Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Coming to America

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Immigration is a major political issue today in America. However, this is far from the first time Americans have debated this issue. For the first half of the existence of the US, there were no immigration laws. Walk off the boat and the moment your feet hit the shore you could be an American. No papers needed and no questions asked.

The first Federal bill governing immigration was passed in the late 1800s. The Page Law of 1875 was decidedly racist in that it was meant to reduce immigration of women from Asia. The second law was the equally racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was just as the name implied. Also in 1882 was the Immigration Act, which prohibited the entry of “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”

As horrible as these three bills were they didn’t impact the majority of people coming to America. For most, all they had to do was to get to the US. Things began to change during the Diesel Era and again race played a major role. It was during the 1920s we first have the existence of 'legal' immigration.

Nativist Political Cartoon - 1921

The Immigration Act of 1917 was one of the first major immigration laws with wide reaching implications. This law included a literacy test, which required reading short passages in any language, and if a man was literate and his wife and children weren’t, they all still earned access to the country. It was thought that the law would reduce the number of new arrivals (mainly from eastern and southern Europe) by more than 40 percent. In reality, only 1,450 people of 800,000 immigrants between 1920 and 1921 were excluded on the basis of literacy.

The legislation with the biggest impact was the National Origins Act of 1924. The law was primarily aimed at further decreasing immigration of Southern Europeans, countries with Roman Catholic majorities, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, and Jews. Virtually all Asians were forbidden from immigrating to America under the Act.
A group of Chinese and Japanese women and children wait to be processed as they are held in a wire mesh enclosure at the Angel Island Internment barracks in the late 1920s. AP

The Immigration Act made permanent the basic limitations on immigration into the United States established in 1921 and modified the National Origins Formula established then. In conjunction with the Immigration Act of 1917, it governed American immigration policy until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which revised it completely.

For the next four years, until June 30, 1927, the 1924 Act set the annual quota of any nationality at 2% of the number of foreign-born persons of such nationality resident in the United States in 1890. That revised formula reduced total immigration from 357,803 in 1923–24 to 164,667 in 1924–25. The law's impact varied widely by country. Immigration from Great Britain and Ireland fell 19%, while immigration from Italy fell more than 90%.

Newspaper headline from 1921

The Act established preferences under the quota system for certain relatives of U.S. residents, including their unmarried children under 21, their parents, and spouses aged 21 and over. It also preferred immigrants aged 21 and over who were skilled in agriculture, as well as their wives and dependent children under age 16. Non-quota status was accorded to wives and unmarried children under 18 of U.S. citizens; natives of Western Hemisphere countries, with their families; non-immigrants; and certain others. Subsequent amendments eliminated certain elements of this law's inherent discrimination against women.

The 1924 Act also established the "consular control system" of immigration, which divided responsibility for immigration between the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It mandated that no alien should be allowed to enter the United States without a valid immigration visa issued by an American consular officer abroad.

Health inspection of immigrants at Ellis Island in 1921

It provided that no alien ineligible to become a citizen could be admitted to the United States as an immigrant. This was aimed primarily at Japanese and Chinese aliens. It imposed fines on transportation companies who landed aliens in violation of U.S. immigration laws. It defined the term "immigrant" and designated all other alien entries into the United States as "non-immigrant", that is, temporary visitors. It established classes of admission for such non-immigrants.

As a divided America struggles today with the issue of immigration we need to remember that the ideas of 'legal' and 'illegal' immigration date back only to the 1920s and like so much of American history are tied to race.

Sources: Immigration to United, Smithsonian Magazine, LA Times

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