Rethinking The Last 200 Years Of US Immigration Policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Aug 12 16:02:48 UTC 2006

Rethinking The Last 200 Years Of US Immigration Policy
by Aristide Zolberg

Originally published on the Migration Information Source
(, a project of the Migration Policy

Conventional histories of US immigration policy generally present the
starting point as laissez-faire, or open door, an attitude that only
shifted to favor increased restriction after the Civil War. The door began
to close with the exclusion of Chinese in the final decades of the 19th
century and the imposition of annual quotas for Europeans in the 1920s.
While this timeline indeed highlights important aspects of US immigration
policy, it distorts the larger reality. As its title suggests, my book A
Nation by Design argues instead that from colonial times onward, Americans
actively devised policies and laws that effectively shaped the country's
population and hence its overall makeup. In this perspective, the United
States is distinct from other overseas nations of European origin where
immigration remained largely governed by the imperial governments or, in
the case of the precociously independent South American states, hardly
governed at all.

Since before the Revolutionary War, in which the country successfully
gained its independence from England, Americans not only set conditions
for membership but decided quite literally who would inhabit the land.
They drove out and ultimately eradicated most of the original dwellers.
They actively recruited those considered most suitable, kept out
undesirables, stimulated new immigration flows from untapped sources,
imported labor, and even undertook the removal of some deemed ineligible
for membership. On the positive side, American policy initially extended
well beyond laissez-faire to proactive acquisition, reflected in multiple
initiatives to obtain immigrants from continental Europe by insisting on
their freedom of exit at a time when population was still regarded as a
scarce, valuable resource preciously guarded by territorial rulers.

Such decision-making accounts in large part for the differences
characterizing successive immigration waves and for the recurrent waves of
nativism that punctuate US immigration history. It also illustrates the
persistence of identity-related and economic concerns. From the economic
perspective, immigration is viewed essentially as a source of additional
labor, which reduces its price, or at least prevents it from rising; in
the case of the highly skilled, it also externalizes the costs of
training. Therefore, business interests have been generally supportive of
immigration. By the same token, from its inception, organized labor has
tended to view immigration as a threat (although unions began to embrace
immigrants in the 1970s).

Most labor migration brings in people who differ culturally from the bulk
of the established population, as signified by language, religion, and
ethnicity, often manifested in phenotypical characteristics. Hence, the
tapping of new sources of immigration frequently triggers confrontations
in what are now termed "culture wars" between those intent upon preserving
the nation's established boundaries of identity and those more tolerant of
their broadening, who include the new immigrants themselves and their
descendants. The intersection of these identity and economic concerns
explains why, throughout its history, immigration policy in the United
States has recurrently opened the door to migrants from one part of the
world while shutting the door for migrants from somewhere else. "Strange
bedfellow"  political dynamics, with alliances straddling the usual
"liberal/conservative" divide, have also resulted from identity and
economic concerns.

Policies, labor-recruitment strategies, and popular sentiment from various
time periods in US history reflect the tensions and unexpected political
alliances. This article will highlight only some of those policies and

Colonial Period to 1860

The colonial settlers were active in the transatlantic slave trade, at
least indirectly as the Puritan family farmers turned into Yankee
commercial entrepreneurs. Their success was founded on the production of
provisions for feeding the slaves and their supervisors in the southern
continental and Caribbean colonies. On the mainland itself, the proportion
of blacks rose rapidly from five percent of the population in 1660 to 21
percent in 1700. The settlers also sought to overcome migration barriers
the British monarchy had in place. The ability of British subjects to
emigrate was tightly controlled, and the British sovereign prohibited the
colonies from recruiting foreign settlers.

As formulated in the seventh grievance of the Declaration of Independence:
"He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that
purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to
pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the
conditions of new Appropriations of Lands." But many American leaders,
notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were also concerned about
growing immigration from the German empire, as they considered the German
language to be the bearer of a culture incompatible with republican

The Constitution was also written with migration in mind. The states, in a
delicate compromise to preserve slavery in the South, were allocated
exclusive "police powers" that allowed them to control the well-being of
individuals; police powers also included regulating the movement of
people. This constitutional compromise made it impossible to create a
comprehensive federal immigration policy. Americans from the
industrializing Northeast pursued their recruitment policy even more
vigorously after independence in 1776, seeking to lift European barriers
to exit that were commonplace at that time. After independence, the new
republic campaigned vigorously in the name of freedom to bring about an
"exit revolution" throughout Europe.

