At the dawn of the nation we know today as the United States of America, there was no concept of “illegal” or “legal” immigration because there were no laws in this country governing the movement or settling of peoples. Before the 1700s when the U.S. developed into an independent nation, the land was occupied by Native Americans. Europeans came with African slaves and “settled” the land which belonged to someone else.
They were mostly northern and western European and staunchly Protestant. They abhorred the southern and eastern European Catholics as well as Chinese who would soon settle behind them during the mid-to-late 19th century.
Although there were local and state immigration laws, federal laws wouldn’t become codified until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act effectively banned all immigrants from China except students and diplomats to placate racists in the West who blamed the Chinese for low wages and poor employment conditions.
About a decade later, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 would ban almost all immigration from Asia as well as a host of other people with undesirable behaviors and conditions. The Museum of Chinese in America remarks, “Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which added to the number of undesirables banned from entering the country, including but not limited to, ‘idiots,’ ‘feeble-minded persons,’ ‘epileptics,’ ‘insane persons,’ alcoholics, ‘professional beggars,’ all persons ‘mentally or physically defective,’ polygamists, and anarchists. Furthermore, it barred all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate.”
Asian exclusion was perpetuated with the 1924 Immigration Act which banned all people not naturalized per the 1790 Naturalization Act. In practice, this exclusion only applied to Asians because other groups like Mexicans, black Americans, and Native Americans had won citizenship by the time this law was passed.
The 1924 Immigration Act was also the first to introduce quotas based on country of origin. These quotes were proposed to address the “crisis” of too many non-Anglo Saxon immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions remarked that the 1924 Immigration Act was “good for America.” But according to Mae M. Ngai, a professor of Asian American studies and history at Columbia University, “the 1924 act is considered almost universally to be a stain on our history.”
The quotas presented an ethnic hierarchy with a preference for “desirable” immigrants from western, Protestant, European nations. After 1924, for example, arrivals from Germany had an annual quota of over 51,000 and those from Great Britain just over 34,000; while Italy had a quota of less than 4000, and nations such as Greece, Turkey, and Syria had the minimum of 100 annual “legal” arrivals.
This law stayed in place until the 1960s when the Hart-Celler Immigration Act was passed which said that the U.S. cannot issue more than seven percent of the total allowable visas to one nation. This was the first time a cap was placed on other nations within the Americas like Mexico. Previously, Mexican immigrants would move freely across the border searching for work. This act caused entire groups of migrants to be seen as illegal for the first time.
The 1965 Immigration Act which lessened the discrimination but kept in place privileges and penalties for certain arrivals. Factors such as family connections, professional training, and education were used as grounds of determination instead of ethnicity.
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took action to rescue Jews from World War II ravaged Europe. He formed the War Refugee Board to facilitate the rescue of Holocaust victims. Tens of thousands of Jews were rescued with the assistance of the American Joint Distribution Committee, the World Jewish Congress, and several other smaller relief groups. The United States became second only to Palestine as a relocation destination for displaced Jewish people after the war.
President Harry S. Truman issued the Truman Directive of 1945. This order established immigration quotas for 1946 which gave preference to victims of Nazi persecution who were in U.S. zones of occupation at the time of the executive order. As a result of the initiative between 35,000 and 40,000 displaced persons, most of whom were Jewish, entered the United States between December 1945 and July 1948.
In 1948, Congress under pressure from American Jewish interest groups raised the cap to accommodate 202,0000 displaced persons. 80,000 of these were Jewish. Although America proved welcoming to Jewish persons displaced by the Holocaust. Other groups were less widely accepted.
Immigration has been the life blood of America. However, it has also been an easy target for blame. The spirit of blaming another ethnic group for low wages or taking jobs as well as banning immigrants from certain countries is a dark part of American history that perpetuates into modern day. Until we accept immigrants and those different from ourselves as part of the fabric of our nation we will fail in becoming the great nation we aspire to be. Immigration is a negative word in many circles. However, such a philosophy is short sighted.
We are on the cusp of losing baby boomers from the work force and our current immigration policies are making it difficult for corporations to hire the skilled workers they need to compete. Because of these factors, our country will likely see a need to increase immigration soon.
About the author: Jon Velie has practiced Immigration law since 1993. He is CEO of OnlineVisas.com., a revolutionary Immigration platform and global Immigration network. Jon is an Amazon number one best-selling author of H1B Visa: Application & Approval, is regularly covered by major media and has won a number of international awards. Jon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405-310-4333 office or 405-821-5959 mobile.