A History Of Immigration To The United States

A History of Immigration to the United States

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” American poet Emma Lazarus wrote those words in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Ms. Lazarus’ poem exemplifies that the United States has always been a refuge for immigrants. Indeed, the United States is a country built on immigrants. From the founding of the United States until now, immigration has played a vital role in the formation of the United States. 


Immigration Before and During the Founding of the United States

By the early 1600s, several immigrant groups had settled in the United States. British immigrants had settled in Virginia and New England. Dutch immigrants had settled in New Jersey and New York, and Swedish immigrants had settled in Delaware. As early as 1619, slaves from the Caribbean and Africa were also brought to the new world. Finally, indentured servants who traded seven years of unpaid labor for a ticket to the new world and convicts from English jails immigrated to the new world.


In 1776, the 13 American colonies signed the Declaration of Independence and severed their ties to Great Britain. In 1783, Britain recognized U.S. independence by signing the Treaty of Paris. Primary sources from this period indicate that the founders of the United States approved of immigration. Founding Father Thomas Paine called the United States “the asylum from the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” The first census to take place in the newly formed United States showed that the English were the largest group and that 20% of immigrants were of African heritage. Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants were also well-represented in the census.


The 1790 Naturalization Act and the Steerage Act of 1819

In 1790, Congress enacted the first Naturalization Act, which was essentially the first immigration law. It stated, “…any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States…” Immigration happened slowly until the war of 1812 was over in 1814. At this point, British, Irish, and Western Europe immigrants became more common. Many immigrants were sick or dying when they arrived. In response, Congress passed the Steerage Act of 1819. This Act required captains of ships to keep detailed records of immigrant passengers and to provide more humane conditions to immigrants coming to the United States on ships.


Immigration During the Industrial Revolution 

Many new immigrants came to the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Immigrants from around the world found work on the transcontinental railroad, in the bustling harbors of major cities, and the growing number of factories. Many Irish immigrants immigrated in the 1840s and 1850s to escape the potato famine in Ireland. Eastern European immigrants also immigrated through Eastern U.S. ports. Chinese immigrants started to arrive in large numbers in the 1850s through the port of San Francisco. 

An anti-immigration political party called the Know-Nothings sprang up in the 1850s. The party promoted anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. Nonetheless, the Republican party platform in 1864 stated that “Foreign immigration which in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase of power to the nation…should be fostered and encouraged.” 


In 1880 – 1930, the U.S. Saw a Rise in Immigration

From 1880 to 1930, an astounding 28 million immigrated to the United States. Most of the immigrants were from eastern and southern Europe. Americans held a prevailing view that immigrants were necessary to support American’s economic boom. Most Americans also thought that immigrants should undergo “Americanization.” Nonetheless, cultural and ethnic differences remained powerful throughout American history.

In the 1880s, male immigrants made up a majority of the immigrant population. Many new immigrants migrated to Latin America in the winter months to engage in agricultural work. Many immigrants intended to work to send money back to their families and then eventually return. 

In 1875, Congress passed the first law that restricted immigration. The Page Act of 1875 effectively prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States. The 1875 law is significant because it was the first law that ended the United States’ policy of open borders. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese men from entering the United States. 

In 1920, nearly 12 million people in the United States were foreigners out of a total of 105 million people. In 1907, the U.S. entered into a Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 which restricted Japanese immigration. After WWI, Congress passed the Quota Act, which limited the annual number of immigrants the U.S. would accept to 3% of immigrants already residing in the U.S. with that nationality.


U.S. Immigration 1942 – Present

The state of California created the “Bracero Program” in 1942, which allowed agricultural employers to allow two million Mexican nationals to be field laborers temporarily. California used this program in the 1960s. Nonetheless, between 1939 and 1954, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deported three million documented and undocumented Mexican immigrants and U.S. citizens through “Operation Wetback.”

Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. IRCA imposed sanctions on employers who hired an undocumented immigrant. The law also provided legal status to immigrants who entered the U.S. without documentation before 1982. The Act prohibited the U.S. from discriminating based on citizenship. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 made permanent residents and undocumented immigrants ineligible for federal benefits. Finally, the Illegal Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 allowed for enhances enforcement authority for removing undocumented immigrants. It also allowed for quicker removal of undocumented immigrants. 

In 2000, Congress passed the Legal Immigration and Family Equity (LIFE) Act. The LIFE Act allowed new temporary visas for the children and spouses of legal permanent residents. It also granted new temporary visas for U.S. citizens’ spouses who married abroad. Finally, it protected certain Haitian refugees.

In more recent years, administrations have influenced immigration policy by changing immigration regulations. President Donald Trump has stated that immigration is a crucial part of his presidency. His administration has strengthened the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to aggressively enforce immigration laws by changing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services procedures and regulations. 

If you have questions regarding immigrant visas or non-immigration visas, the Miami-based Canero Immigration Law Firm can help. Contact our Miami-based immigration law firm today to schedule your initial consultation.

Share this: