Perhaps the most common device employed in defense of immigration is that of the phrase We are a nation of immigrants. This is said flippantly and often met without anything but a nod, as if to say, Of course. Is it obvious that we are a nation of immigrants? We should look at the data.
I went to a public high school so the following is all new to me. I did not learn any of this in my various social studies courses, nor did I learn this in a required class called “Government”. In all of the “general” courses I took during my Associate’s degree, none of this was mentioned. Hopefully, the Reader can learn a thing or two in this article, I certainly did. We shall begin with the numbers from the Migration Policy Institute.
While the overall number of foreign-born in the U.S. is drastically higher post-1970 immigration (44.5 million) than it was post-1850 immigration (14.2 million), the percentages are quite similar. This would lead one to believe that there is no substantial difference between these two periods. However, they are dramatically different for two reasons: emigration levels and demographics of the incoming immigrants. The following graph was determined by increases resulting from new immigration and decreases resulting from immigrant mortality (e.g. old age) or emigration.
Following the 1960s, we see an explosive rise in the net immigration to this country. The mid-1800s up through the early 1900s (I will call this part of America’s timeline The Heavy Rain) is the period cited as the obvious evidence that we are a nation of immigrants. However, in contrast with post-1960s American immigration (I will call this period The Flood), Heavy Rain was of totally different circumstances.
I compiled all the Census records from 1610 to the most recent estimations. The orange numbers that show up between 1610-1930 are my calculations based on surrounding data. I did this to make the chart whole and give rough estimations. If the number is negative, it’s from rounding error and should be ignored. Today, the population is:
Immigration has become a polarizing issue in The Country’s Dialogue and has been since the candidacy of Donald Trump back in late 2015. A large proportion of this discussion is now spent on illegal immigration, but that is a whole other can of worms I will not choose to open. Let us work our way backward through the history of legal immigration to these United States of America. This will reveal the major differences between The Heavy Rain and The Flood.
The Hart-Celler Act of 1965
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was proposed by Representative Emanuel Celler (D-New York), co-sponsored by Senator Philip Hart (D-Michigan), and popularized (i.e., sold) by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). This act was unique in that it essentially replaced all acts before it. It was not a modification on the immigration policies that hitherto controlled the population of America, but the dawn of a new age.
Hart-Celler abolished the National Origins Formula that had been in place since the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. This formula enforced a quota system wherein the incoming immigrants must resemble the proportions of the U.S. citizens already living in the country. If the country is 25 percent German by ancestry, 25 percent of the incoming immigrants must be German. This led to the West and Northern Europeans who founded the country seeing their numbers increase.
More on this act later, as it needs its proper context.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
This act, proposed by Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nevada) and later Representative Francis E. Walter (D-Pennsylvania), removed all racial restrictions dating back to 1790 but did not repeal the National Origins Formula, so the admittance of immigrants still closely resembled the country’s majority. Various quotas were set for Asian countries, which removed the restrictions from the Immigration Act of 1917, but the annual cap was set at 2,000 immigrants from the whole of the Asia-Pacific region.
The major piece of this act was to only allow people with similar political sentiments and affiliations to those currently in government and the citizenry to whom they owe their election. This act was explicitly anti-Communist in nature and followed the 1950 legislation that allowed the deportation of anybody who was a member of the Communist Party. Additionally, McCarran wanted to protect the country from “Jewish interests” and undesirables. Here is a direct quote on the act from McCarran:
“I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. America is indeed a joining together of many streams which go to form a mighty river which we call the American way. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States…. I do not intend to become prophetic, but if the enemies of this legislation succeed in riddling it to pieces, or in amending it beyond recognition, they will have contributed more to promote this nation’s downfall than any other group since we achieved our independence as a nation.”
Additionally, it stated that persons born in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam on or after 24 December 1952 are citizens of the United States the same as any child born in New York, North Dakota, or New Hampshire.
The Luce-Celler Act of 1946
As the Philipines became independent of the United States in 1946, Representative Clare Boothe Luce (R-Connecticut) and Representative Emanuel Celler (D-New York) proposed this act which allowed the immigration of no more than 100 Filipinos and 100 Indians per year. This also allowed Filipinos and Indians to naturalize as U.S. citizens, which had been strictly forbidden up to this point. It was a total reversal of the following.
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind – 1923
In this case, the Supreme Court decided,
- A high caste Hindu, of full Indian blood, born at Amrit Sar, Punjab, India, is not a “white person” within the meaning of Rev.Stats., § 2169, relating to the naturalization of aliens. P. 261 U. S. 207.”
- “Free white persons,” as used in that section, are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word “Caucasian” only as that word is popularly understood. P. 261 U. S. 214. Ozawa v. United States, 260 U. S. 178.
