U.S. Immigration: Sanctuary and Controversy

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U.S. Immigration: Sanctuary and Controversy

The Conflict

Each year, thousands of would-be immigrants from around the world apply to immigrate to the United States, others apply for asylum, and others immigrate illegally. The decision of who gets to stay is based on legislation that has established quotas and other regulations regarding immigration. Individuals and groups opposed to immigration—or to the immigration of certain groups—seek to limit immigration and sometimes perpetrate violence on immigrants.


  • Anti-immigration legislation has been very popular in some U.S. states, reflecting some people's frustration with rising costs and the changing ethnic demographics of the United States.
  • Immigrants are an increasingly large political bloc that can influence elections and therefore command the attention of politicians.


  • Some people want the United States to continue to have a majority of people of European ancestry and therefore want to limit immigration, especially from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa.
  • Legislative regulations regarding immigration have, historically, been based on—at least partially—ethnicity or nationality.


  • Anti-immigrants claim that immigrants, especially from non-European countries, put a heavy burden on society.
  • Others claim that immigrants fill jobs that U.S. citizens will not take.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 1999, off the coast of Florida in the United States, a young Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, survived on an inner tube as his mother and other passengers disappeared with their sinking boat. Thus failed another desperate attempt to find refuge in America; ten died, including Elian's mother. For months afterwards, politicians and citizens alike debated the child's fate—should this six-year-old boy stay in the United States as his mother had wished or return to Cuba as his father asked. Finally he returned; although a refugee, he was a minor and thus not able to seek refuge on his own.

For others arriving in the United States, the debate is short, but the answer is that they too will not be allowed to stay. In March 2000, a boatload of illegal Dominican immigrants capsized in the surf off Puerto Rico. Ten died, twenty-seven were detained by the U.S. border patrol, and an unknown number disappeared into the hills, either to find work in Puerto Rico or somehow to make it to the United States mainland. In California, three illegal Latin American immigrants died in a winter storm in the mountains near San Diego, California, bringing the total deaths of illegal migrants crossing the California border to sixteen for the first quarter of 2000. In Oklahoma, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, local police, and citizens apprehended forty illegal Hispanic migrants trying to obtain drivers licenses. An unknown number of migrants fled, presumably to secure licenses in larger cities where they might be less conspicuous.

On the World Wide Web, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center is one of several country-specific sites that provide news and how-to information on acquiring citizenship, the diversity lottery, and helpful tips on how to acculturate, get a job and identification, and transition into American society. Additionally, there are law firms that specialize in immigration law, or corresponding sub-categories of law, such as sanctuary for a particular class of refugee, or assistance for aliens facing deportation to homelands where they would be at risk. Some will wait years for legal entry; others attempt entry illegally and are willing to risk death or imprisonment to reside here.

For more than two centuries, the United States has struggled to establish an immigration policy with an equitable balance among interests within the U.S. community. The policy question is difficult, and there are no easy answers to decide who should live in United States and who should not. As the twentieth century ended, there was pressure to restrict further the number of annual legal immigrants from one million annual legal immigrants.

Historical Background

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and from the beginning there has been an uneasy relationship between those already in the United States and those who came later. The ones already in the United States don't want to give up what they have to the later arrivals—no matter how much they might want what the newcomers bring. And they are concerned that the newcomers will change the old way of life and often assume that the change will be bad. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the early immigrants had qualms about Germans and both southern Catholic and northern Protestant Irish. Later, the old-timers (including the Germans and the Irish) became suspicious of Chinese, Japanese, and southern and eastern European immigrants. On the eve of the twenty-first century, the Latin Americans, Asians, and, increasingly, Africans, face opposition from early immigrants.

