U.S. Immigration Debate – A Historical Perspective

Immigration has dominated the recent news cycle with images from our southern border of patrol agents—acting on the zero-tolerance policies of the Trump administration—separating parents and their children.  The Supreme Court has recently ruled in favor of the Trump administrations “Muslim Travel Ban” that denied visas to eight countries, six of which were Muslim.  It is not the goal of this blog to weigh in on current immigration policy but to provide some historical perspective and understanding of immigration through a look at our own ancestors’ experience.

Historically most immigrants rode economic forces to this country rather than fled political or religious oppression.  Since the early colonial era, this country generally has had a chronic labor shortage, and at least half of immigrants in that period came as indentured servants. Most came from Britain and the north of Ireland but some also arrived from Germany and occasionally Sweden.  They were the legal personal property of their contract holder and often abused.  If they survived, they got their freedom.  The trouble was there were never enough of them to meet the increasing demand for labor—primarily in the plantation economy of the South.  It was involuntary African immigrants who built the antebellum South’s economy, yet they were denied all political and legal freedom and often religious autonomy as well.

After 1820 a new wave of Germany and Irish immigrants arrived driven by overpopulation, economic dislocation, and famine.  A few Germans escaped political oppression following the 1848 Revolution.  German immigrants came with what historians call “social capital.”  They had some education, skills, and money to establish themselves on farms and small businesses.  The Irish generally came destitute.  A distinguishing feature of the Irish and some Germans was that they were Catholics.  For many Americans, Anglo-Protestantism symbolized freedom of conscience and rights of the individual.  Catholicism seemed to challenge these basic values with a hierarchy that led to papal authority in Rome.  Catholic ethnics faced discrimination and lived in a Catholic sub-culture until John Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960.  Although now seen as the “ideal” immigrants, Germans were reviled because they often spoke German into the third and fourth generation on Main Street, USA.  Many East and Southern European immigrants who followed were frequently what historians have called “sojourners” or “birds of passage.”  They came, they worked, they went back home to buy land or established businesses.  Those who did not intend to stay did not bother to learn English or declare US citizenship until it eventually became clear that America would be their new home.

In the nineteenth century, American borders were virtually open.  There were no restrictions on immigration until 1882 when Congress banned Chinese immigrants and in 1908 banned Japanese immigrants—although allowing for family reunification.  In 1915 Congress passed a literacy requirement, but by then most immigrant heads of household by then could read.  It was not until 1924 when Congress imposed severe quotas on Old World immigrants that our borders became “hard.”  Contemporary claims that one’s own ancestors came legally overlook how open US borders were prior to 1924.

In 1965 Congress revised US immigration law banning discrimination based on national origin and set occupational preferences.  American has become more diverse as a consequence, but most immigrants with “social capital” have adjusted well because of the education and skill-sets they brought with them.  Our neighbors to the south have had a greater challenge as their countries have not provided them with the education or job skills that give them access to higher status employment and make assimilation easier.  Yet our economy still demands their labor—American businesses hire them because we want low wage workers.  For Latin American newcomers, assimilation is harder and it takes time as the experience of their nineteenth-century counterparts demonstrates.

I leave it to policy wonks and politicians to determine quotas, border issues, etc. that all modern countries require.  However, it is up to us to see them as people like our own ancestors.  Assimilation happens with time, education, economic opportunity, and freedom from discrimination.

About Dr. Eileen McMahon

Dr. Eileen McMahon is chair and professor of history at Lewis University in Illinois. Her expertise includes U.S. Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race; Catholic America; the History of Ireland; the History Great Britain; American Women’s History; History of Sports in America, the British Empire, Native American History, and Illinois History.

2 thoughts on “U.S. Immigration Debate – A Historical Perspective

  1. Richard Bagnell
    July 4, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    Low skilled, illegal immigrants depress wages and negatively impact housing affordability for low skilled American workers. As a country we need legal immigration of skilled labor from all possible countries, not a border out of control due to the failed socialism of Central and South America. I live on the border (San Diego) with your ‘border issue’ (immigration, border tunnels, sanctuary cities, fentanyl, coyotes, gangs, underage sex trade, etc.). Sorry, although I am an alumni of Lewis University, I don’t believe you can really understand the impact of illegal immigration or our ‘border issues’ in Lockport, Illinois……..

    1. John A. Budny
      July 11, 2018 at 12:11 am

      There is an insightful analysis of the US’s current immigration problems when Professor McMahon’s historical perspective is viewed through Mr. Bagnell’s lense. The important, but currently lost phrase in the current banter and clearly identified in both Professor McMahon’s post and Mr. Bagnell’s response are the words and the concept of SKILLED LABOR. Living in California, I can testify to the stress to economic conditions resulting from “open borders” that Mr. Bagnell identifies.

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