American Immigration

A Historical Survey
By Rhinehold

As immigration issues have become a greater issue at the forefront of American politics in the past few years, I have noticed some common misconceptions and myths surrounding the whole concept of immigration, policies and positions of the various sides discussing the contentious debate. I intend to address many of these over a series of articles, however I wanted to start with looking at a history of immigration law in the United States and how we got to where we are now.


Originally, as most people who were here during America’s founding were either recent immigrants or very few generations removed from their families’ immigration, there was not the stigma on being an immigrant that came into part of the society that would later form. While there was trepidation against giving visitors and new immigrants who have not shown their integration into American society certain privileges, it was decided early on that important positions within the government and voting for those positions would be limited to citizens, both naturally born and naturalized. In the U.S. Constitution, the power to regulate naturalization, to ensure an agreed upon set of standards for immigrants to become citizens, was given to the new federal government, but regulation of who could reside within the United States was not.

q1Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, for example, had a continual back and forth on the issue of immigration – Jefferson was generally much more open to people coming to America while Hamilton (ironically, as he was himself an immigrant) wanted more restrictive immigration. But even their opposition never veered into trying to prevent people from immigrating here, only about the role they would play once they arrived and how to test for their individual assimilation into American society before giving them power in government.

For the next several decades after the founding, there was little movement on this issue – it was clear that those with a nationalistic bent of wanting to limit immigration into the country were in the minority. But, as more generations were born here and saw their birth as some sort of special position and viewed allowing immigrants to come in as some sort of “affront”, the minority nationalistic views started to increase. This was especially true in the 1840s as an increase of immigration from Ireland, due to the Irish Potato Famine, started to become a concern to some members of society.


This led to the eventual formation of the American Party (The Know-Nothings) in the 1840s out of the demise of the Whigs that also spawned the Republican Party. While the Know-Nothings were virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-anything they felt was “un-American”, their numbers were not great in a majority in any meaningful way. In fact, the name Know-Nothings comes from the practice party members had of saying they ‘knew nothing’ of the party when asked if they were members.

Photo provided by THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (Wikimedia Commons). A flag of the “Know-Nothing” American Party warns against foreign influences in American government and society.

In the 1850s – specifically in 1852 – the party achieved some state and local election success and assisted in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise, stoking tensions over slavery and resulting in armed conflicts known as “Bleeding Kansas” setting the stage for the upcoming Civil War. However, this was the apex of the American Party’s power, in the 1856 election their presidential candidate (Millard Fillmore) carried one state and congressional strength dropped to 12 representatives.

Due to infighting, the party ended up falling apart in 1856, but continued as regional blocs. The Anti-slavery Know-Nothings went on to join the Republican Party, keeping the rest of the anti-immigration and anti-Catholic views intact (as we will see later with Henry Cabot Lodge for example), while the anti-slavery Know-Nothings continued to push the country into the Civil War by directing political power in the south under a reformed Constitutional Union Party.


After the civil war, anti-slavery southerners formed the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan and terrorized the southern states for a period of time during reconstruction. However, the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic views survived within the new Republican Party and additionally led to two more attempts at creating an American Party in the 1870s and 1880s. The 1886 California-based American Party was created to call for the exclusion of Chinese and other Asians from industrial employment. Immigration of Chinese in the pre-Civil War era, helping build the Transcontinental Railroad, as well as the Gold Rush after had increased the nativist concerns of many living in the western states, especially California.

It was in 1882 where things in the United States started to turn. New laws were passed that had huge precedents for later actions by the country. In that year the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Acts were passed, for the first time excluding immigration based on illness or mental acuity and also on an entire nationality by the federal government. Until this time the power of immigration had not been granted to the federal government by the constitution. However, when challenged on its constitutionality, it was upheld, not because the power was given to the federal government within the U.S. Constitution, but because the majority of justices felt that the U.S. should have that power and awarded it.

From that point the nativists started recruiting and picking up steam. Still not in the majority, but gaining strides. Most notable was Henry Cabot Lodge who upon entering the congress in 1887 started pushing for a literacy test. The tests were designed to exclude members of those races Lodge felt was “most alien to the body of the American people”. Lodge, as a Republican, was a staunch defender of black voting rights, but felt that there was genetic inferiority in people immigrating from specific areas of Europe, specifically the eastern and southern European lands.

A few years later, in 1894, Charles Warren, Robert DeCourcy Ward and Prescott F. Hall, three of Boston, MA’s elite aristocracy, created the Immigration Restriction League. They believed that the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were starting to immigrate to the U.S. in increasing numbers were ethnically inferior to Anglo-Saxons. Henry Cabot Lodge would eventually go on to be their face in the U.S. congress, helping push through their long desired literacy test.