New immigrants provide labor that is needed, but at the same time, they are different. They bring strange customs and change the country the old-timers have come to know and love. There is a struggle to reconcile the basic decent impulse of humanitarianism and the fear of strange ideas. This reconciliation is especially hard when the immigrants are refugees—those running away from the old country instead of toward a new opportunity. Immigrants who come to the United States seeking new opportunities are generally ambitious, even if they are poor and unable to speak English. Refugees, especially those who come in the second or third wave of immigration from a particular country or region, are often completely alienated by their language, customs, level of sophistication, and understanding of Western ways. (The first wave of immigration from a particular country often includes the entrepreneurial, the wealthy, and the highly educated—individuals who can take advantage of the new country and send money home. Subsequent waves are family members, and, later, the poor and less educated.) And some politicians, analysts, and researchers would say that a mature America no longer needs immigrants and that it has reached the limits of responsible growth—at a certain point the United States cannot absorb more immigrants without hurting everyone's standard of living.

The First European Immigration

The first European arrivals in New England were refugees. The Puritans who settled there sought refuge from what they perceived as religious persecution; they also had concerns about undesirable cultural influences on their children, as well as economic motives. What they didn't have was a great deal of tolerance for those who were different.

The colonies quickly formed into three groups: colonies in New England and the southern areas were largely settled by the English and not a part of the immigration dispute; the middle colonies from New York to Maryland became the major ports of entry and became populated with people of varying ethnicity; recent immigrant populations, such as the Huguenots and Acadians, encountered animosity because they were French. The Huguenots took one path, absorption into the main-stream—including taking a new religion—and they ended up with above average wealth and political prominence. The Cajuns headed to a more tolerant climate in sparsely populated Louisiana. This pattern has continued—generally those who are more willing to assimilate American culture fare better.

In colonial times, the early Germans attempted to retain their customs when they settled in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They generated distrust and attempts were made to make them more like English people. The Scots Irish retained their identity by moving to the frontier, where they served as a buffer between the English and the American Indians. The Catholic Irish didn't adjust as well initially and were forced to take bottom-level jobs due to discrimination and contempt. They gradually worked their way up economically and politically, but socially their inclusion was slower because of their religion. Anti-Catholic sentiment would be a problem into the late twentieth century. In the now-familiar pattern, America's love/hate relationship with immigrants produces periods of nativism and exclusion and occasionally, as in the 1920s, overpowers the myth of a land welcoming the world's "huddled masses."

Foreign politics also created friction. After the American Revolution (1775-83), there was conflict between the new United States and France. France had experienced major turbulence from 1789 through 1814—first with the revolution and then with the Napoleonic Wars. French refugees came to the United States and agitated for their political views, creating more friction. Compounding the problem, the United States government was split between pro-French and pro-English parties. In response to the controversy, the Untied States government in 1798 enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made deportation easier and increased the length of residence required for U.S. citizenship. For the first time, America had a serious immigration policy.

Historians claim that international tensions were merely an excuse for the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts. When enforcing the Sedition Act, Federalist John Adams (president 1797-1801) targeted Republican newspaper editors, his rivals. The Sedition Act expired during Republican Thomas Jefferson's (president 1801-09) administration.

During the early nineteenth century, Ireland was in the middle of a population explosion and migration, even to an English country, was the solution. Since the slave trade was outlawed in England in 1808, the Irish were considered good labor for the ship captains and the English landowners in the United States. In the mid-1840s the potato famine hit Ireland causing even more Irish to immigrate. By the 1860s, there were 2.5 million Catholic Irish doing manual labor in the United States. By the 1850s, almost a million Germans displaced by industrialization began immigrating to the United States as well. Germans and Irish accounted for two-thirds of mid-nineteenth century immigrants. Some Germans who fled failed German 1848 uprisings brought with them radical ideas, including socialism. Many of them supported Victor Berger and Eugene Debs who co-founded the Social Democratic Party of America in 1897. Their support fostered the backlash known as the Red Scare. The Red Scare involved the deportation of several hundred immigrants with radical political views in 1919 and 1920; the deportation was driven by fears of communism.

In New England, the minority most despised were the French Canadians, primarily because they were Catholic, but there were fewer of them than of the Germans and Irish. Partially in response to the influx of immigrants, the American Party or the Know-Nothings came into being. It developed as a national party in the early 1850s and based its appeal on an anti-immigrant and anti-catholic stand. It enjoyed significant power during the 1950s. The Know-Nothings regarded Catholics as tools of a foreign power (Rome), prone to crime and disease, and morally depraved. The Know-Nothings also believed that Catholics took the jobs belonging by right to good (Protestant) Americans.

