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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

A Brief History Of US Immigration...

by David D. Murray

Jobs and a promise of a prosperous life drew them by the thousands, and they came even after there were laws barring them from citizenship. Once they got to the USA, where the streets were rumored to be paved with gold, they found work, but they earned the ire of other workers, angry at the low wages they were willing to accept. These are not Mexicans I am talking about, heading north to take factory, agricultural or construction jobs, this was 130 years ago and the immigrants were Chinese, attracted to America first by the California gold rush and later by work on railroad construction crews and in mines. Dirty work, but somebody's got to do it... the jobs Americans will not do. But then, like now, this influx of easily identifiable foreigners prompted a flurry of legislation, tightening America's immigration laws.

Throughout its history, the United States has had a mixed relationship with immigrants, welcoming them when they're needed and passing restrictive laws when too many came too quickly. It appears that when the percentage of foreign-born moves upward from 10 percent, the country has an intensive immigration debate. America is currently embroiled in an emotional debate of heretofore-unknown proportions, spread through the mass media of talk radio, TV and the local pool hall.

According to U.S. Census Bureau records, in 1850, foreign-born people represented 9.7 percent of the overall population. By 1870, this number had increased to 14.4 percent, prompting Congress to pass the nation's first laws restricting immigration. After all, Congress did not want America to become a country of immigrants.

Immigration debate is once again in the forefront of the news, because in the past decade the nation has seen a similar increase - 7.9 percent in 1990 to 10.4 percent in 2000. But the debate is not only about immigration, but also about legal vs. illegal immigration. The current debate centers around three separate ideologies, Anti-immigrationism, Restrictionism, and, for want of a single adequately definitive word, "Let'em all inism." Then, of course, there are the moderates, who don't know what to call themselves, but know what they want when they see it. But through the years since it's founding, nothing has really changed and the issues are continue to be rehashed and sides drawn on the basis of emotion, rather than logic.

Here is an analysis, with logic applied, of some of the nation's most sweeping immigration reforms, beginning with the first immigration law that was passed 217 years ago...

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790: Allowed any "free white person" to become a citizen after just two years in the United States. In 1875, it was amended, increasing the wait time to five years. Now we know why free white persons need to wait five years after adjusting to permanent residence, unless they are married to a free white US citizen, and then they need only wait three years, or at least it would have been that way, had not the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.


  • The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Prompted by concern over the threat of war, it made people from "enemy" nations ineligible for citizenship and authorized deportations of those deemed dangerous. The US has abandoned this practice, deeming it to be not politically correct. Today, the US welcomes it enemies, giving them student visas.


  • The Nationalization Act of 1802: Required new arrivals to register as aliens before they could apply for citizenship. Nothing has changed in this respect . . . that's why the I-551 is actually an Alien Registration Receipt Card, better known as the "Green Card," in the street vernacular, because way back in the 1950's it was a greenish color with squiggly lines across its face. It then became white and then a snazzy pale pink, presumably the color of one of Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats, but nobody wanted to call it a "White Card" or a "Pink Card". Now it is a kind of gold and has holograms and fancy imbedded electronic verification gismos. But it is still called a "Green Card". That's progress.


  • Immigration Legislation between 1820 & 1875: Legislation mostly designed to encourage immigrants. During that period, 9 million foreigners arrived from abroad (or below or above). Today, Anti-Immigrationists regret the passage of this legislation and wish they could revoke it and send the descendants of these 9 million people back to whence they came. Apparently, they believe America should be for Americans, like them.


  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: Prohibited Chinese laborers from entry into the United States and denied Chinese already here citizenship. It could be that Anti-Immigrationists in 1882 did not like Chinese food because an hour later they were still hungry. The Chinese added monosodium glutamate to their soy sauce and later opened Panda-Panda, Wok Express and Pei Wei, as revenge. This proves the old adage, "He who laughs last, laughs best." Today, 1.3 billion Chinese are laughing, all the way to the bank, because everything Americans buy in Wal-Mart is made in China. Americans fail to see the irony.


  • The Immigration Act of 1891: Denied entry to poor people, those who were sick or mentally ill, convicts and polygamists. Now, the U.S. lets them in and some run for Congress or become the president of a large corporation. Some have proposed the passage of an act so they could be come president, but that is unlikely, except perhaps for a charismatic bodybuilding movie star, for which an exception has been proposed.


  • The Immigration Act of 1924: Limited the number of immigrants from any country in one year to 2 percent of the number of people from that country already living in the United States in 1890. Today, Anti-Immigrationists would like to restore this logic and get the country back to the good old days, when America was for Americans.


  • The Magnuson Act of 1943: The Magnuson Act also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943 was immigration legislation proposed by Senator Warren G. Magnuson and signed into law on December 17, 1943 in the United States. It allowed Chinese immigration for the first time since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and who said immigration was not political?), and allowed Chinese nationals already residing in the country to become naturalized citizens. This marked the first time since the Naturalization Act of 1790 that any Asians were permitted to be naturalized. It was passed during World War II, when China was a welcome ally to the United States and when Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps in California. One must wonder if they held Naturalization Oath Ceremonies in the internment camps, and if so, how long the FBI "Name Checks" took.