- The action of Congress in excluding from admission to this country all natives of Asia within designated limits, including all of India, is evidence of a like attitude toward naturalization of Asians within those limits. P. 261 U. S. 215.
So, it was clear within the context of the law, that Asians from the subcontinent of India were not to be considered white and were, therefore, not allowed to become citizens. This led to the revocation of citizenship and deportation of some 20,000 Indians.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921
Introduced by Representative Albert Johnson (R-Washington), this act was a reaction to the swift growth of America’s population. Immigration was rapid from Northwestern Europe, but they were most concerned with the quick growth of the Jewish population. In order to combat both issues, they instituted the National Origins Formula. It limited immigration to three percent of the corresponding nationality/race that was already in America. This formula dropped admittance from 805,228 in 1920 to 309,556 in 1921-22 and drastically reduced the number of immigrants coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. Moreover, this continued the country’s lack of non-European immigration.
This act was later modified in 1924 to only allow two percent migration instead of three, as the country’s politicians saw that too many “undesirables” were arriving.
The Immigration Act of 1917
Sometimes called the Literacy Act, this was the most comprehensive immigration restriction to date. A literacy test for potential immigrants was proposed as early as 1894 by the Immigration Restriction League. In 1895, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Massachusetts) proposed a bill that would enable a test of reading five lines from the Constitution before admittance. It was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland (D) in 1897. President Theodore Roosevelt (R) supported this bill in his first address in 1901, yet it was again defeated in 1903. It passed a second time in 1912, only to be vetoed by President William Howard Taft (R). However, on 5 February 1917, the act was passed with an overwhelming majority in Congress to override the President’s veto.
It banned from entrance alcoholics, anarchists, contract laborers, criminals, convicts, epileptics, “feebleminded persons”, “idiots”, “illiterates”, “imbeciles”, “insane persons”, “paupers”, “persons afflicted with contagious disease”, “persons being mentally or physically defective”, “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority”, “political radicals”, polygamists, prostitutes, and vagrants. Additionally, it banned any immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, more than 50 countries with today’s borders.
The literacy test in the final act was a 40-word selection in the immigrant’s native tongue for all who were 16 years or older. 1903 was the first year wherein the U.S. banned persons with a particular political belief.
The Immigration Act of 1882
This act forced a $0.50 tax on any new arrival and banned the entrance of criminals (unless the charge was political), lunatics, idiots, or anyone likely to become a public charge (about half of the immigrant population uses some form of welfare today). This also included the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all legal immigration of Chinese laborers. This marked the first time in U.S. history wherein officials barred the immigration of a specific nationality/race.
We can see that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in direct response to the growing population of these immigrants, even if they were only 0.21 percent of the total U.S. population in 1880.
The Page Act of 1875
The act of 1882 was an additional provision added to the act from Representative Horace F. Page (R-California), which was designed to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” More technically, the law barred undesirables, defined as a person from East Asia coming to America as a forced laborer, any East Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all persons considered to be convicts in their own country. Prior to this act, America had what might be considered by today’s standards “open” borders. Although, the percentages of non-whites are so low that one must assume non-whites were rarely welcomed to the country or simply did not know it existed as a possible destination.
A fine of up to $2,000 (approximately $46,217 in 2018) and a maximum jail sentence of one year would be imposed on anyone who tried to bring a person from China, Japan, or any East Asian country to the United States “without their free and voluntary consent, for the purpose of holding them to a term of service.” It should be noted that this claim of East Asian women shoring up in America as prostitutes was far from abnormal and discussed regularly.
“While this is being done I invite the attention of Congress to another, though perhaps no less an evil–the importation of Chinese women, but few of whom are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.” – President Ulysses S. Grant, 7 December 1875
The Naturalization Act of 1870
Following the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, this act, introduced by Representative Noah Davis (R-New York) and co-sponsored by Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-New York), allowed “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” to become citizens. Prior to the Civil War most Americans, but particularly citizens of the Southern states did not see Africans or African-Americans as citizens. The majority were here as property, solely for their labor. Of course, some became freemen in the antebellum South, some moved North and integrated with the almost entirely white population in the north, and some even owned black slaves in the antebellum South. However, it is well documented that Americans and their representatives in office did not conceive of such a thing as a black citizen prior to 1870. As recently as 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that those of African descent could not be citizens, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free.
The Naturalization Act of 1790
This was the first meeting of the first Congress to ever exist in the United States of America. In this first session, it was decided that “any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law to support the Constitution of the United States, which Oath or Affirmation such Court shall administer, and the Clerk of such Court shall record such Application, and the proceedings thereon; and thereupon such person shall be considered as a Citizen of the United States.” My emphasis added.