Asian Immigrants

In the 1850s there were around forty thousand Asian immigrants in the West. They were hired to build the railroads and provide services for those seeking to strike it rich during the gold rush. (In 1849 an estimated eighty thousand miners flocked to California in search of gold. They were known as "forty-niners.") The number of Asian immigrants was small, but the group was noticeably different and therefore unwanted. Some opportunity-seeking European immigrants moved to the West on the railroads the Asian immigrants built. They became prejudiced against Asians, because the Chinese worked for less money, which they said deprived a European immigrant of better paying jobs. This was one of many examples of two new immigrant groups fighting one another. Local and state governments enacted head taxes on Asians and other discriminatory legislation. The anti-Asian movement culminated in federal legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, that barred the immigration of Chinese. This was just the first law restricting immigration; later, the 1906 Gentlemen's Agreement excluded the Japanese as well. Filipinos, as colonial subjects (the Philippines was a colony of the United States), had special status in the eyes of the government, if not for the masses of older Americans.

Post-Civil War Immigration

At the same time that Americans were clamping down on Asians, they were running out of English, Irish, and Germans immigrants to fill unskilled jobs. The labor shortage, and industrialization, gave rise to an influx of new immigrants. From the 1880s, the type of work the United States had to offer changed to heavy industry—more unskilled, than skilled, labor. The need for craftsmen had been part of the attraction for the post-civil war immigrants from northern Europe, and the change in U.S. economy made immigration to the United States less desirable.

Furthermore, in 1890 the frontier officially closed—the land from coast to coast was largely claimed—and northern Europeans who wanted to be farmers could no find cheap homesteads. But the new immigrants from outside Europe were different. They included Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms (organized massacres) and Italians dislocated by overpopulation and industrialization. Economic, social, and political changes in their home-lands brought Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slavs. Between around 1900 and 1913, thirteen million immigrants came—in 1907 alone 1.28 million immigrants came to the United States. Italian immigration between 1890 and 1914 was nearly four million.

Social Darwinism and the White Man's Burden

These new immigrants came at a time when the United States was misconstruing the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin into Social Darwinism and the white man's burden. One aspect of Social Darwinism included the creation of a racial ranking structure that put Nordic (northern European) people on top, with all others sorted in descending order. The 1907-10 Dillingham Commission reported on the inferiority of the new immigrants and recommended a slowdown in immigration to, at the very least, allow for acculturation. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson vetoed several pieces of legislation to this effect up to 1915. Then the Americanization movement increased its influence. Subsequently, the Immigration Act of 1917 established a literacy requirement for all prospective immigrants over sixteen years of age, extended the ban on immigration from the Gentlemen's Agreement to other Asians, and defined a new category of non-immi-grant foreign workers, who could come to work but not to stay.

World War I

During World War I (1914-18), newspaperman, muckraker, and presidential advisor George Creel headed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) under the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-21). The committee was formed to encourage American patriotism. Tactics used by the committee were considered propaganda by critics. The committee created and atmosphere aroused intense suspicion of anyone not clearly patriotic. This put pressure on less recent immigrants, especially those who emigrated from the countries with which the United States was now at war. Through intimidation and coercion, patriots forced German immigrants to change their names and habits. Congress passed legislation comparable to the Alien and Sedition Acts of a century earlier. The anti-foreign fervor persisted through 1919, shifting focus to Russian Jews, Socialists, and labor groups. In 1918 the U.S. economy was in a shambles due to the disorganized demobilization of troops following the war and the overly speedy end of government controls over industry. Strikes by organized labor and racial strife from black veterans and others caused disruption and fear. Nearly hysterical, Americans reacted by lynching blacks, rioting, and suppressing labor groups. As for immigrants, many were accused of being disloyal or Communist. The U.S. government, pushed by the press and the ultrapatriotic groups, rounded up and deported several hundred aliens arbitrarily and without due process during 1919 in an event known as the Red Scare.

