Interactive Timeline | Our Cyclical History of Immigration

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Today’s fight over immigration is contentious and has the power to derail the agendas of politicians who wade into the issue. Yet federal legislation has been minimal and usually results in short-term solutions, so much so that many states have resorted to creating their own immigration-control laws.

In the past thirty years, the U.S. has gone through a rapid expansion of globalization, and cycles of economic recession and booms, which has resulted in a huge upswing in immigrants, mainly from Latin America, coming to the U.S. to find work. But the story isn't a new one.

Historical Patterns

More than 100 years ago, the U.S. was in the midst of similar cycles as it is now - industrialization caused the economy to boom, the Great Depression followed and two world wars upended the European landscape. In turn, millions of immigrants came to the U.S. to find work from eastern and southern Europe. Italians, Polish, Slaviks and Greeks joined Irish Catholics and East Asians who had already been making their way over.

Comparing the numbers of immigrants from then to now shows only a slight difference — 25 million people emigrated to the U.S. during the first big wave of immigration, making the percentage of foreign-born people in the U.S. a whopping 15 percent in the 1910s. Today the percentage of foreign-born people is about 12 percent and according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of this foreign born population is from Latin America.

Public Attitudes

The criticism of immigrants at the turn of the century was similar to what we hear today – they don’t speak English, they live by themselves, they contribute to high crime rates, they’re different. These criticisms were and remain impacting, tending to socially isolate immigrant communities. As a result, then and now, immigrants stick together.

“They rallied quickly to support themselves and part of that was the feeling that they had to create a parallel system so they wouldn’t face discrimination,” says Linda Dowling Almeida, adjunct assistant professor of Irish Studies at New York University. She says that this separation breeds public distrust. After the Irish Catholics arrived in the U.S., nativism brewed in the country, which was mainly Protestant at the time. Even now, there is still a deep fear among many people that immigrants threaten an American culture and independence, Almeida says. As a result of this political and social isolation, many immigrants suffer from a myriad of social issues and are often the targets of racism and discrimination.

This nativism eventually took form in legislation as the years passed.

Legislative Reactions 

Between these two waves of immigration, a series of laws were enacted in an effort to manage the flow of immigration to the U.S. At the turn of the 20th century, there were no numerically restrictive laws, but there were qualitative restrictions on the books that rejected immigrants who were judged to be anarchists or political extremists.

Chinese Exclusion Act

One of the most restrictive pieces of legislation ever passed, the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect in 1882 in reaction to a huge wave of Chinese labor immigration to the U.S. during the Gold Rush and railroad expansion of the 1840s and 50s. This Act severely excluded Chinese immigrants from coming to the U.S. to work.

National Origins Act

Quantitative regulations were established in 1921 with the National Origins Act, which restricted immigrants from entering the U.S. by national origin through a quota system. This complex law essentially gave preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe but decreased the flow of immigrants from southeastern Europe. This was the standard for the flow of immigration until the mid-1960’s.

The act largely excluded the western Hemisphere from the quota system, so Mexicans crossed the border freely for many years — even after the Treaty of Hidalgo gave the U.S. the northern third of Mexico. In the 1940's, the U.S. and Mexico set up a program to control farm labor coming from Mexico to the U.S. called the Bracero Program, but not until amnesty was granted years later, were these workers allowed to become citizens. Similar guest worker programs exist today that provide temporary visas to a small number of workers from outside the U.S., but these work visas do not lead to citizenship.

Mexican Immigration 

In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was formally established, a governmental program that has grown immensely over the decades. This significantly affected the lives of Mexicans who traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico for work. Mae Ngai, a history professor at Columbia University, says that this growing legislated definition of “illegality” was a huge barrier for people crossing the border to work, one that Europeans didn't have when they emigrated at the turn of the 20th century. At Ellis Island, only one percent of immigrants were turned away, and today some of the “lines” to emigrate legally are decades long.

“You hear this common refrain; when my ancestors came 100 years ago, they did it the right way," Ngai says. "They came legally. They didn’t cut the line. Well, there wasn’t a line then. There wasn’t a restriction for people coming in.”

Today, the number of undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. is at an estimated 12 million.

Economic Impact

The argument that reforming our immigration policies will have positive economic results is not a new concept.

During the age of industrialization, immigrants were an "engine of labor power" that enabled the nation's industrialization and the building of cities as we know them. Today’s economic comparison to industrialization is globalization.

Between these two waves of immigration there was also a shift in the structural economy and politics. The second generation of European immigrants came of age in the Depression and many fought in World War II. When service members returned to the U.S., they came home to the GI bill and as a result, many working class families had assistance from the federal government to go to college and to buy homes. This program ended ten years later and until 2009, there was nothing quite like it for the second wave of immigrants and their children.

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