It may come as a surprise for the Reader who attended public school that race was a topic the Founders discussed at length.
Thomas Paine, an abolitionist, wrote in his pamphlet from 1776 entitled Common Sense that, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” This is obviously a statement lobbied toward those who believed England, in particular, was the sole parent of America. Although, implicit in his statement is the assumption that non-European immigration is outside of the America’s purview.
The obvious question must be asked, what about the Africans and African-Americans already living in the United States?
Almost 20 percent of the entire U.S. population was of African descent at this time. We know from the Slave Voyages database that approximately 294,335 slaves were imported to Mainland North America between 1651 and 1790 and their total number had grown to 694,207 by the end of this period. So, approximately 60,000 (1.5 percent of the U.S. population) blacks were freemen and another ~694k had both feet planted America. This was still long before the Naturalization Act of 1870, so what did the Founders think?
Aside: The Slave Voyages is a well of knowledge. Mainland North America and Europe received 369,851 of the 9,913,677 slaves involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or about 3.73 percent. Remarkably, 3,516,816 landed in Brazil alone. In contrast, the Arab slave trade included upwards of 17 million slaves and predated the TAST by ~700 years, but information on this topic is more difficult to find. One might ask, if so many millions of slaves were bought/kidnapped by Arabs, why are there so few of African descent in the Middle East today?
Ben Franklin, an outspoken abolitionist, said about Africans and African-Americans way back in 1751, “the Negroes brought into the English Sugar Islands, have greatly diminish’d the Whites there; the Poor are by this Means depriv’d of Employment, while a few Families acquire vast Estates; which they spend on Foreign Luxuries, and educating their children in the Habit of those Luxuries; [the] same Income is needed for the Support of one that might have maintain’d 100. The Whites who have Slaves, not labouring, are enfeebled, and therefore not so generally prolific; the Slaves being work’d too hard, and ill fed, their Constitutions are broken, and the Deaths among them are more than the Births; so that a continual Supply is needed from Africa. The Northern colonies have few Slaves increase in Whites. Slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.” My emphasis added.
Ben Franklin believed what would be considered beyond blasphemy by today’s standards: slaves were generally quite lazy and this rubbed off on the families who owned them. He may have been against slavery for much different reasons than the average American of today. Franklin added to this sentiment with what he would like to see of the future for the white race.
“Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Compexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”
I’ve certainly never heard a Swede called swarthy, but I think I understand the main points. Ben Franklin makes plain his intention to further the white race separate of the others. Furthermore, he concludes with the statement that it is in the nature of all humans to want to see the numbers of their own race increase.
John Jay, an abolitionist and the first Chief Justice of the United States, said of the founding of this country: “with equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.” My emphasis added.
Thomas Jefferson, while he hoped that slavery would be abolished eventually, predicted that there might occur an event akin to a race war in America. “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” My emphasis added.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe thought similarly on this discussion of black integration. They were especially skeptical after Gabriel Prosser led a slave rebellion outside of Richmond, Virginia in 1800. Prosser was emulating the recent uprising of African-Haitians against the French and Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were acutely aware of this. In 1816, the American Colonization Society was founded by Robert Finley, the president of the University of Georgia. Its main goal was expatriation of African-Americans and repatriation of Africans to various parts of Africa (this led to the founding of Liberia).
Henry Clay of ACS said, “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.” Among the politicians who agreed with Clay’s sentiments were Abraham Lincoln and James Monroe.
President James Madison said of this topic in a letter to Robert J. Evans 15 June 1819: “To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. the freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or allotted to a White population. The objections to a thorough incorporation of the two people, are with most of the Whites insuperable, and are admitted by all of them to be very powerful. If the blacks, strongly marked as they are, by physical & lasting peculiarities, be retained amid the whites, under the degrading privation of equal rights political or social, they must be always dissatisfied with their condition as a change only from one to another species of oppression; always secretly confederated agst. the ruling & privileged class; and always uncontroulled by some of the most cogent motives to moral and respectable conduct. The character of the freed blacks, even where their legal condition is least affected by their colour, seems to put these truths beyond question. It is material also that the removal of the blacks be to a distance precluding the jealousies & hostilities to be apprehended from a neighboring people stimulated by the contempt known to be entertained for their peculiar features; to say nothing of their vindictive recollections, or the predatory propensities which their State of Society might foster. Nor is it fair, in estimating the danger of collisions with the Whites, to charge it wholly on the side of the Blacks. There would be reciprocal antipathies doubling the danger.” My emphasis added.
