Immigrating to the United States has never been an easy thing. Leaving one’s home and trying to make a new home in a new place is a terrifying proposition. Today’s debates about legal and illegal immigration, about who should and should not be allowed to remain are not new. Today, we focus on those from Latin America as the subject of the debate. The debate itself is nothing new. Talking about those who come from outside is a discussion that people in all countries face. This era of globalization will only serve to magnify old issues in a new way.
Early settlers to the Western hemisphere came for religious freedom, but then were wary about giving that same freedom to others. In the United States, it is almost a tradition that children of the immigrants of the last generation are ungenerous in their attitudes to this generation’s immigrants. Our prejudice and our legislation have created difficulties for those who look or sound different from “real Americans.” In the end, those who make the trip to America are very different from the people stay where they are. They show a trait particular to Americans.
Americans have long held to our identity as a land that welcomes immigrants. Henrietta Szold’s The New Colossus welcomes all with its opening lines, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The words are set at the base of the Statue of Liberty, but the Statue is set with its back facing those coming in. Only when they reach the American shore does Lady Liberty show her face to them.
The Common American Trait
I lived in Poland for a year in a little town called Kedzierzyn-Kozle. I was teaching English. In talking to a group of my teenaged students, I discovered they all shared a dislike for the town where they lived. I wrote it off to them being teenagers.
One evening, I went to a student’s home for dinner. There I met her parents and her maternal grandparents. Everyone in the house was eager to hear about the United States. All were open in their dislike of the place they lived. The grandmother even informed me that she remembers her own grandmother disliking this town. I realized then just how different Americans are from other people.
We have a culture that recognizes there is a time to stay and a time to leave. Five generations of traceable misery in a single place is not something we would anticipate in the United States. For many in other parts of the world, staying put is the norm. There is no right or wrong here; there is just a recognition that our willingness to change our circumstances is one of the United States’ defining cultural characteristics.
As we discuss American immigration and citizenship, it is important to remember that the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship in the US to “free white persons” of “good moral character.” While immigration of many groups would be allowed, not all would be offered the protection of citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was overturned by the Walter-McCarran Act of 1952. Until that time, the white and racial minority populations would be accorded unequal rights and treatment when seeking citizenship, and when looking at voting, residency, jury, property and family rights.
The First Immigrants
America is a land of immigrants. Archaeological evidence indicates that even the Native Americans arrived here about 20,000 years ago. The evidence would point to them having crossed at the Bering Strait when there was an ice bridge there. (By contrasts, Europe appears to have only had humans for about 10-12,000 years.) Their own traditions largely indicate that either they have always been here or have been here since time immemorial. Why these people chose to make this trip, why groups chose to disperse to the various locales they did, and how they developed their various cultures we may never know. To the benefit of those who came later from Europe, these peoples were already established by the time the English began to come to the New World.
Why did the Pilgrims leave England in 1609? They left so they could experience religious freedom. The 1559 Act of Uniformity demanded all British citizens attend services and follow traditions of the Church of England. As the King or Queen of England is also the head of the Church of England, to reject the Church was a sort of treason. King James put an end to the execution of Puritans for violating the Act of Uniformity, but hatred and other forms of persecution persisted.
Both the Puritans and the Pilgrims made their way first from England to Holland. In Holland, there was the religious freedom they sought. However, they found themselves faced with a new language. They also began to see their children adopting Dutch traditions. Their goal was a place with religious freedom, free from the influence of others, and where they could speak English. The only choice was the “New World.” A group of Puritans chose to move back to England and then to sail in 1620 on the Mayflower to places unknown.
Otto Von Bismark created a united Germany out of many German states in the 1870s. Before that, “German” could refer to people from anyplace that spoke German. These include such diverse locations as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Bohemia, Prussia, Austria and portions of Poland. For this reason, defining “German” immigration to the United States can be a tricky thing.
There was German immigration from the earliest times. Records show some immigration during the period when the United States were still British colonies. The early immigrants, like those from England, largely sought religious freedoms. The German states were the home of the Protestant reformation, and those who held to other beliefs were not always treated as first class citizens.
Later, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815), individuals fled in an effort to avoid military conscription and political oppression. German migration to the Midwestern United States and to Minnesota in particular was at its height during the 1860s and 1870s. This was an era of increased mechanization and industrialization. Many individuals went to cities in search of employment that could no longer be found in the hand-crafted cottage industries. As the cities became over crowded and unemployment became more of an issue, many chose to go to the United States where land was cheap and they could go back to farming.
Immigration from Africa is unique in American history. While those from Europe and Asia migrated of their own accord, most from Africa did not. In the early 17th century, the colonists did not offer equal freedom to all. Many who came bound themselves into servitude for a time. One would serve as an indentured servant for a period of time before being released to find one’s own way. The Africans brought over, however, faced a never-ending nightmare that found them bound into permanent servitude along with their children.