In the 1920s, Congress acted on the racial ideas that had been floating through America for several decades. In a mix of Social Darwinism, racism, and nativism, it set major restrictions on immigration and closed entry into the United States by new immigrant groups (African, Asian, and Latin American) in favor of the old immigrant groups that had come before the industrial age (European). Immigration dropped from 800,000 in 1921 to less than 150,000 in 1929. In 1933 only 23,000 new immigrants came to the United States. In the 1920s those who wanted to come didn't qualify due to the quotas, and those who did quality didn't want to come.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the immigrant problem seemed to solve itself. There were refugees, of course, but not in any great numbers, nowhere near what demand and humanity might have dictated (of the millions impoverished around the world in the 1930s and 1940s, only a handful came to the United States). In the United States there ran a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism, and fascist and Nazi parties (fascism is a system characterized by belligerent racism) became more organized. Failure to change the 1920s immigration laws had made the migration of persecuted people—Jews and others—impossible. Some special accommodations were made for European intellectual exiles, some of whom remained after World War II. Especially noteworthy in this group were the nuclear physicists who put together the first atomic bomb.

World War II

World War II brought about increased tolerance. The Italian-and German-Americans, after initial accusations and questionable incarcerations, proved their loyalty by fighting—and dying—in the war. More important for immigration reform, Japanese-Americans proved loyal despite the unconstitutional deprivation of their rights and property. Japanese-Americans were wrongly suspected of disloyalty following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan. About one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put in detention camps in the western United States in order to prevent them from assisting in a Japanese invasion of the United States. And in the war against Japan, the Chinese were America's allies, making Chinese immigrants more acceptable. Besides, the obscene race policies of the Third Reich shifted world opinion and rendered persecution based on race or ethnicity unacceptable.

After World War II

During World War II, millions of British and other men went off to war. Millions of American GIs went to Britain and, later, to other parts of Europe and Asia. There they met young women brought into the workplace by the shortage of men. During and after the war, many fiancées and brides made their way to the United States. After the war, American policy gave special entry to these war brides, first from England, Australia, and Europe, and, by 1952, from Asia. The special legislation for Asian women was a reversal of the exclusionist immigration policy that had stood for seventy years.

More reversals to exclusionist immigration policy came as the United States enacted refugee legislation in the early postwar years. In the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s, the United States sought to protect dissenters of Communist regimes. Special legislation was enacted for specific groups adversely affected by Communist regimes, including Hungary in 1956, Cuba in 1958, Vietnam in 1973, Russia in the 1980s, and on into the 1990s.

There was a backlash to the increased influx immigrants, as there had been after World War I, and for similar reasons. With the seemingly large influx of refugees, as well as other groups specifically barred by the 1920s legislation, some "100-percent American groups"—groups of individuals who could trace their ancestors to the earliest settlers in the United States, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion—wanted a moratorium placed on immigration. However, unlike after World War I, the climate of opinion in the United States was such that the 100-percent American groups had no influence on American policy. Instead there began a half-century of liberalizing U.S. immigration policy.

One reason for the new receptivity was the propaganda war with a new enemy. In a display of Cold War unity against what was feared to be a monolithic Communist empire, anyone who sought refuge from a Communist regime was welcome. In addition, independent nations emerged from the former European colonial empires in Africa and Asia, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States competed to make alliances with the newly emerging nations. Foreign policy required tolerance for immigrants.

At that time, only a small portion of the American population had recently immigrated to the United States, and most immigrants were still from European countries. After two decades of stringent immigration policies, the Great Depression, and World War II, America came as close to being a homogeneous society in the 1940s through the 1960s as it would ever be. The religious animosities of an earlier age were submerged, if not gone; religion was in decline. The 1950s and 1960s were a boom time in the United States. For a quarter of a century, the United States was the world's envy due to its prosperity and power. It was good to be middle class, making a success of one's self economically, treating religion as one more trapping of new status.

