The Golden Door
Almost every piece of U.S. immigration legislation passed over the past 231 years has changed what coming here, “the right way” actually means.
Despite false assertions of European discovery, America was first “discovered” and populated by humans some 20,000 years ago when the ancestors of today’s Native Americans crossed onto this continent via the small strip of land that used to connect us to Asia. For a considerable length of time, they were this land’s lone inhabitants.
Vikings came to the northeast in the 900s, the first European colonists in the late 1400s, and then millions more from every corner of the world. Many of them came seeking freedom from religious persecution, while others looked for greater opportunity. In the early 1600s, the first 20 enslaved people from Africa were brought to our shores, forced to be indentured servants in Virginia. This group of 20 individuals would be the tip of the iceberg as their numbers would grow to almost 400,000 until the U.S. abolished slavery.
Over the last two hundred years, the United States has enacted a variety of immigration policies, often undoing and redoing laws that came before. In the late 1700s, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense. He made a case for a new kind of American stating that, “this new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” Congress would follow shortly after that with the first piece of immigration legislation, the Naturalization Act of 1790. The Act provided that any free white person who had lived within the borders of this country for at least two years was welcome to apply for citizenship. Designed to keep white men at the pinnacle, this left all enslaved people with no hope of becoming U.S. citizens.
Following the war of 1812, immigration from Europe increased significantly. And, many of those individuals arrived on our coastlines either sick or dying. In response, Congress passed the Steerage Act of 1819, requiring better conditions on ships from other countries. The Act also required ship captains to submit demographic information about their passengers. These would be the first records setting out the ethnic makeup of immigrants into the U.S. Thirty years later, the first anti-immigration political group, the Know-Nothings, whose platform centered on the idea of white, male, Christian supremacy, would emerge.
Up until this point, immigration was handled by each state individually. It was not until after the Civil War that the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was the federal government’s responsibility to handle the issue of immigration. What followed was a series of acts and actions that excluded various individuals from emigrating to this country.
The first was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This legislation, extended for ten years by the Geary Act and then another ten years after that, wholly barred entry into the U.S. by all Chinese immigrants. It would remain in effect until the 1940s.
In 1891, a revised Immigration Act created the Office of Immigration and posted officers at various ports of entry. In 1892, the first official immigration station opened at Ellis Island, which would greet more than 12 million people from all over the world until it closed in 1954.
In 1907, President Roosevelt signed the Gentlemen’s Agreement which stated that Japan would limit the number of citizens who emigrated to the U.S. In exchange, the President would urge California to end the segregation of Japanese students at its schools. As a result of the xenophobic attitudes regarding the U.S. involvement in World War I, the Immigration Act of 1917 would require literacy tests for all immigrants and again put a stopper in the pipeline of Asian immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 put various quotas in place for the number of individuals who could enter the U.S. and from where. This Act completely excluded Asian immigrants once again. It would not be until 1952 that restrictions on Asian immigrants would be lifted once and for all by way of the McCarran-Walter Act.
In 1942, the U.S. faced a labor shortage which brought about the Bracero Program. This program allowed Mexican workers to enter the U.S. temporarily to fill agricultural jobs that American men could not occupy due to World War II. Millions of Mexicans came to this country as a result of this program.
In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act revamped immigration policy. Bringing an end to the quotas included in previous legislation, the Act established a system based on seven categories that emphasized family reunification and skilled labor. In the years since, family reunification has been the driving force behind immigration to this country. The Mexican border remains the most active, with hundreds of thousands of individuals from different countries trying to cross into the U.S. every month.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act, which protected immigrants who, “because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” feared returning to their homeland. A process for requesting asylum was born, and millions since have come to the U.S. from countries that are rife with armed conflict and violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conflict and forced migration we see currently, “has fueled the world’s most serious refugee crisis since World War II, pushing more people to seek asylum in the U.S.”
The simple fact is that the United States would not exist but for people immigrating from the rest of the world. They have all come seeking freedom of one kind or another. For many, it was the freedom to worship the god of their choosing or none at all. For others, their choice to come to America has been in search of better economic opportunities for themselves and their families, an opportunity for their children to have a better life than the one they have known. And still, others have fled war-torn and violent homelands just to stay alive.
No matter who you are, where you come from, or why; there’s room for us all at the table.
Tune in on Sunday, October 17, 2021, at 1:00 pm Eastern and join our conversation about immigration and asylum on Resistbot Live.