In 1619, the first shiploads of Africans made their way to Virginia and then to neighboring colonies for sale. The majority still were sent to the Caribbean or to South America. By 1660, the fate of black servants had changed radically from others and black slavery had become institutionalized. Over the next 200 years, the cruelty escalated.
The cruelty of slavery, the ridicule, and pervasive prejudice that faced those brought from Africa and their progeny created problems that persist even now when the institution of slavery is generations in our past.
It is impossible to talk about America’s immigration history without talking about those who came here from Ireland. In the years from 1820 to 1860, the Irish constituted over a third of the immigrants to the United States. The Act of Union of 1803 incorporated the island into British polity, but was never able to address the situation of the populace of Ireland. Ireland suffered from overpopulation as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. The people became impoverished. Religious prejudice of Protestants Masters towards the Catholic Irish resulted in political marginalization. Eventually, many felt there was no alternative but to emigrate. A large number chose to go the United States.
In 1845, Ireland also faced the potato famine. With a single type of potato being a primary source of sustenance to the population, when that crop succumbed to blight, many who had weathered other difficulties finally had to flee. Many of the Irish who came to the United States were poor and arrived without money or a support system in place. The good news was that in an era before heavy machinery, there was a need in the expanding US for strong laborers. Though Irish immigration continued to be heavy into the 1880s, it was hidden by other large immigration movements after the Civil War.
All waves of immigration lead to discrimination against the newcomers. Perhaps none faced discrimination like those from Asia. Where Germans, Italians, Irish and Jews could look like those born in the US, people from Asia looked different. Japanese laborers were not allowed to leave their country legally to work, much less to migrate to another country, until after 1884. At that time there was an agreement signed between the Japanese government and Hawaiian sugar plantations. Though not legal, many Japanese moved from Hawaii to the U.S. (Remember that Hawaii was its own kingdom until 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by American business interests. It was a few more years before it was annexed as a Territory of the US. It was August 1959 before Hawaii became a state.)
Census records indicate that in 1890, 2,038 Japanese resided in the United States. Japanese immigration continued until 1907 when white supremacist organizations, labor unions and politicians came up with a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” curtailing legal immigration of Japanese laborers. The agreement, however, allowed these laborers to bring over wives. The result was marriages being arranged and “picture brides” being sent to the US until 1924. After 1910, these brides entered the country through Angel Island near San Francisco. This locale was where many “picture brides” met their husbands for the first time.
In Japan, marriages were arranged based on careful matching of socioeconomic status, personality and family background. The exchange of photographs was a first step in the process. Entering the bride’s name in the groom’s family registry legally constituted marriage. For wives who entered the country after 1910, their first glimpse of the United States was the detention barracks at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. New immigrants were processed there and given medical exams. This was the place where most “picture brides” saw their new husbands for the first time.
Instead of putting an end to Japanese immigration as many had hoped, the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” led to an increase in the number of Japanese. To thwart that increase, a new legislation was passed called the Immigration Act of 1924. That legislation did effectively limit immigration to the US until 1952. During that period immigration was limited to 100 immigrants from Japan per year.
Chinese immigration was no easier. The first record of Chinese people in America occurs when three Chinese sailors arrive in Baltimore in 1785. They did not stay, however. In 1830, the United State census records only three Chinese living in the United States. By the 1840 census, the records show four.
Chinese immigration boomed with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill California in 1848. By 1850, the census shows about 4000 Chinese in the United States. By 1870, nearly half the male working population of California is Chinese. Chinese laborers are primary builders of the United States railroads. They are also active in the most dangerous kinds of mining. Despite their place in building the country, in 1870 the congress passes a Naturalization Act that bars Chinese from obtaining citizenship. It also prevents Chinese women from leaving China and joining their spouses in the United States. In 1890, the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of Chinese Exclusion law (Chae Chan Ping v United States).
The various Naturalization Acts will not begin to fall by the wayside until the Magnuson Act of 1943. With Japan as the enemy of America during World War II, we decide to be friendly with China.
Other Waves of Immigration
There were many other waves of immigration and other cultures that have made their way to the United States. Jews, Vietnamese, Mexican, Cuban, and on and on. Some come for financial reasons. Some come for freedom. Some come to escape persecution. The stories tend to be similar. We gather together in communities when we arrive. Whether we call them barrios or ghettos or China Towns or Little Tokyos, they are a place for those in a foreign world to feel a little safer with others like them. These immigrants reach out and integrate and become part of our culture.
Our questions about immigration today are not so very different from the ones we have faced in the past. If we have learned anything from our past, it is that those who come here are changed by America and change America. The difference between the ones who come here and the ones who did not, are that the ones who come here are the bravest. They gather themselves together and make the tough choices when things are rough. That’s the kind of people we want in America.
— SOURCES —
The best information on immigration for all groups and immigration law can be found at the Library of Congress website http://www.loc.gov
My favorite books when researching US immigration are:
Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Written by Daniel Rogers; New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Edited by Stephan Thernstrom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.