Historical context for today’s
immigration policy debates
Dr. Steven M. Nolt
Goshen High School
June 23, 2011
Outline of presentation:
• The big picture: Patterns of immigration in U.S.
history and some implications for today
• Immigrants then and now: Five similarities and
differences
• Origins of immigration restriction and the
beginning of legal/illegal immigration (1882present)
• Current (1965) framework for immigration
policy:
Changes and unintended consequences
CLARIFYING TERMINOLOGY:
• Authorized
immigration/unauthorized
immigration
• “Immigration” and choice
THE BIG PICTURE:
Patterns of immigration in U.S. history
• Immigration is a multi-sided process
– Push factors, pull factors, and means of travel
– Talking about U.S. immigration policy is one part of
a larger international puzzle
Movement of people,
movement of borders:
Two examples:
Example 1: In the 1600s and 1700s, supply
and demand for labor resulted in a great
deal of forced immigration from Africa and
Europe
Status of immigrants to what would
become the United States (%)
Years
Slaves Prisoners
1607-1699
17
1
Indentured
servants
49
1700-1775
47
9
18
Free
labor
33
26
Source: Aaron S. Fogleman, “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration
in the Era of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 85 (June 1998), 43-76.
Example 2: In 1848, the U.S. border crossed
about 75,000 people living in northern Mexico.
Immigration has been a major factor
in the U.S. population and economy
from the 1600s to the 2000s
– Two exceptional periods when immigration
was less common: 1775-1815 and 1925-1965
– Every year, more people have entered the
U.S. than have left, except for 1932-1935
Another part of the pattern: Reverse
migration; people leave the U.S. to
return to their country of origin
– For many European immigrants, coming to
America was a strategy to make money to send
back or take back to country-of-origin
– Between 1860-1930, somewhere between 1/3
and 1/2 of all immigrants to the United States
did not stay permanently.
Remigration Rates: 1890-1930
– Bulgarians
– Romanians
– Russians
– Greeks
– Hungarians
– Italians
– Slovaks
– Poles
– French
– Finns
87 %
66 %
65 %
54 %
47 %
46 %
36 %
33 %
24 %
22 %
Examples from Thomas Archdeacon, Becoming American: An Ethnic History (New York: Free Press, 1983), p. 139.
A final pattern:
For much of U.S. history, the
percentage of the U.S. population
that was foreign born was a
constant 13-14%
Foreign born as percentage of U.S. population
• 1860
• 1870
• 1880
• 1890
• 1900
• 1910
• 1920
• 1930
13.2 %
14.0
13.3
14.7
13.6
14.7
13.2
11.6
The lowest point in the foreign-born
percentage of the U.S. population
was 1970
In 1970, only 4.7 % of the U.S.
population was foreign born (and
they were disproportionately elderly)
Foreign born as percentage of U.S. population
• 1860
• 1870
• 1880
• 1890
• 1900
• 1910
• 1920
• 1930
13.2 %
14.0
13.3
14.7
13.6
14.7
13.2
11.6
1970
4.7 %
1990
2000
2009
7.9
11.1
12.5
Immigrants then and now:
Five similarities and differences
1. ORIGINS:
1820-1920 – 85% from Europe
Today
– 75% from Latin America and Asia
40% of today’s immigrants come from five countries:
1. Mexico
2. India
3. China
4. Philippines
5. Vietnam
Immigrants then and now:
Five similarities and differences
2. AGE AND FAMILY PROFILE:
1820-1920 – Overwhelmingly single
young adult men
Today – Still disproportionately youth
and young adult, but more balanced sexratios and more families
Immigrants then and now:
Five similarities and differences
3. EDUCATION LEVEL:
1820-1920 – Typically had less formal
education than general population
Today – Typically have less and more
formal education than general population
Education level of immigrants (age 25+) in
New York City, late 20th century
Source: Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (Yale, 2000).
Education completed by post-1965 immigrants aged 16-64, and native-born population.
Immigrants then and now:
Five similarities and differences
4. SOCIALLY:
A similarity between 1820-1920 and
today – the most recent immigrants
face resistance or resentment from
other Americans
Immigrants then and now:
Five similarities and differences
5. POLITICALLY:
Prior to 1920 in many places,
immigrant men could vote even if they were
not naturalized.
This is a difference between then and
now, and gave European immigrant
communities a bit more political influence in
shaping the society that they were joining.
Origins of immigration restriction
and the beginning of legal/illegal
immigration
• Immigration and the Constitution
• 1875 U.S. Supreme Court: immigration
is exclusively federal domain
1882 CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT
–Began a process of seeking to limit
immigration to “desirable” populations
–1907 ban on Japanese immigration
–1917 general ban on immigration from
all of Asia (except Philippines)
–Asians were “aliens ineligible for
citizenship”
OTHER EXAMPLES OF RESTRICTING IMMIGRATION
– 1891 barred insane, paupers, those persons
suffering from contagious disease, felons,
polygamists, and (after 1903) anarchists.
In percentage terms, few turned away for any of
these reasons (less than 1%)
– 1917 Literacy test
• Restriction movement culminated in National Origins
Act (1924) that banned immigration from Asia and
severely limited immigration from eastern and southern
Europe. No numeric limits on Canada or Latin America
After 1882, with immigration limited
for the first time, it was now possible
to have unauthorized entry (illegal
immigration)
—Excluded Europeans and Asians went to
Canada or Mexico and crossing into U.S.
U.S. Supreme Court grappled with the
constitutional implications of restricted
immigration: Did government have the
power to deport, and if so, on what grounds?
• 1893 Fong Yue Ting v. U.S.
– Federal power to deport, but it is a civil
proceeding not a criminal one
• 1924 creating of U.S. Border Patrol
Special situation of immigration from Mexico
• Combination of legal welcome and ill-treatment
(examples from 1910s and 1930s)
– Congress repeatedly exempted Mexico from immigration
restriction measures
Congressmen from Western states and Texas very much wanted
Mexican workers and wanted an open trade border with Mexico
– Bracero program for ‘guest workers’ (1942-1964)
• 4.7 million participants
• “Operation Wetback,” 1954
Our current framework for immigration policy:
Changes and unintended consequences
• Cold War political pressure to reform immigration policy
culminated in 1965
• Hart-Celler Act:
– Did away with the 1924 racially-discriminatory
categories for the Eastern Hemisphere, but placed
Western Hemisphere under quota limit for the first time.
– Ended Bracero program.
– Retained a cap on number of immigrants each year, but
now allotted visa slots in a way that deemphasized work
skills and employment preferences
Consequences of 1965 immigration reform
– Immigration from Asia swelled
– Immigration from Latin America was suddenly
restricted in significant ways
– Employment-based visa allotments do not match
labor supply and demand
– By the late 1970s, unauthorized immigration had
become a major political debate
Federal policy debates
–President Ronald Reagan combined tighter
border enforcement with path to citizenship for
unauthorized immigrants (1986)
–Since 1990, emphasis has been on border
enforcement. Not much interest in changing visa
allotments. Not much attention to the larger pushand-pull factors behind immigration

Historical Context for Today`s Immigration Policy Debates