Recent History and the Future

New Immigrants

The American idyll ended as an unforeseen consequence of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1965. President John F. Kennedy (served 1961-63) and others disliked immigration quotas by nationality, which by the 1960s had become a disadvantage to groups such as the Irish. Too many spaces were allotted to the English who didn't want or need them. The Civil Rights movement was influencing the United States to treat all groups of people more fairly. At the same time, the United States seemed to be running short of technical and scientific skills; immigrants with needed skills were not coming to the United States. Immigration reformers wanted to shift from national quotas to a system that brought in more family members and needed skills—a mix of humane and economic motives. Reformers assumed that, under their new law, most of the immigrants would come from the same places as they had for forty years, just in a different mix. And maybe there would be more from the places where the new immigrants of the 1890s had family, the places shut off by the 1920s legislation; by now the second and third generation immigrants had political clout. But in the 1960s, Europe—north and south—was experiencing an economic boom; therefore most Europeans chose to remain in their native countries and not immigrate.

Throughout the 1960s, although European immigration continued in significant numbers, the largest number of immigrants were from Latin American, Asia, and Africa, who were fleeing the political, economic, and social turmoil of their home nations. Over time, members of their extended family came one by one. During the ten years following the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1965, Asian immigration increased 663 percent while European immigration decreased thirty-eight percent. Total immigration increased sixty percent. At the same time, legal Latin American immigration increased to such an extent that quotas for immigrants from Latin American countries were reintroduced in 1976. There also seemed to be a great influx of illegal immigrants, so in 1986 Congress imposed penalties on people who employed illegal aliens but gave amnesty to illegal aliens who resided in the United States before 1982.

Beginning in 1980 the definition of refugee was broadened. Cubans had been coming since Fidel Castro's revolution of 1958. Cubans first came between 1959 and 1962 as refugees—primarily anti-Castro leaders and business leaders threatened by Castro's nationalization program. A second wave of Cuban immigrants—middle class and skilled labor—came between 1965 and 1973. In 1980 thousands of Cuban refugees came on the Mariel boatlift. The perception among some Americans was that Castro had opened the prisons and let all his prisoners and drug abusers go. The new influx created conflict and hardship and tested American commitment to welcoming all refugees from Communist regimes.

In the 1970s, ninety-nine percent of Haitians were denied asylum, because they were not fleeing persecution. The rule was that refugees from communist countries had political motives, while those who fled rightist regimes were economic immigrants. Economic immigrants had quotas, and those who came without American consent were illegal and sent back.

Compounding American concern regarding the immigrants were the Vietnamese. Like the Cubans, the first wave of Vietnamese was the elite that left in 1973 following the pullout of American troops and the collapse of Saigon. The next wave was less advantaged and, finally, the very poor immigrated. These last were sometimes called boat people. (The poorest refugees are often called boat people because they arrive in over-crowded, frequently unsafe, rafts or boats.) Even during the second wave, there was conflict regarding the Vietnamese immigrants, especially in Louisiana and Texas in 1975. The economies of Louisiana and Texas were suffering, and the cost of living was rising rapidly. The Gulf of Mexico had been over-shrimped, reducing the income that could be made from shrimping. The Vietnamese immigrants—with different culture and values—were perceived by some to be undercutting the natives in a tight economy. Alienated shrimpers felt frustrated at a government that brought in unnecessary competition. Perceived government favoritism toward Vietnamese, as elsewhere toward Cubans, created friction and led to violence against the new immigrants.

Illegal Immigration

Between 250,000 to 750,000 illegal immigrants are coming to the United States annually. Most of them are from Latin America via Mexico; California and the American southwest has an indefensible two-thousand-mile-long border. These illegal immigrants continue the Bracero tradition of filling the need in California and the southwest for cheap labor—first to harvest the crops, later to maintain the lawns and gardens. They also move into the cities of the midwestern United States.

Efforts designed to deter illegal immigration have proven futile. Amnesties for illegal immigrants in 1982, 1986, and the late 1990s failed to stem the tide or to reform the process. The amnesties legitimated large numbers of illegal immigrants, while at the same time leaving larger numbers illegitimate. At the same time, the amnesties provoked opposition from those who felt that America already had too many people.