>>From the 1830s on, railroad and shipping companies actively promoted
emigration from northern Europe, and, in many cases, the multiplying US
consulates functioned in effect as labor-recruiting and land-selling
agencies, eventually reaching all the way to remote Norway.
Simultaneously, American entrepreneurs enticed newcomers from across
Western Europe by way of private missions. By the 1830s, the "exit
revolution" had been achieved, thanks also in part to a population boom in
Europe that eliminated government fears of a population shortage. From
this perspective, the onset of a huge immigration wave in the 1830s is not
attributable merely to "push factors," including such frequently cited
conditions as European population growth and the "Irish potato famine."
The failure of the potato crop also affected the Low Countries, northern
France, and much of Germany and Scandinavia, all of which experienced
demographic growth following the introduction of the potato a century

Immigration of Roman Catholics from new origins Ireland, Belgium,
Luxembourg, the German Rhineland, and the southern part of the Netherlands
challenged the established boundaries of American cultural identity,
initially founded on Protestantism. These immigrants were thought to be
subject to manipulation by that time period's "ayatollah of Rome." Indeed,
the Pope then vehemently condemned republicanism and democracy. Hence, in
the 1830s and 1840s, there were renewed attempts to enact national-level
immigration restrictions, which business interests (starting with the
shipping companies themselves) successfully defeated by invoking the
constitutional doctrine of police powers, repeatedly reasserted by the
Supreme Court. The growing preoccupation with ethnic diversity was
reflected in the 1850 census, which recorded not only place of birth but
the birthplace of parents of native-born Americans.

Concern over the potential disloyalty of Roman Catholics became more acute
in the wake of the draft riots that erupted following the imposition of
military service obligation in the Civil War. In response, Roman Catholics
did Americanize but also elaborated distinct social institutions ranging
from parochial schools to universities and hospitals, as well as fraternal
organizations. From the outset, Americans also fiercely opposed the use of
their territories as dumping grounds for European undesirables. For
example, in a paper read before the Society for Political Enquiries at the
house of Benjamin Franklin in 1787, Tench Coxe reminded his audience that
"[w]ith a most preposterous policy, the former masters of his country were
accustomed to discharge their jails of the vilest part of their subjects,
and to transmit ship loads of wretches, too worthless for the old world,
to taint and corrupt the infancy of the new."

No longer able to continue this practice, in 1776 the British government
housed those awaiting transportation in old ships on the Thames and in
southern naval ports, for possible use as labor in public works; however,
this proved highly unpopular. Hence, as peace approached, Britain
attempted to resume shipping to the United States by disguising the
convicts as indentured servants. When this proved impossible in the face
of effective American resistance, the authorities settled on remote Botany
Bay, Australia, because of its suitability as a naval base, which might be
built by convict labor, and the first deportation fleet sailed out three
years later. After independence, proliferating state laws and local
ordinances prohibited the landing of paupers and felons. However, these
were largely ineffective, as it was quite easy for shippers to dump them
in the state next door (e.g., New Jersey instead of New York) to get
around regulations and avoid fines. New Jersey did not protest as it was
eager to attract the shipping industry and anticipated that the newcomers
would move on to New York after landing.

Although the federal government couldn't regulate the movement of people,
it had the power to regulate international and interstate trade, including
ships that carried people. The first major enactment of this sort was the
comprehensive Passenger Act of 1819. Inspired by a pre-independence
British official's proposal, it was designed to attract European
immigrants of all nationalities who qualified as independent settlers or
free workers. The act succeeded in minimizing the dangers of the Atlantic
crossing while simultaneously deterring the burdensome poor from embarking
by limiting ship capacity, which raised the price of passage.

This federal law, together with state regulations governing ports of
entry, created a rudimentary system of "remote control" that allowed the
United States to select immigrants by projecting its boundaries into
immigrant-source countries.

In addition, a complementary market-oriented land policy made land
accessible to settlers of modest means but was simultaneously designed,
once again, to keep out the burdensome poor. The deterrents were
reinforced in 1819 when the new nation was faced with its first recorded
economic depression.

Successive Republican administrations also harnessed American diplomacy to
create a new African state (Liberia) that accepted freed slaves  notably
from Virginia, the country's key state at the time  and provided
incentives for them to do so because they were deemed unsuitable for
membership in American society.

Civil War to World War I

After the Civil War ended, in 1865, slavery was abolished. The Civil War
constitutional amendments also made it possible to shift immigration
regulation from the state to the federal level. Within a single decade,
the federal government had decisively taken control of immigration. This
shift was a major turning point, but one that has been mistakenly
understood as the beginning of US immigration policy.