Madison is laying out an argument that because of the history between these two groups there doesn’t seem to be any way they can fully accept and embrace each other. It’s worth noting that many are still demanding reparations for slavery today, and potential Democratic candidates for Presidency in 2020 have been discussing the topic regularly. This is over 200 years after the importation of slaves was abolished and 156 years following the Emancipation Proclamation.
Charles Pinckney, a founding Representative with whom I’m not terribly familiar, commented on his contribution to the Consitution of the United States. He stated, with my emphasis, on 13 February 1821, “it appears by the Journal of the Convention that formed the Constitution of the United States, that I was the only member of that body that ever submitted the plan of a constitution completely drawn in articles and sections; and this having been done at a very early state of their proceedings, the article on which now so much stress is laid, and on the meaning of which the whole of this question is made to turn, and which is in these words: “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities in every State,” having been made by me, it is supposed I must know, or perfectly recollect, what I meant by it. In answer, I say, that, at the time I drew that constitution, I perfectly knew that there did not then exist such a thing in the Union as a black or colored citizen, nor could I then have conceived it possible such a thing could have ever existed in it; nor, notwithstanding all that has been said on the subject, do I now believe one does exist in it.”
1965 and Beyond
The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 set a limit of 170,000 visas per year and per-country-of-origin quotas. Prior to this point, Asia and Africa were basically restricted from allowing anyone to emigrate from their countries to the United States.
The main purposes of this bill were to abolish national-origin quotas, give seven tiers for those who should receive priority of acceptance to the country, allow no restriction on immediate relatives joining U.S. citizens and “special” immigration, and limit immigration from the Western hemisphere for the first time. However, it was promised that this act would not change the demographics of this country. One who understands basic arithmetic might ask, how? To quote Senator Kennedy, “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. … Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the years in which the number of persons who obtained lawful permanent resident status exceeded one million were: 1989, ’90, ’91, 2001, ’02, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’14, ’15, ’16, and 2017. The year 1991 was a shade under two million.
Senator Ted Kennedy was far from the only commentary on this act and many others were selling it to the American people, including President Lyndon Johnson. He said, “this bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives. … Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration. For it does repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
Americans were convinced that the bill Congress was passing into law would not change their lives in any tangible way.
Senator Hiram Fong (R-Hawaii) said of the possible influx of Asians to America, “Asians represent six-tenths of 1 percent of the population of the United States … with respect to Japan, we estimate that there will be a total for the first 5 years of some 5,391 … the people from that part of the world will never reach 1 percent of the population … Our cultural pattern will never be changed as far as America is concerned.” This was 10 February 1965.
Between 1966 and 1970, 19,399 immigrants came from Japan, or about 260 percent more than Hiram Fong promised. As of 1 July 2017, persons of Asian-alone heritage make up 5.8 percent of the U.S. population or approximately 3,312 percent more than the one-sixth of one percent that Fong cited.
It is clear that President Lyndon Johnson, Emanuel Celler, Philip Hart, Ted Kennedy, Hiram Fong, and many others represent views the Founders would consider radically opposed to the America they had devised. Even Abraham Lincoln, the man who is largely responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, believed America was a nation built by and for whites.
Compare this with Joe Biden’s monologue from a 2015 White House Summit. He says, “So there’s a second thing in that black box. An unrelenting stream of immigration. Non-stop, non-stop. Folks like me who are Caucasian of European descent, for the first time in 2017 will be in an absolute minority in the United States of America. Absolute minority. Fewer than 50 percent of the people in America, from then and on, will be white, European stock. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a source of our strength.”
While this isn’t entirely true, as non-Hispanic whites are still ~60.7 percent of the U.S. population, it makes the plain the intention of today’s officials and puts in stark contrast their opposition to the people who created the United States of America. An oft-quoted line from The New Colossus, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etc., has replaced the words of the Founders. The men who wrote the Constitution are not quoted in discussions of American immigration policy, but this poem is used so often it’s as if it were the opening lines of the Constitution.
The original colonies and the United States of America have been 80+ percent non-Hispanic White for at least 330 out of its ~400 years. The two times it has not been at least 80 percent white were 1750-1790, which was the busiest importation of African slaves during the Trans-Atlantic Trade, and post-1970s.
The vast majority of Republicans, many of whom claim to be strict constitutionalists, do not represent what the Founders believed, nor does anyone who considers themselves a Democrat, progressive, liberal, socialist, or communist. I believe anarchists do not agree with the Founders in these matters, nor do most libertarians. When one hears a politician or fellow American state [immigration policy excluding a group of people] is deeply un-American, it is the opposite that is true. It is the opposite that is un-American.
So, when one hears We are a nation of immigrants or a vague allusion to the idea of America, it is appropriate to ask: which America are they talking about?