Conflict Regarding Contemporary Immigration

As Americans increasingly recognized that they were in a period of economic stagnation, there was a backlash against immigration in the early 1980s. As in Louisiana and Texas earlier, there was a slow stirring of resentment and opposition. One indicator was the English Only Movement, which attempted to require English as the language of government and business. In California, politicians noted that Americans faced an increasing income gap, crime, moral breakdown, community breakdown, rising racial tension, and cynicism, which they attributed in part to an influx of immigrants. California led the way in anti-immigrant legislation; the federal government followed with new immigration laws. California set the terms of the debate that would soon become national. Proponents of limiting immigration cited the cost of bilingual education, the welfare burden, and increased competition for jobs. In Iowa in 2000, where anti-immigrationists sought to create barriers for immigrants, others sought to promote Iowa as the "Ellis Island of the Midwest." Opponents to the legislation to limit immigration claimed that immigrants took jobs Americans could not or would not do, filling an unmet need, moving quickly to self-sufficiency and turning a profit for the system. The evidence was inconclusive. The debate regarding what to do about illegal immigrants continued. As the demand grew for more reform, Congress passed on average one reform law per year in the 1990s.

Restrictionist groups, such as Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR), Carrying Capacity Network, Californians for Population Stabilization, Population-Environment Balance, and American Immigration Control Foundation express concern about problems of assimilation, define a possible shortfall of land and or jobs, note the increase in pollution due to increased numbers, decry the poorly run INS and America's leaky borders, and note that refugees and immigrants include criminals and terrorists. Some of the groups focus on social and environmental issues, unlike earlier anti-immigrant groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and American Legion.

The new restrictionists had some impact in the 1980s and 1990s in both California and nationally. Tighter rules became easier to enforce in 1996 when Congress authorized more money for border patrols, tighter asylum rules, and increased deportations of alien criminals. In addition, during the same year, welfare reform hit immigrants especially hard by denying them food stamps and disability. While pressure led state and federal governments to restore some welfare benefits for pre-1996 immigrants, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the welfare restriction laws in 2000. The tightened immigration and welfare rules convinced many aliens to become citizens, with a fourfold increase in new citizens between 1990 and 1996. The government responded by tightening citizenship rules in 1998, but all those new citizens were firmly on the voter registration rolls, and new immigrants are expected to play a key role in future elections.

With immigration to the United States exceeding one million people per year, anti-immigrant agitation appears likely to continue into the future. Nobody knows how many people—immigrant or native—the United States can handle without negatively impacting its quality of life. Nobody even knows whether less consumption would actually improve quality. What is known is that the United States and the American people have been working for thirty-five years to develop immigration policies that balance the United States' promise of sanctuary with economic and political reality. Congress modified the immigration rules in 1965, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1986, and 1990—each time expanding the numbers of immigrants eligible to come to the United States. In the 1990s the diversity lottery (an immigration program) specifically targeted the underrepresented, including Africans. Asylum law got more liberal just about every year in the 1990s. The Immigration and Naturalization Service sought ways to eliminate a large backlog, establish a streamlined process, and give petitioners a quick and fair decision, a marked departure from the approach of the Red Scare era. On the other hand, the INS tightened enforcement, border patrols intensified, and the number of deportations grew. Still, many more immigrants await entry into the United States.

Recently, the United States has experienced a change in the relative American homogeneity that had developed after World War II. In 2000 in California, the most populous U.S. state, people of European ancestry officially became a minority within their state. In 1970 only 4.8 percent of Americans were not native born; by 1996 the foreign-born represented 9.3 percent of the population. However the United States chooses to proceed with immigration restrictions and allowances, the importance of its immigrant population will only increase over time.


Bennett, David. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Bodnar, John. The Transplanted. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Countryman, Edward. Americans, A Collision of Histories. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996.

Dinnerstein, Leonard and David M. Reimers. Ethnic Americans. 4th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Fleming, Donald and Bernard Bailyn, eds. The Intellectual Migration; Europe and America, 1930-1960. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

John H.Barnhill


1798 The Alien and Sedition Acts authorized the president of the United States to deport any foreigner deemed to be dangerous and made it a crime to speak, write, or publish anything "of a false, scandalous and malicious nature" about the U.S. President or Congress.

1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act bars the immigration of Chinese, the first time the United States restricts immigration based on race.