The 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, defined US citizenship to include
all children born on US soil (with some exceptions). Measures that most
states favored, but the Supreme Court had previously barred because they
fell within the sphere of international trade, became national policy.

Concurrently, in the 1860s, the cost of transatlantic travel underwent a
dramatic drop thanks to technological improvements. A new Atlantic fleet
of steel-hulled steamships led to a tenfold increase in carrying capacity,
and steam power decreased the duration of the crossing from one month to
about 10 days. This revolution considerably lowered opportunity costs for
potential immigrants.

American and European industrialists and transporters also availed
themselves of the expansion of the European railroad network eastward and
southward to broaden their sphere of recruitment to include southern and
eastern Europeans (many of the latter Jewish).

One consequence of the transportation revolution was the possibility, even
for persons of modest means, to temporarily return to their country of
origin when not employed, even seasonally in the case of construction
workers. The development of cheap newsprint, arising from parallel
technological developments, led to a proliferation of newspapers in the
immigrants' mother tongues, providing information from "home" and
contributing to the formation of what became the typical organization of
American society along lines of hyphenated identities.

It is estimated that on the eve of World War I, one-third of European
immigrants to the United States returned to their country of origin at
least once during their lifetime, and often retired there at the end of
their active economic life to take advantage of lower cost of living and
the assistance provided by extended families. Polish-Russian Jews were the
major exception, undoubtedly because their movement was not solely
economic but also represented escape from perennial persecution or at
least burdensome discrimination.

When the European flow ebbed in the second half of the 1850s because of
the Crimean War, precisely at a moment when the US was experiencing major
westward expansion, American entrepreneurs tapped labor reserves in Europe
and Asia. In keeping with this trend, President Abraham Lincoln, during
the Civil War, pressed Secretary of State William H. Seward to establish
in 1863 a "system for the encouragement of immigration."

Seward, a former senator from New York, secured congressional approval of
a partnership between the private sector and the national government that
imported European workers under conditions that reinstated elements of
bondage; these conditions had been eliminated in the early decades of the
century because, under the evolving doctrine of human rights and
citizenship within Europe as well as the United States, they were
considered inappropriate for white people. Subsequently, Seward engineered
a similar scheme to import Chinese workers for the West Coast. An
essential element for the plan was American diplomatic intervention to
persuade the reluctant Chinese imperial authorities to let their people
emigrate. Although these labor policies were subsequently repealed, the
networks they fostered facilitated the expansion of both transoceanic

In 1894, in search of an additional source of workers for West Coast
development, the United States persuaded Japan "to let its people go" by
way of a treaty providing for mutual free entry. Some 26,000 Japanese
immigrated by the end of the decade and availed themselves of
opportunities in commercial agriculture by buying farmlands. After the US
acquired Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century, Japanese settled in the
islands as well.

Despite the fact that it resulted from American initiatives, the expansion
of the sphere of immigration to include "yellow races" on the Pacific
side, as well as "not-so-white Europeans" from the south and east on the
Atlantic side, prompted a new round of negative reactions from those
concerned with maintaining the established boundaries of American
identity. The diversity of white immigrants led critics to equate some of
the newcomers with the despised Chinese. Also, return movement and the
maintenance of links with the country of origin raised a great deal of
concern regarding the willingness of "new" immigrants to assimilate.
Hence, from the 1880s onward, the vast increase and growing heterogeneity
of the immigrants once again precipitated a "crisis."

With regard to the Chinese, the cultural protectionists triumphed early
on, first by effectively excluding Chinese females in 1895. This was seen
as a way to prevent the birth of American citizens to Chinese parents.
Eventually, all immigration from China was successfully banned.

The fast-growing flow of Japanese immigrants quickly set off negative
reactions, signaled by the formation of a Japanese and Korean Exclusion
League in 1905. Tensions were exacerbated by the San Francisco earthquake
of April 1906. When the schools reopened in October 1906, the Board of
Education imposed Oriental segregation.

Despite President Theodore Roosevelt's initial attempts at mediation, in
March 1907 he availed himself of an amendment to the Immigration Act to
exclude Japanese who entered the United States through a third country or
territory. In what is known as the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907,
Roosevelt persuaded San Francisco to end its segregation of Japanese
schoolchildren and Japan promised to withhold passports from workers
intending to migrate to the United States.

However, far from being generated by a popular social movement,
restrictionist policies were largely initiated by members of the political
class, who drew their ideas selectively from intellectuals to whom they
were connected via the intimate networks of elite education.

