people of Eastern and Southern European regions left the United States than were authorized to immigrate to it, while Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland sent the most immigrants to the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1924, and subsequent modifications and amendments, continued to establish the quotas for immigration to the United States from Europe until 1952. The quotas it established were a major cause of why so many attempting to flee Europe before World War II were denied entry into the United States. The Act also reaffirmed prior laws which stated that only whites or those of African descent were eligible for American citizenship (Latin Americans were considered to be white for the purposes of immigration) and that only those eligible for American citizenship were allowed to immigrate to the United States.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
Operation Wetback was authorized by the Eisenhower administration to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico. The White House

Displaced persons and Operation Wetback

At the end of World War 2 Europe was inundated with displaced persons, many with little or no identification or money. While the quota system remained in use for immigration to the United States it was quickly apparent that emergency action was necessary as Europe did not have the infrastructure nor the means to house and care for them. The Displaced Persons Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Truman as a temporary emergency measure. Although Truman supported the measure and signed it in 1948, he did so while objecting to some of the provisions of the act, one of which was that the immigration quota for a given country was transferred to the displaced persons list.

If a nation did not possess a sufficient number in its annual quota to support the number of people placed on the displaced persons list, the numbers were “borrowed” from quotas in succeeding years. The numbers in particular excluded the numbers of persons coming from Eastern Europe and the Balkan nations, as well as Italy. A second Displaced Persons Act was created and signed in 1950 which removed the provision assigning the quota numbers to the displaced persons list. Under the Displaced Persons Act, 200,000 refugees who qualified under its terms entered the United States annually.

In 1952 the Immigration Act of 1924 was re-affirmed under the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which also limited total immigration to the United States to one sixth of 1% of the total population of the United States, excluding the territories of Hawaii and Alaska, as recorded in the census of 1920. This allowed total immigration of 175,455, and excluded from the total certain family members of those already residing in the United States, as well as refugees, and the wives and children of American citizens, allowing entry of spouses married by troops of occupation in Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

In 1954, in response to growing illegal entry into the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries across the Mexican border, President Eisenhower authorized a program to return illegal immigrants. During the Second World War Mexico and the United States jointly operated a program known as Bracero, in which migrant Mexican workers came to the United States to assist with harvests. The legal workers faced competition from illegal workers who crossed the border and worked for the farmers for lower wages than the Braceros, who were recruited by the Mexican government in an attempt to bolster the Mexican economy when they returned with American money in their pockets.

Operation Wetback was a joint operation of the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government. Beginning in May 1945, US Border Patrol teams located and arrested illegal immigrants and transferred them to the control of the Mexican government, who either removed them far from the Mexican-US border or returned them to their nation of origin. Over 1 million were deported in the first year of Operation Wetback. The most significant result of Operation Wetback was the increased surveillance of the Mexican-American border by agencies of both sides, which continues to the present day, though illegal crossings have never been fully stopped.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
President Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, part of his Great Society reforms. LBJ Library

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965

The Hart-Celler Act was part of the legislation drive which was promoted by President Lyndon Johnson in the reforms which he referred to as the Great Society. The Act was proposed by Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York, and backed in the US Senate by Edward Kennedy. Hart-Celler altered the quota system of immigration which had existed since 1921 by abolishing the National Origins Formula, which Celler argued was discriminatory against the people of Eastern and Southern Europe. Quotas were not eliminated, but the manner in which they were calculated was changed, and a limit of 170,000 visas per annum was established.

Hart-Celler was an amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act, and though it eliminated the National Origins Formula, it retained limits per country. The act established labor certification as a requirement, meaning that for a given skill the Secretary of Labor needed to certify that it was needed in American industry. This did not necessarily mean that there needed to be shortages of the skill in question, only that the possessor of such a skill would be able to apply it in the American workforce. Priority was given to relatives of people already residing in the United States, either as permanent residents or former immigrants who had achieved citizenship.

During the years prior to the enactment of the Hart-Celler Act, the overwhelming majority of immigrants coming to the United States came from Europe. In the 1950s alone nearly 70% of immigrants were either from Europe or Canada. From 1970 to 1990 the demographic changed, with just over 47% of immigrants coming to the United States arriving from Latin America, and just over 35% coming from Asia. The increase of immigration was driven by the demands of American industry and agriculture for foreign workers, and that in turn led to the increase in illegal immigration by workers who found US employers willing to flout the law.

In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act required that all employers in the United States ascertain that all workers they hire are in the United States legally, and established penalties for employers which knowingly hired illegal immigrants. It also provided for seasonal immigrant workers, most of whom entered the country to help harvest crops, and provided an amnesty program for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States since 1982, if they had remained there continuously since entry. The Act was controversial at the time of its passing and has remained so ever since.

The waves of immigration which the United States underwent throughout its first two centuries brought with them many of the core features of its culture today. The celebrations of Christmas came from Northern Europe, Cinco de Mayo from Mexico, St. Patrick’s Day from the Irish. Most of what Americans consider native cuisine, the hot dog, pizza, macaroni and cheese, even ice cream, were brought to the United States by immigrants. Even the American symbol of the log cabin was brought to the New World by Nordic settlers from Sweden and Germany. Immigration has long been the source of debate among the American people and politicians, and there is no sign of the debate ending in the foreseeable future.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Real History of American Immigration”, by Joshua Zeitz, Politico Magazine, August 6, 2017

“History of U. S. Immigration Law”, by The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), online

“How U. S. immigration has changed”, by Dan Keating and Reuben Fischer-Baum, The Washington Post. January 12, 2018

“The ugly history of American immigration”, by Rebekkah Rubin, The Week, September 21, 2017

“The Oxford Handbook of American Immigration and Ethnicity”, ed. by Ronald H. Bayor, 2015

“Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882”, by Roger Daniels, 2005

“Open doors, slamming gates: The tumultuous politics of U. S. immigration policy”, by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, January 28, 2017

“The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)”, by the Office of the Historian, U. S. Department of State, online

“How Eisenhower solved Illegal border crossings from Mexico”, by John Dillin, The Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 2006

“The Development of U. S. Immigration Policy since 1965”, by Charles B. Keely, Journal of International Affairs, Winter, 1979

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