Historical Patterns in American Immigration

How We View Ourselves As Americans

Heather Fryer, PhD, director of the American Studies Program and the Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor of History, is a specialist in 20th century U.S. social and cultural history. Read more about how she became interested in the history of immigration.

Historical Patterns
in American Immigration

By Tammy Coleman

We didn’t start the fire. The heated debate over immigration, a central theme in the most recent presidential election, has been raging for years, according to Heather Fryer, PhD, director of the American Studies Program and associate professor in the History Department.

“At every point in history, Americans have struggled with two competing sentiments about immigration that remain very strong,” Fryer says. “The first is a deep sense of pride in the United States’ origins as a nation of immigrants from Europe, and continued pride in this heritage of openness and inclusion. Equally powerful, however, is the persistent fear that the United States’ characteristic openness leaves the nation unguarded from external enemies poised to destroy it.

“America got its start as a diverse nation. America gets its dynamism from working with the tension between finding a unifying national identity and appreciating the strength and innovation that have come from the combined contributions of Americans from across time and around the world.”

Fryer, the Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor of History at Creighton, has been studying this ideological divide for years, poring over government documents, journalistic records and personal correspondence.

Her research revealed something that may be surprising: Anti-immigration sentiment existed even in the original American colonies. Colonies established by immigrants.

Having taken the risk to leave the homes they had known and form a new society, early colonists bonded over their similarities. A “colonial identity” soon formed, Fryer says, as the newcomers viewed themselves as “different from both the tyrannical societies of old Europe and what they viewed as the uncivilized, ‘savage’ societies of the indigenous people.”

Benjamin Franklin, himself a son of immigrants (his father was an English-born soap and candlemaker; his mother, a Massachusetts native with family roots to the first Pilgrims) and a Founding Father, often considered an enlightened Renaissance man of the time, opposed the immigration of “swarthy Germans” into the American colonies.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion,” Franklin wrote.

While there were surely opposing views, such as Thomas Paine describing the colonies as “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” it was Franklin’s stance that found its way into the Naturalization Act of 1790.

The act established the first official rules regarding U.S. citizenship. It said “ … 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.”

What the act did not do, according to Fryer, was create a path to citizenship for slaves or “non-white Europeans” based on fear of “alien subversives.” It wasn’t until after the Civil War — with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 — that citizenship was extended to include all persons born in the United States (excluding “Indians not taxed”) without regard to race, color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.

Wave 1: Old Immigration

As the nation continued to grow and develop, a lack of primarily unskilled labor became evident and prospective immigrants were enticed to come help claim and settle the West by building cities and infrastructure.

“Americans needed and wanted new immigrants to be part of this large project of nation building,” Fryer says.

During the “Old Immigration” period (1820-1880) the majority of immigrants to the U.S. were English, Irish, German, Scandinavian or central European. They provided the labor and trades that built America, but many feared the influence of the culture and religion they brought with them.

In particular, the Protestant majority in the U.S. feared an infusion of Catholicism. One nativist newspaper, the American Patriot, “warned American citizens that ‘Catholic immigration was a Trojan horse of foreigners bent on conquest and supremacy over us’ — us meaning free, white Protestant Americans,” Fryer says.

“The underlying presumption of American anti-Catholicism was that it was simply not possible for Catholics to be faithful to both the nation and the Church.”

Among the concepts supported by the American Patriot:

  • Barring immigration
  • Barring bringing immigrants in for skilled jobs
  • Requiring 21 years of residency before becoming eligible to vote
  • Outlawing parochial schools
  • Summarily deporting foreign criminals and paupers

The paper openly opposed:

  • “Papal aggression” (a term stemming from an 1850 decree by Pope Pius IX proclaiming the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy of bishops and archbishops in England)
  • Immigrants holding offices of any kind
  • The presence of Catholic organizations of all sorts (“Nunneries and Jesuits received special mention,” Fryer says, “as posing threats to the way of life of real Americans and to corrupting the morals of its youth.”)

“Yet, it was still perfectly acceptable to recruit Catholic immigrants to provide desperately needed labor, such as the Irishmen who were doing some of the most grueling, dangerous mining jobs in places like Montana,” Fryer says. “But at the same time, it’s as if there’s a desire for the separation of the labor from the person who provides the labor. There’s no way to actually do that, and certainly no way to do it justly.

“By the end of the 19th century, most native-born Americans were of two minds about immigration. They embraced the workforce that built the cities, laid the railroad tracks, and they even prided themselves a little bit on the diverse cultures that had come together to make a unique country among all others.”

However, the same kind of fears and suspicions expressed by Franklin had taken root.

Wave 2: New Immigration

“The powerful dynamic created by the pride in, and fear of, immigration became all the more pronounced during the second wave of immigration,” she says.

The second wave, from the 1880s to 1924, saw a new crop of immigrants fleeing instability in such countries and regions as Russia, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy and Eastern Europe. Immigration from Ireland and Germany also continued as families were reunited in America. This period also saw a significant increase in Jewish, Mediterranean, Slavic, Japanese and Chinese immigrants.

Jewish immigrants, in particular, embraced their new homeland while retaining their native heritage, culture and traditions. Among the notable contributions to American history by Jewish immigrants is the well-known Statue of Liberty inscription, which was penned by Emma Lazarus, a descendent of early Jewish settlers to America:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Despite these and other achievements, Jewish immigrants became the next feared group and anti-Semitism soared — particularly on the East Coast. On the West Coast, a fear of “invasion” by external foreigners was just as pronounced, only the focus was on Asian immigrants.