Elites became persuaded that, under conditions of democracy, mass armies,
a free-for-all labor market, social cohesion, and social control required
the populace to be socialized into a well-defined and homogeneous national
culture. Since culture was still believed to be largely rooted in
biological inheritance (as expressed by the concept of "atavism"),
heterogeneity of ancestry was perceived as a major political liability.
Therefore, immigration came to be viewed as a necessary but problematic
factor of national development, subject to systematic regulation.

Within this general climate, the course of policy was shaped by the
changing structure of congressional politics, notably the formation of a
conservative alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats. This
coalition sought to maintain the cultural and political hegemony of
northern European, mostly Protestant whites, who, within the ideology of
race founded on "Social Darwinism" prevailing by then on both sides of the
Atlantic, considered themselves "Anglo-Saxons," the most evolved group.
The nascent American labor movement  albeit led mostly by outsiders to
this group, including some of eastern European Jewish origin  saw itself
as being undermined by immigration. Consequently, the labor movement
entered a de facto alliance with the cultural restrictionists on
socioeconomic grounds.

Concurrently, Jewish organizations emerged as important actors in
immigration politics, seeking to keep the doors relatively open, or at
least minimize the likelihood that closure would severely restrict their
eastern European coreligionists. The Catholic Church joined in to some
extent as well. Together, and with the support of industrialists, they
fought against nativist restrictionism.

Escalating restrictive measures did little to reduce the immigration flow
from Europe which, just before World War I, reached a historical high as a
proportion of the total US population. Population growth, the steady
expansion of the European railroad system into the less developed southern
and eastern regions of the continent, as well as the lowering costs of sea
travel (fares and time loss from gainful employment) had steadily enlarged
the pool of potential emigrants.

As the supply of Chinese labor dwindled, the development of the West, and
especially California's emerging vocation as a fruit and vegetable
exporter, was threatened. Southwestern entrepreneurs then turned to
Mexico, which had experienced rapid population growth and where it had
become more difficult for peasants to live off the land. Entrepreneurs
responded to the concerns of cultural conservatives by arguing that
Mexicans were merely "birds of passage" with no interest in settling in
the United States. In the same vein, the United States stimulated
emigration from its new territory, the Philippines, as a substitute for
the Japanese.

In US immigration history, this closing of the door for Chinese has been
given considerable attention, but the consequent recruitment from Mexico
has not.

The outbreak of World War I extinguished transatlantic movement precisely
when the increasing demand for industrial products created a labor
shortage. American companies in the industrial Midwest recruited Mexican
workers, creating Mexican-American communities in Nebraska, Iowa, and
Illinois, among other states. Similarly, industrialists such as Henry Ford
encouraged African-American migration from the South to northern cities
such as Detroit and Chicago. This move from South to North demonstrates
how internal and international migrations can be related.

1920s to 1964

After World War I, the United States, in effect, proclaimed to the world
that it would cease being a nation of immigrants. In one of the most
spectacular displays of legislative power in American history, Congress
sought to make European and Asian immigration disappear with legislation
passed in 1921 under the leadership of Senator Charles Dillingham and
again in 1924 (usually referred to as the Johnson Act).

Admissions were allocated so as to severely limit the immigration of
Southern and Eastern Europeans by way of national origin quotas. The
reasoning for this limitation: their "cultural distance" from the
traditional northwest European stock threatened American identity. The
system was devised by commissioning sympathetic social scientists to trace
the origins of the American populations to its alleged European roots. The
researchers then collated annual entry visas in proportion to the share of
each nationality in the current population.

Obviously, the most ancient groups, notably British, German, and other
northwest European (Dutch, Belgian, and Luxemburgers) were assured the
largest representation, and the latecomers, such as Greeks, Italians, and
Poles, received the smallest. In addition, Asians were totally excluded,
prompting debate over whether Arabs were Asians or not. In effect,
Christian Arabs were deemed non-Asian while Muslims were categorized as

Thanks to the regulatory opportunities provided by the technology of
transoceanic transportation, the transformation was radical. Within a
decade, the flow of people was reduced to less than one-fourth of its
prewar level, with the reduction from Europe most evident as Asians had
already been largely excluded before the 1924 law.

The new legislation imposed even more draconian restrictions on Asian
immigration, especially from China. Consequently, there were fewer Chinese
in the United States in 1940 than in 1900  one of the few immigrant groups
that were, in effect, extinguished. This was also the case with the much
smaller Indian community, who were not allowed to bring over wives and
were denied US citizenship following a 1923 Supreme Court decision (United
States v. Bhagat Singh Thind).

Ironically, Mexican immigration was encouraged in the 1920s. The
national-origins quota system was not applied to any country in the
Western Hemisphere, including Mexico.