1906 The first language requirement is adopted for naturalization: ability to speak and understand English.

1907-10 The Dillingham Commission reports on the inferiority of the new immigrants and recommends a slowdown in the rate of immigration. The Gentle-men's Agreement extends the ban on Chinese immigrants to other Asians, and identifies a new category of non-immigrant foreign workers, who can come to work but not to stay.

1917 The Immigration Act of 1917 establishes a literacy requirement for all prospective immigrants over the age of sixteen.

1919 The Red Scare results in the deportation of several hundred immigrants with radical political views.

1921 A quota system is introduced, permitting limited immigration based on a percent of the existing U.S. population by nationality. The quota system favors immigrants from Europe.

1943 A very small number of Chinese are permitted to immigrate, in order to appease China, an ally of the United States during World War II (1939-45). Japanese Americans are put in detention camps in the western United States because of fears that they will assist Japan in an invasion of the United States.

1950s During the Cold War, preference is given to potential immigrants requesting asylum from Communist regimes.

1965 The Immigration Reform and Control Act removes quotas based on race and nationality and adds criteria that favors family members and needed skills. The number of immigrants permitted into the United States is raised every subsequent year.

1980s A recession (economic slowdown) heightens tensions, new movements emerge, such as the English Only Movement, which agitates to require English as the language of government and business.

1986 Congress modifies the Immigration Reform and Control Act and gives amnesty to approximately three million undocumented residents. For the first time, the law punishes employers who hire persons who are in the United States illegally.

1996 Another recession and economic tension lead to the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which toughens border enforcement and made it more difficult to gain asylum.

2000 In California, the most populous state in the United States, people of European ancestry officially become a minority.

The Immigration Debate

Is immigration restriction necessary, beneficial, or appropriate to American tradition or interest? The debate is complex and ongoing. Both sides, those for and against restricting immigration, argue that banning it altogether is not the answer. Conditions in other countries and personal circumstance often make immigration into the United States a necessity. Most restrictionists today use ecological arguments instead of the traditional nativism argument to support their position. While there are people who still advocate extreme nativism, the movement is small and unrespectable.

A more applicable environmental argument for restrictionists rests on the U.S. Bureau of the Census population projections for the next fifty years. Unless there are radical changes in births, deaths, or immigration, the United States will have a population of 390 million to 520 million in 2050. Since 1970 the population has increased by sixty million, and over half of the increase is due to immigration—either the immigrants themselves or their children. The restrictionists point to environmental degradation in the United States as a sign that these statistics are problematic. Additionally, they feel that it makes no sense to ask Americans to sacrifice in the form of family planning and reduced consumption if, at the same time, the United States is allowing new people into the country, exacerbating the problem. On the other, anti-restricionists estimate that to maintain population levels of 1989 through 2010 will require five hundred thousand immigrants per year. Presently, the United States has more jobs than people as well as an aging home-grown population; it needs many immigrants to maintain the status quo.

Restrictionists rally around another central point: the zero-sum argument. It states that if one immigrant arrives in the United States, he or she takes American's job. Restrictionists argue that the United States already has enough economically disadvantaged people, and its economic strength must be maintained if it is to preserve its position. Immigrant workers depress the job market, especially at the low end where it affects the young and American minorities. Competition shuts the present American poor out of entry-level jobs, increases the income gap between haves and have-nots, and makes businesses dependent on cheap labor instead of innovation and modernization. Furthermore, even though the United States has tightened welfare and barred it to new immigrants and illegal aliens, restrictionists argue that immigrants are almost twice as likely to be on welfare as U.S. citizens.

Pro-immigrationists counter the zero-sum argument by citing the other side of the multiplier, its consumer impact. They maintain that there are still plenty of jobs to do, and each immigrant with a job is a potential buyer of house, car, and services. Working immigrants contribute to a booming economy. Furthermore, most immigrants today enter the United States under the family immigration provision. Immigrant families historically combine resources, cut corners, put everyone in the family to work, and rebuild deteriorated communities. From the new immigrants in New York City and San Francisco to others revitalizing slums into ethnic neighborhoods, immigrants display old American values of thrift, hard work, education, family, and upward mobility. While immigrants often take the low-end jobs and their pay is lower than natives, their household income is consistently higher than the average.

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U.S. Immigration: Sanctuary and Controversy