Saturday, March 23, 2019

History of Immigration in the United States

It should be kept in mind that nearly the entire history of humans – Homo sapiens – involved intricate patters of migration that originated from East Africa some 70,000 years ago.  With the complete mapping of the human genome that was accomplished in 2003, DNA analysis has shown much of specifics of this migration over the thousands of years that have intervened since the initial departure from Africa.  Interestingly enough, current genetic evidence has demonstrated that there has been some intermixing of human and Neanderthal genes (Neanderthals co-existed with humans for a long period of time).   

This vast and uninterrupted migration of humans throughout the globe was most likely motivated by the search for adequate nutrition, better living conditions and primarily to improve the chances for survival.

Considering the heightened emotion and political hyperbole surrounding the state of immigration in the United States, it might be worth while actually examining the historic data in some detail. 
Archaeological data has clearly demonstrated that during the last Ice Age (some 20,000 years ago) there existed a land bridge connecting Asia with North America.  It was across this bridge, that Asians first emigrated to North America and migrated southward effectively populating North and South America.

By the early 1600s, Immigrants from Europe began to build communities along the Atlantic seaboard in what was to become the United Sates.  The Spanish settled in Florida, the Dutch in New York, the British in New England the Swedes in Delaware, for example. The predominant reasons for these migrations was to improve the overall chances for survival or escape religious persecution.
One of the more insidious examples of immigration was, of course, slavery (begun around 1619) that involved the forced migration of the peoples of Africa for the sole purpose of exploiting their labor for economic gain.  This horrific practice preceded the birth of the nation that was to become the United States of America.  The founding fathers of the Republic were faced with a dilemma in the midst of the framing of the U.S. Constitution; for the continued existence of the system of slavery was in direct contradiction with the aims of the new nation.  Recognizing that any attempt to establish a constitutional prohibition of slavery would immediately undermine any hope for establishing a new nation, the decision was made to allow slavery to stand at least for the time being. 
Historically, this practice would become illegal in the United States in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation issued by president Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865).  At that time, this proclamation did not have the force of law; since, the nation was still split between two warring factions – slave holding states vs non-slave hold states. 

Following the war, the 13th (1865) 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) amendments to the Constitution were finally ratified effectively abolishing the practice of slavery, establishing citizenship for the freed slaves and granting African-American men the right to vote.
In March of 1790: Congress passed a law detailing the requirements for U.S. citizenship. This law stipulated that, “any free white person of “good character,” who has been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship.” Accordingly, nonwhite residents were denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to vote, own property, or testify in court.  At the time of the passage of this law, the census of 1790 established that of the 3.9 million individuals counted, approximately 20% where of African descent.

For much of the young nation’s history, immigration came in waves.  The following table outlines this pattern –
Time Frame
Country(s) of Origin
Ireland and Germany
Following the conclusion of the War of 1812, immigration from Western Europe increased precipitously, especially Irish Catholics and approximately 5 million individuals of German descent.  The motivation for emigration from Ireland was the potato famine (1845-1849).
1850 - 1882
These immigrants worked in the gold mines, garment factories and on farms and were instrumental in the building of the railroads.
1880 - 1920
Southern, Eastern and Central Europe including Italians, Jews and many other nationalities
During this time period, over 20 million individuals emigrated to the United States many through Ellis Island in New York.  It is estimated that the direct descendants of this wave of immigration living in the U.S. are about 100 million individuals.
Immigrants from Hungary
At this time, about 38,000 Hungarians come to the US following a failed rebellion against the Soviet occupation of Hungary
1960 - 1962
About 14,000 unaccompanied children come to the US as a part of a secret anti-communist undertaking called Operation Peter Pan
Vietnam and Cambodia
In this time frame, there was a four-fold increase in immigration from the war-torn countries of Vietnam and Cambodia geared towards family reunification
The so-called “Mariel boat lift” brought 125,000 Cuban refugees to US shores

Notes: –
  • On account of the horrendous conditions that immigrants had to endure in coming to the United States across the open seas, many individuals did not survive this journey.  As a result, the Steerage Act of 1819 was passed that issued safety regulations and also compelled ship owners to keep and supply records of their passengers.
  • As a direct response to the increased immigration from Ireland and Germany, the Know-Nothing political party was formed that had a clear and definitive anti-immigration platform.
  • In 1876 the Supreme Court heard the case Chy Lung v. Freeman in which it was decided that, “The power to set rules surrounding immigration, and to manage foreign relations, rested with the United States Federal Government, rather than with the states.”
  • By 1882, the anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. was so strong that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.  The extreme bigotry towards the Chinese was exacerbated by the apparent economic success of many of these immigrants.  In reality, this fear was mostly unfounded; since, the Chinese immigrant population represented merely .02% of the entire US population.
  • In 1924, in the aftermath of World War I, Congress passed the Immigration Act that, “created a quota system that restricted entry to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census–a system that favored immigrants from Western Europe–and prohibited immigrants from Asia.”  In this same year the U.S. Border Patrol was established to deal with illegal immigration.
  • On February 19, 1942, the executive order (EO) 9066 promulgated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The following is the full text of this executive order –
“Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas
Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities as defined in Section 4, Act of April 20, 1918, 40 Stat. 533, as amended by the Act of November 30, 1940, 54 Stat. 1220, and the Act of August 21, 1941, 55 Stat. 655 (U.S.C., Title 50, Sec. 104);
Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamations in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas.
I hereby further authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the said Military Commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each Military area here in above authorized to be designated, including the use of Federal troops and other Federal Agencies, with authority to accept assistance of state and local agencies.
I hereby further authorize and direct all Executive Departments, independent establishments and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out this Executive Order, including the furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities, and services.
This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order (EO) No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas here under.”
It ordered all Japanese Americans to vacate their places of residence and move into concentration camps setup up to accommodate them.  This occurred in the midst of World War II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Although the United States was already at war with Nazi Germany, no such mandate was imposed upon the many German-Americans living throughout the country.
This mass evacuation imposed a severe burden on the lives of those citizens who were forced to abandon their homes and properties for the “duration” of the war.

  • In 1948, a Refugee and Resettlement Law was passed to deal with European refugees in the aftermath of World War II
  • In 1952, The McCarran-Walter Act was passed that ended the exclusion of Asian immigrants to the United States.
  • In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act.  This law effectively abolished the quota system and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. As a result of this act and subsequent legislation, the nation experienced a shift in immigration patterns. Today, the majority of U.S. immigrants come from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe.
  • In 1986, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act was passed.  This law granted amnesty to some 3 million illegal immigrants living in the US.
  • In 2001, Senators Dick Durban and Orrin Hatch co-authored the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that would establish a route through which undocumented immigrants that were brought into the US illegally as children (Dreamers) could obtain legal status.  This proposed legislation did not pass.
  • In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was signed.  Although this act offered temporary protection for some Dreamers from deportation, it did not provide a path to citizenship.
  • In 2017, President Trump issued three separate executive orders with the goal of curtailing travel and immigration from Muslim countries.  All of these orders were subsequently challenged in court.
The United States government has, as of yet, failed to establish a unified, reasoned and just policy regarding immigration despite repeated attempts across many presidential administrations.  This failure stems from many factors.  Among these reasons, lies an underlying fear shared by many individuals in the nation’s population that has its origins in a strong racial and ethnic prejudice that seems to be a part of the American psyche.  

American history is replete with examples of this prejudice beginning with the institution of slavery that was extant at the very beginnings of the Republic and the near genocide of an entire race of Native American populations.  Nearly every ethnic group that has immigrated to the United States has felt the toxic psychological, economic and social impact of this prejudice.

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