“Their cultures were markedly different from that of Europeans, and the Judeo-Christian tradition was not as prevalent in their home countries,” Fryer says. “Nativists concluded from this that the Chinese and Japanese workers who built the railroads were not only ‘not American’ they were not even as ‘civilized’ or even as ‘human’ as people of Northern European descent.”

The Immigration Act of 1924 sought to curb the second wave of immigration by imposing strict national quotas of 2 percent of the total number of arrivals from each country of origin recorded in the 1890 census.

“Note here that Congress chose the 1890 census, when census data from 1900, 1910 and 1920 were available,” Fryer says. “In 1890, most immigrants to the United States were still coming from Northern Europe, so 2 percent of their larger numbers would be far greater than the 2 percent of the Jewish, Slavic and Mediterranean immigrants whose numbers had only begun to increase during the second wave of immigration in the 1880s.”

World War II

As the draft depleted the available American workforce during World War II, farmers, industrialists and government officials sought Mexican workers to fill the void. As a result, the government recruited and transported more than 4.5 million Mexican workers to farms and factories in the U.S. through the Bracero Program, according to Fryer.

“Although bracero labor made the successful U.S. war effort possible, anxious nativists railed against the so-called ‘foreign invasion from the south,’” she says. The federal government launched “Operation Wetback” in 1952, forcibly deporting 865,000 braceros and their families, including children born in the United States.

Reforms Feed Multiculturalism

The Immigration Act of 1965 dismantled national-origin quotas in favor of admitting 170,000 immigrants per year from the Eastern Hemisphere (with a 20,000 per country limit) and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, without per-country limits. The act also established visa preferences for family reunification, shortages in certain areas of the labor market (often for professional areas like nuclear science, athletics, the arts or other highly specialized fields) and refugees, according to Fryer.

For the first time in U.S. history, the number of immigrants from the Americas surpassed the number coming from Europe.

“Within a generation, the United States became a truly multiethnic society,” Fryer says.

Among the changes revealed in census data:

  • The U.S. Hispanic population grew 43 percent between 2000 and 2010
  • By 2010, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million
  • The non-Hispanic population grew relatively slower over the decade at about 5 percent
  • The number of people who reported their race as “white alone” grew even more slowly, at a rate of 1 percent

While the “non-Hispanic/white alone” population increased numerically (194.6 million to 196.8 million), its proportion of the total population declined from 69 percent to 64 percent

“It was a great testament to the ideal of the ‘American melting pot,’ but it was also a very rapid change for a nation with a history of invasion anxiety.”

Later reforms added to the tension, according to Fryer.

  • “When the Refugee Act of 1980 established a separate admissions policy to increase the number of refugees admitted per year (from Southeast Asia especially), Americans debated what the relationship should be between U.S. foreign policy and U.S. immigration policy.
  • “When the Immigration Reform and Control Act enhanced border security and reclassified 3 million workers living in the United States as ‘legally authorized,’ Americans asked whether reclassification rewarded immigrants’ extralegal conduct or if it rewarded their years-long contributions.
  • “And when the Immigration Act of 1990 increased immigration totals to 700,000 per year to allow for more employment-related visas and ‘diversity visas’ for applicants from underrepresented countries, Americans asked whether encouraging multicultural immigration and ethnic diversification was an enhancement or a threat to the ‘American way of life.’”

Taking a look at modern-day discourse and politics makes it clear that the current rhetoric and debate is simply a different verse of the same old song.

“In looking at all of these histories of the immigration debate, it’s clear that only the names, nationalities, ethnicities, religions and historical circumstances have changed. The tensions at the center of the debate have hardly changed at all,” Fryer says. 

“This may seem disappointing and discouraging, but I think that there is great hope for a radical change in the conversation. The more of us who are aware of this historical anxiety, the more we can help others to see that painting immigrants who live and work in America as ‘dangerous foreign invaders’ is not only a great injustice to the targeted group, it prevents the United States from solving the real questions and issues that arise from the movement of peoples, the development of global systems and the changes that take place when new people enter an established community.”  

This historical anxiety “is an emotional chord that politicians know that they can strike at any time and get an impassioned response from potential supporters. 

“If the current state of the conversation is an indication of what is to come, I fear that we are in for a continuation of new rounds of invasion rhetoric,” Fryer says.

This rhetoric, she says, does not accurately portray the realities that bring immigrants to the United States and does not separate anxieties from actual problems. She adds that it panders to certain segments of the electorate that are legitimately frustrated with a lack of government responses to their own plights. But instead of engaging in possible solutions, she says, it offers a false sense of regained power “by pointing to a particular group of people as ‘un-American’ and not as worthy of what America has to offer.” 

Building physical walls along the border to keep out Mexicans and Central Americans — many of whom are filling a demand for labor or fleeing violence and poverty — or denying Syrian refugees a safe place to resettle on the basis that they may foment terrorism, “does not make the U.S. safer from economic hardship or terrorism,” she says. “But it does increase the likelihood that people will lose faith in the American promise and, in their disillusionment, be enticed into gangs or terrorist cells.

“My question has always been whether, by exposing the historical patterns that form the basis for the unproductive civic habits that Americans bring to the public dialogue, we can shift the conversation away from identifying and demonizing an ‘other’ and, instead, focus on the very real challenges in front of us? 

“Closing the distance between the abstract people who populate our anxieties and rhetoric and the people who live among us is a promising route toward a more unifying way of talking as — and of being — Americans.”