During the Great Depression, Mexican residents and even US-born citizens
of Mexican origin were massively deported to make room for unemployed
non-Latino citizens. Yet temporary labor migration from Mexico, in the
form of the Bracero Program (1942 to 1964), was promoted once again after
the outbreak of World War II. Internal migrations of African-Americans,
whites from the rural South, and Puerto Ricans to the industrial regions
were stimulated on economic grounds as well.

Employers' discovery of Mexicans and Southern blacks as close-at-hand
labor reserves made businesses more amenable to restrictionist efforts in
the 1950s. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act maintained the Western
Europe-biased quotas and set aside a sizeable portion of each country's
quota for permanent residents' family members and highly skilled workers
whose services were in short supply among the native labor force, but
breached Oriental exclusion by establishing token quotas for immigrants
from Asian countries.

In response to the growing Soviet threat in Europe, the McCarran-Walter
Act opened a side door for displaced persons and other European refugees,
defined to include Italian earthquake victims subject to mobilization by
the Italian Communist Party as well as Greeks caught in the midst of a
civil war.

Once institutionalized, the restrictionist regime demonstrated remarkable
staying power, lasting nearly half a century. It was overthrown only in
the 1960s, when the descendants of groups targeted for restriction gained
unusual political power in key constituencies and succeeded in shifting
the boundaries of American identity so as to include them.

After 1965

Although President John F. Kennedy led initial efforts to reform
immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality of Act passed after his
assassination, thanks to the astute political maneuvering of his
successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

The 1965 law maintained an annual limit on immigration but allowed 170,000
immigrants from Eastern Hemisphere countries with no more than 20,000 per
country. It even imposed, for the first time, an annual limit on
immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Preference was
decisively given to the close relatives of US citizens, including married
brothers and sisters (critics called it "the brothers and sisters act")
with a share of annual entries from outside the Western Hemisphere
reserved for persons qualifying as refugees under the new international
definition and another set aside for persons with skills certified as
being in shortage.

Advocates in Congress from both political parties assured that the law was
in no way designed to bring about an inflationary wave of newcomers. It is
impossible to establish whether they were knowingly downplaying this
aspect or whether they genuinely did not anticipate the law's

After a slow start, the law's preference for relatives catalyzed a
chaining effect, which, within two decades, raised the number of annual
legal newcomers back to levels not seen since before World War I. However,
given the much larger US population, these numbers constituted a smaller
proportion of the total population. Thanks to the elimination of Asian
exclusion and the national-origins system, as well as decolonization in
Africa and Asia, the new wave  which includes the first flow of immigrants
from sub-Saharan Africa since slavery  has been more diverse than any of
its predecessors.


Although the 1965 law imposed limits on immigration from the Western
Hemisphere, it was evident from the start that the United States did not
possess the police capacity to prevent undocumented movement across its
southern border. In addition, the creation of such a capacity would have
required radical actions, notably the enlistment of private employers
nationwide in immigration law enforcement.

Arguably, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) did require
employers to enforce immigration law by mandating that they hire only
workers who could prove their legal status. This was the price liberals
had to pay for securing their primary goal: the legalization of several
million unauthorized residents, most of whom were from Mexico.

The employer verification component was essentially abandoned after IRCA
passed, with unauthorized immigrants able to submit forged documents that
employers accepted. Several attempts were made in the 1990s to devise
effective strategies for controlling entry through the southern border,
but none of those enacted to-date have succeeded in stopping unauthorized
immigration; the matter remains on the national agenda.

While the principal political alignment remains that of the vocal cultural
conservatives, who object to the changing character of American identity,
against employers eager to insure a continued supply of cheap unskilled
labor, the balance seems to be leaning toward maintenance of the messy but
relatively liberal status quo. This is because, beginning in the 1970s,
some unions changed their position on immigration once they realized that
immigrants, legal and unauthorized, provided the most fertile source of
replenishment for their depleting ranks, initially in the garment industry
and subsequently in a variety of service occupations.

Moreover, Hispanics  currently the target of most restrictive efforts  are
rapidly achieving significant political power and are therefore being
courted in an unprecedented manner by both parties. Therefore, the
"strange bedfellows" are likely to remain at center stage for the
predictable future.

Originally published on the Migration Information Source
(, a project of the Migration Policy


About The Author

Aristide Zolberg is Walter A. Eberstadt Professor of Political Science at
the Graduate Faculty at The New School in New York City and Director of
its International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship. This
article is based on his latest book, A Nation By Design: Immigration
Policy in the Fashioning of America, published in 2006 by Harvard
University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.,0814-zolberg.shtm

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