Sunday, August 1, 2010

American Immigration in Historical Perspective

Randall Stephens

On Sunday, August 1, Peter O'Dowd reported on NPR that "Arizona's controversial immigration law went into effect this week, or at least parts of it." In a summary that looked at the reaction of church groups and religious leaders, O'Dowd noted "Despite significant support for the bill in the state, critics have been loud and organized." This comes on the heals of a Federal Judge's blocking of the more controversial aspects of the law last Wednesday. Judge Susan Bolton issued a preliminary injunction on sections of the law that called for law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status or require suspects to prove they were in the country legally.

Like abortion, gay marriage, or taxes, little divides Americans like the issue of immigration. And this historic conflict keeps repeating itself.

Unlike a variety of European nations, the US has had relatively open policies on citizenship. (Naturalization rates, as well, have remained high in Canada, the US, and Sweden.) Through much of the 19th century the new nation needed laborers and settlers. Still, the question of just who was or was not an American tended to exercise the masses and energize politicians. Sometimes the matter stirred up intense feelings.

Numerous Easterners in the 1850s and 1860s worried about the "wild Irish hordes" that descended on coastal cities. Millions would have agreed with English essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, "Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it--by heavens--squelch it." Nativism and the Know-Nothing Party made great political hay of the "Papist Menace." Samuel F. B. Morse--who helped invent the telegraph and a code for transmitting words over vast distances and also crafted his own brand of virulent xenophobia--was particularly adamant on the subject. In 1835 he wrote: "O there is no danger to the Democracy; for those most devoted to the Pope, the Roman Catholics, especially the Irish Catholics, are all on the side of Democracy. Yes; to be sure they are on the side of Democracy. They are just where I should look for them. Judas Iscariot joined with the true disciples. . . . They feel themselves so strong, as to organize themselves even as foreigners into foreign bands, and this for the purpose of influencing our elections. . . . That they are men who having professed to become Americans, by accepting our terms of naturalization, do yet, in direct contradiction to their professions, clan together as a separate interest, and retain their foreign appellation."

In the 1880s anti-Chinese legislation gained wide support in the American West and fueled the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law read, in part: "That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and maybe also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year."

Most famously, though, the Immigration Act of 1924 raised the bar so that undesirable immigrants would have a difficult time entering the country. One stipulation ensured that old-stock white immigrants would receive special preference. "The annual quota of any nationality shall be 2 per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the Untied States census of 1890, but the minimum quota of any nationality shall be 100."

Many of the exclusionary policies were changed for good when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, supported heavily by the late Senator Ted Kennedy. That landmark legislation did not end the debate or the ongoing contest over immigration.

The Arizona Law may or may by like or unlike earlier immigration laws. But it certainly lends itself to significant historical questions of legal matters, national identity, ethnicity, class, and more. Plenty for the general public and for students of history to consider.

For more on the history of immigration and the changing shape of the law, see the following helpful sites:

On the Arizona Law

Immigration: General History, Legal History, Etc


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thanks for this compilation of useful links, Randall. My perspective tends to be rooted in the pre-nation state era and therefore perhaps not as helpful. But I'm always preaching (to my students if not to my friends and family) about the constant movement of people across land masses and how unusual the current historical era is in wanting people to be "sitting still" so to speak and clearly delineated from each other in geographical space rather than the social/political space that used to divide us.

But again, I don't know how useful that is in the current debate.

Randall said...

That's very interesting. Early modern and pre modern history being well beyond my specialty, I would have thought people moved around less.

I wonder how often boundaries shifted in different eras.

Janine Giordano Drake said...

More specifically on the "problem" of undocumented immigration and especially Mexican Americans:

- Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects
- Erika Lee, At America's Gates
- George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American
- Kathy Mapes, Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture and Imperial Politics

Randall said...

Thanks Janine. I've read the Sanchez book, but not the others. Always great to see new or classic titles like this.

Adam Arenson said...

As I continue my research on African Americans returning from Canada during the Civil War and Reconstruction, I find an interesting anti-parallel: The 14th Amendment, and the Reconstruction changes to the Naturalization Act included the children of slaves. In that moment when the nation considered who was its true children, it decided to be more, rather than less, inclusive.

As I teach along the current U.S.-Mexico border, I am struck by how rarely we discuss how the borders shifted, not just the citizenship rules. As Chicano activists have long pointed out, Arizona and the rest of the Southwest was the land of indigenous peoples, then New Spain, then Mexico, and only after 1848 (or 1853) the United States.

The shared heritage of long-time residents, north and south of the current border, should not be ignored when we consider whether these laws enforce existing law or make new distinctions in a necessarily blurry reality.