But they were being thwarted. Even though supporters like Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford were backing this effort, it was still being defeated in Congress. Then two things happened to change the story and eventually bring about the successes for the Immigration Resistance League and Henry Cabot Lodge had worked towards for so long.

First, World War I ravaged the European continent and caused many displaced people from the eastern and southern European areas to flee from their homes, looking to the United States as a place of safety. This resulted in some cities in the eastern U.S. to start to see more immigrants than it had previously. And not just immigrants, but what many considered to be “the wrong kind” of immigrant.

Second, Charles Davenport and Madison Grant started looking into a new area of science that they called Eugenics. They believed that they were beginning to understanding the genetics of the human animal. Using information learned from watching plants intermix, along with some personal biases and flawed use of the scientific method, they created a now debunked form of genetic science that mistakenly sought to prove inequality among the different races. Their goal was to “build better human stock” but as their methods were inherently flawed, they failed to see how they created a largely fake science.


For some time, several events converged: the influx of immigrants into American urban areas; the pushing of nativist beliefs by proponents like Lodge and the Immigration Resistance League; trade unions that were concerned about new immigrants causing their trade union wages to be deflated; and finally, the popularization of the new eugenics movement.

Photo provided by THE VANCOUVER PUBLIC LIBRARY HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS COLLECTION (Wikimedia Commons). A group of Chinese immigrants pose for a photo while working on American railroads.

All of these elements led to the reforming of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 (with an extremely anti-immigration, anti-catholic, demanding allegiance-to-the-flag, respect-for-authority nationalist agenda) and to the passage, finally, of a literacy test for immigrants.

There was still enough nativist (know-nothing) political power to pass the first real exclusionary quota system, allowing only a certain number of people to immigrate into the country from various countries of origin. There was a flaw though: as immigration levels from eastern and southern Europe were rising – something they were trying to stop – it was decided that they would base those quotas on the U.S. Census information from 1890, four decades earlier. The quota law was passed in 1924 and put into effect in 1929. This severely curtailed the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from eastern and southern Europe by an extremely large number.

q3This was the height of nationalism in the U.S. – nationalism hasn’t been seen at those levels until more recently in our history. Soon after the passage and implementation of the laws, the Great Depression hit and the number of people wanting to immigrate to the U.S. dropped. Then when World War II began, people fleeing Germany to the U.S. were caught up in the new laws that were woefully unprepared for handling such a crisis. The result was that many of the people seeking safety from Nazi Germany were denied entry into the America and eventually captured by the Nazi regime and killed. The RMS St. Louis was one of the more notable tales of this occurring, but by far not the only one.

It was these events that helped lead to the unmasking and eventual end of the “science” of eugenics. Other scientists had started calling the underlying science into question and found the incredible biases that the methods of the institute that Davenport had founded had used. But it was the German officers before, during, and especially after the war who pointed to Grant and Davenport’s work as the basis for their own policies of discrimination that ultimately put the final nail in the coffin of eugenics.


Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump makes campaign stop in St. Louis
Photo by BILL GREENBLATT (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with the defeat of eugenics and the quelling of nationalistic fervor in the aftermath of the lessons learned from Nazi Germany. The quota system remained in effect until 1965 when the immigration laws were reformed to eliminate the per-country quotas, but – as most people reading this know – once federal bureaucracy is in place, rooting it out is often more difficult than it is to get it put in in the first place. So we have been left with a mishmash, cobbled together immigration system that not only defies the U.S. Constitution’s limit of powers and the individual private property rights of U.S. Citizens, but also puts U.S. law in the position of treating people entering the U.S. into a group identity methodology – guilty until proven innocent and violating their inalienable rights.

We’ve created a prohibition on the free movement of human beings, a freedom that according to our founding ideals is present unless the person has been subject to due process. It creates the very situation we are trying to avoid; the damage of the human condition of those seeking to come here to be part of our great country by forcing them to sneak, hide, deal with traffickers and coyotes and other nefarious individuals looking to make money and power from the now created black market of human movement. It pits the government against business owners by telling them who they can and can’t hire at their own businesses. It tells private citizens who they can and can’t have living with them on their own property or who they can rent their property to.

We literally created the very problem of illegal immigration that the nationalists now want to use as the excuse for further limitations on immigration, just as the government does with the war on drugs and did with prohibition of the sale of alcohol. It seems the one defining characteristic of the American people today is the inability to look to our past and learn from our mistakes, continuously repeating them in ways that cause pain and suffering to millions of people every year.

Rhinehold is a frequent guest on WAL network podcasts.

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