In the summer of 2014, around 50,000 minors from Central America and Mexico illegally crossed the U.S. border from Mexico, hoping that the U.S. government would accept them into America, house, feed, and educate them, and eventually allow for citizenship. This migration of young people caused many Americans to argue strongly, either for allowing the youth into the U.S., or to deny entry. Much disinformation exists about immigration to the United States. To understand immigration to America today, it is worthwhile to understand it historically.
For immigration, it is best to break up the first 125 years into four periods: 1776-1788, 1789-1802, 1800-1849, and 1850-1899. For the most part, the immigration policy of America was open, but, there were also restrictions on immigrants, for good reasons and sometimes, for bad. Like every country in the world, the United States wanted to maintain its existence and grow in strength. It tried to allow immigrants who would strengthen the republic. America encouraged immigrants with similar cultural backgrounds to encourage the growth of the republican form of government. And, as with every country of the world, it appears Americans favored certain nationality groups over others primarily because of their race.
After winning independence from Great Britain, the new country was united under the Articles of Confederation. Because American Founding Fathers were wary of a strong king, the first government they created allowed for great freedom of the states, and each state decided on its own immigration policy. For example, to become a United States citizen of Maryland, a person had to declare a belief in the Christian religion. In South Carolina, a person had to live in the state for at least two years. There was great variety in how each state handled immigration, with some more restrictive than others.
Like all new countries, the U.S.A. faced many existential threats. Great Britain did not respect America and kidnapped American sailors, forcing them to be British sailors. Britain had troops still stationed on America’s western frontier. France was in the middle of their revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and wanted the U.S. support in defeating Britain. When we didn’t side with France, the French attacked American ships. The American government was cautious to allow French and British immigrants. It was also guided by the idea of allowing citizens from countries of similar cultures, with the idea that the new government, a republic, would be strengthened by people of similar ideas.
In 1789, the 13 states ratified the U.S. Constitution created by the American Founding Fathers. One of the new Congress’ first acts was to write legislation regarding immigration and naturalization. Naturalization is the process how U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen. In the first two Naturalization Acts (1790 and 1795), citizenship was allowed to “free white persons, of “good moral character.” The immigrant had to live in the country for a number of years (first 2, and then in 1795, the residency years was increased to 5 years), take an oath to support the Constitution, to renounce any title of nobility, and to renounce any loyalty to any other nation. In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. Residency requirements increased to 14 years and the President could imprison any immigrant he thought was dangerous.
This time period was one of incredible American expansion into the western part of North America. Immigration during these years came from Europe, but new citizens also came from the lands that had been part of Mexico. Indians were not eligible to obtain citizenship based on the Naturalization laws of the 1790s. Indians were considered nonwhite, and were seen as members of their tribes, which were not part of American citizenry. Mexicans who lived in the areas of land won by the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 were allowed to become American citizens. Citizens from northwestern European countries, especially England and France, continued to migrate to the U.S. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 pushed many Irish to America. Years of residency requirement dropped from 14 years to five years.
In the second half of the 19th century, immigration to America reached its highpoint. Europeans immigrated in large numbers to the U.S., and the U.S. government tried to slow or stop all Asians from moving to the United States. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the “Homestead Act of 1862.” This act allowed Congress to sell land for $1.25 an acre, and attracted millions of Europeans to settle the west. The Gold Rush of 1849, and political problems in Germany and France brought Europeans to America. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed. This law stopped all Chinese from migrating to America.
1. At which time period did the states control immigration? Why?
2. During which years was immigration strongly discouraged? Why?
3. During which time period was the most immigration to America?
4. Based on the graphs below, which decade, from 1776-1899, did America have the most immigration?