  • The Immigration Act of 1952 (The Warren-McCarran Act): Restricted immigration into the U.S. and is codified under Title 8 of the United States Code. The Act governs primarily immigration and citizenship in the United States. Before the INA, a variety of statutes governed immigration law but were not organized within one body of text. Racial restrictions that previously existed were abolished in the INA, but a quota system was retained and the policy of restricting the numbers of immigrants from certain countries was continued. Eventually, the INA established a preference system that selected which ethnic groups were desirable immigrants and placed great importance on labor qualifications. Truman vetoed the McCarran- Walter Act because he regarded the bill as "un-American" and discriminatory. Truman's veto was overridden by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House, and 57 to 26 in the Senate. Parts of the McCarran-Walter act remain in place today but much of it was overturned by the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965.


  • The Immigration Act of 1965: This was the start of the patchwork quilt of immigration law we have today. It eliminated the earlier quota system based on national origin, established visas on a first-come, first-serve basis; limited Eastern Hemisphere immigration to 170,000 a year and Western Hemisphere immigration to 120,000. Family reunification visas were unlimited. It appears Central Americans decided that because they could sneak across the border from the south, something unavailable to Africans, Europeans or Asians, these restrictions did not apply to them. Besides, the entire Southwest once belonged to Mexico and the Americans stole it from them in the Mexican-American war. Rallies in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park in 2007 confirmed this attitude, but failed to garner widespread support from Gringos in the Midwest, or from Rednecks in the South, whose ancestors do not appear to have been immigrants . . . at least not from Mexico.


  • The Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986: Legalized illegals who could documentarily prove they had been in the United States on January 1, 1982 and created sanctions against employers knowingly hiring illegal workers, and created a new visa for seasonal agricultural workers. When the amnesty was over, and about 3 million illegal aliens legalized, illegals immediately asked . . . "When will the next Amnesty be?" Twenty years later, with more than 12 million illegally present in the US, Congress finally answered that question, saying . . . "Well, not now."


  • The Immigration Act of 1990: IMACT '90 (Pub. L. 101-649, November 29, 1990, 104 Stat. 4978) increased the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States each year. It also created a lottery program that randomly assigned a number of visas. This was to help immigrants from countries where the United States did not often grant visas. The Act also provided for exceptions to the English testing process required for naturalization set forth by the Naturalization Act of 1906. After the Act, the United States would admit 700,000 new immigrants annually, up from 500,000 before the bill's passage. The new system continued to favor people with family members already in the United States, but added 50,000 "diversity visas" for countries from which few were emigrating as well as 40,000 permanent job-related visas and 65,000 temporary worker (H-1B) visas. Additional provisions strengthened the U.S. Border Patrol and altered language regarding disease restrictions in a way that permitted the secretary of Health and Human Services to remove AIDS from the list of illnesses making a prospective immigrant ineligible to enter the country, showing the country was politically correct toward persons with a deadly, killer disease and put a condom on every banana in schools across America, educating young Americans to have "safe sex", because if they did not, they might get AIDS. Go figure.


  • The Illegal Immigration reform and Responsibility Act of 1996: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, Pub.L. 104-208, Div. C, 110 Stat. 3009-546 (often referred to as "Ira-Ira", and abbreviated "IIRAIRA") vastly changed the immigration laws of the United States, making it more restrictive and perhaps out of step with the 21st century.
Major changes in immigration law under IIRAIRA included the following:
  • It introduced three and ten-year bars to admissibility and prevented certain aliens who had violated US immigration law from being admitted to the US under any circumstances until they had left the United States for the bar period;
  • It renamed deportation proceedings and exclusion proceedings as "removal proceedings";
  • It introduced major changes to the immigration consequences of criminal acts;
  • It required mandatory detention for immigrants convicted of certain crimes;
  • It introduced the "aggravated felony" and made mandatory the removal of noncitizens, including permanent residents, who had been convicted of committing one;
  • It enacted a permanent bar to permanent residence for those who falsely claimed to be U.S. citizens;
  • It authorized the hire at least 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and 300 new support personnel each year from 1997-2001.
It is clear that America has a checkered immigration past, perhaps the trend begun by its discoverer, Christopher Columbus, himself an immigrant, who may have annihilated hundreds of thousands of indigenous Native Americans on the Island of Hispanola to make room for more immigration from Europe . . . Hispanola is a small Island you know, and it appears Columbus never saw the majesty of the large land to the north that we now call the United States, instead concentrating his efforts on the riches of the southern Caribbean, where the winters are less harsh, or he might have wiped out the Iroquois and the Mohawks, long before the Brits got their chance. It is ironic, however, that ancestors of some of those indigenous people now come up from the south to work factories, agriculture and construction, in the United States without employment authorization.

Whatever the reason, North America, the southern portion of which became the United States of America, evolved into a land of immigrants who, it appears, believed they had a God-given right to invade and take land without recompense from the indigenous people. Perhaps one day the full circle of immigration will be complete and there will be nobody left south of the border, all having come north to seek the riches of the Sierra Madre, but until then Congress must create a workable immigration program that balances the equities of human compassion against the impact of unchecked legal and illegal immigration on the American economy. Of course, Congress must do that and get re-elected too!


About The Author

David D. Murray is an attorney at law with offices located in Newport Beach, California. A graduate of Ball State University and Western State University College of Law, Mr. Murray has been a practitioner and consultant in connection with business law and immigration matters since 1978. His practice concentrates in the areas of Civil Litigation, Copyright, Trademark, and Trade Secrets Litigation, Employment Law, Contracts, International Transactions, and U.S. Business and Family Immigration matters.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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