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Debate over Immigration Has Long History

When it comes to American attitudes towards immigration, the old truism applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Pat Finn takes a look at immigration policy starting with the earl

This segment originally aired September 18, 2006.

When it comes to American attitudes towards immigration, the old truism applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Pat Finn takes a look at immigration policy starting with the early colonists and finds some surprising parallels today.  Since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, America has been a beacon to those in need of a fresh start. About 6,000 newcomers a year emigrated to our shores, looking for their fortune or the freedom to worship or live as they wished. In those early days, almost everyone was welcome.

But after the Constitution was ratified, the atmosphere cooled off a bit. The new Congress wanted new citizens to be as much like them as possible. The 1790 Naturalization Act said they must be free white persons of good moral character and have lived in America for two years. Slaves, of course, were not included.


Ever since, Americans have argued over who else – besides themselves – should be allowed to live in this country and who should not. The answers have changed with the times. 

 The greatest period of legal immigration in U.S. history was from 1840 to about 1920. It began with the Irish. When the British finally let them go, they arrived in large numbers even before the potato famine. They were joined over the next eight decades by Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Chinese. 

Nearly 40 million migrants made it to America during that period; a great wave of the poor and the desperate driven by crop failures, economic depression and the industrial revolution. There were so many that the government built an immigration processing center on Ellis Island in 1892.

This tsunami of immigrants produced a backlash of racism, mostly aimed as Asians. California led the anti-Asian charge in 1872. Its Anti-Coolie Act was both insultingly named and ineffective. It was completely ignored by the railroads, the main employer of Chinese labor. Congress soon piled on by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1917, which excluded virtually all Asians and Pacific Islanders.    

After World War I, Congress became concerned about the influx of Southern Europeans, by which it meant Catholics, and Eastern Europeans, by which it meant Jews. In 1921 it hit on the idea of allowing immigration based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality. Congress based the quotas on the 1910 census, when there were many more English, Irish and German residents than Italians and Russians.   


The Great Depression and World War II prevented much immigration to the U.S. Even Jews escaping the Holocaust were barred during the war. But one group was allowed in, even recruited. As American men became scarce at home, Mexican men replaced them in farm fields and work sites under the Bracero Program of 1942. After the war, they were supposed to go home, but thousands didn’t. In the 50s, the feds launched Operation Wetback to round them up and deport them, with very limited success.

The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 established the basic structure of immigration law today. Immigration laws became looser in the 60s, like much of American society. Quotas based on race were gone by 1965, and legal immigration has nearly doubled every 10 years. In the current decade, resident immigrants from China, India and the Philippines number in the millions and are among the five largest groups living in the U.S. 

For the last few decades, the main focus of U.S. immigration policy has been the estimated 10 million immigrants living and working here illegally, over half of them from Mexico. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allowed punishment of employers who hire the undocumented. For the first time in our history, a fence guards the border with Mexico. Californians passed Proposition 187 to exclude undocumented workers from social services and education. Recently, some communities have voted to bar them from housing and informal day labor sites. Watchdog groups keep vigil over the border, and the National Guard has been deployed to help. Congress is ready to enact more laws. Still, thousands of immigrants each year try to enter without documents. Some are caught. Some succeed. Some die trying.

The argument is the same today as it was in 1790: who should be allowed to live and work here and who should not. It is an argument that has, so far, defied consensus.