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The Earliest Immigrants The United States of America has a long history of immigration, beginning with Jamestown in the 17th century. Most of the early immigrants were European. Some came to escape religious persecution, some to find adventure and gold, and others because they were prisoners transported for crimes committed. Some of the wealthier Europeans brought along their African slaves. In 1808, Thomas Jefferson made the transportation of foreign slaves into the country illegal, but the practice of slavery itself would not be ended until nearly half a century later. Because slaves were still in high demand, slave ships continued to smuggle in more than 50,000 slaves from Africa, making them the first illegal aliens in the United States.
European Immigration In 1816 the first wave of Irish settlers immigrated to America. Five million Irish entered the country. Those who were born in the U.S. who considered themselves “natives” deeply resented the presence of the Irish and their Catholic religion. The Irish faced much persecution in America. It was not uncommon for mobs to break out and burn Catholic churches, and sometimes the Irish had a difficult time finding employment. In 1837, the Supreme Court ruled that states could restrict the immigration of paupers, vagabonds, and criminals. Many immigrants arrived in ships only to be sent back home again. European immigration continued throughout the 19th century. Political parties looking for votes would commonly expedite citizenship for immigrants in return for votes. Many Europeans came after the Homestead Act offered to sell land for $1.25 an acre to anyone who would settle it.
Way Out West The earliest non-Europeans to receive United States citizenship were 80,000 Mexicans in 1848. When the U.S. acquired the border states(Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, etc.) at the end of the Mexican War, all of the Mexicans living in those areas were granted citizenship. During the latter part of the 19th century, another group of immigrants came to America—the Chinese. When the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860s, many Chinese workers were hired along with the Irish to work on the railroad.In the 1870s, the gold rush in California attracted even more Chinese immigrants. By 1880, the Chinese population had reached 105,465. Just like the Irish, the Chinese also faced persecution. When the economy experienced a decline, after the gold rush days, people blamed the Chinese. Laws were passed forbidding Chinese to buy land. People drove them from their homes and set fire to their businesses. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to bar the immigration of Chinese laborers for the next ten years.
The Statue of Liberty In 1886 the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was completed. For 62 years Lady Liberty would overlook one of the busiest portals of immigration—Ellis Island. This immigration station that opened a couple of years later processed over 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. On the plaque on the statue’s base, a poem urged the world’s tired, poor, wretched, and tempest-tossed to find shelter under her care. This seemingly wide-open invitation to immigrants has never been a reality for most of the people groups who wished to take Lady Liberty up on her offer. Ironically, the very next year after the statue of liberty was unveiled, Chinese immigration dropped to only ten people who came over in 1886. As the population of American multiplied, the population of Chinese steadily declined. The Chinese Exclusion Act had accomplished its purpose. One of the last significant events of the 19th century in regards to immigration was a Supreme court ruling in 1898 stating that the 14th amendment guarantees citizenship to everyone who was born in the United States. This meant that many Black slaves were now American citizens.
Early 20th Century Immigration The early 1900s saw a rise in Japanese immigration, and predictably, in anti-Japanese sentiment. As pressures were put upon government officials to put a stop to Japanese immigration, the U.S. and Japan negotiated what was known as “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” This kept new Japanese laborers from entering the country but gave amnesty to those who were already here. Thousands of Japanese women still immigrated as “picture wives,” or mail order brides. In the meantime, Chinese continued to immigrate illegally, entering from Mexico and Canada. As early as 1904, border patrols had formed in order to keep the Chinese from crossing over the border of Mexico. The Chinese weren’t the only ones crossing over. Mexicans began to immigrate in heavy numbers after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. By 1927, a million Mexicans had crossed illegally. Another factor that compounded the discrimination against other races and ethnic groups was the rise of Eugenics—the desire to create a “master race” free from genetic impurities which included non-white races. In 1923, Asian Indians had their citizenship revoked because they were not “white” enough.
World War II When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1942, the government responded by rounding up tens of thousands of Japanese, along Italians and Germans, and placing them in internment camps because they feared they were not loyal to the United States. The Supreme Court later ruled this action unconstitutional. During the war, the lack of men left in the United States to work prompted the U.S. to invite five million temporary migrant workers called Braceros to come to work in farms and railroads. In 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed, opening the way for Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens. As current immigration laws required quotas for each country, China’s quota was set at 105 immigrants per year. An exception to the quotas were made for war brides that allowed a million soldiers to bring their foreign wives and children homeafter WWII ended.
Civil Right Era In1964 The Braceroprogram ended. The U.S. Government was frustrated with Mexican workers who did not have the proper documentation and so it decided to end the program. The Mexican government, however, was opposed to ending the program and wished to keep it open. Even though the U.S. ended the program, undocumented workers continued to arrive anyway. The illegal immigration we see today is a continuation of these events. In 1965, racial restrictions on immigration were finally eliminated. According to the new law, which went into effect in 1968, it became illegal to prohibit immigration or restrict naturalized citizenship based on a person’s race, gender, or nationality. Anyone, no matter if they were Irish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, or from any other country, could finally come to the United States and apply for citizenship.
Immigration Reform With immigration finally being open to all countries and nationalities, the U.S. became a safe harbor for refugees from other countries. However, many still entered the country without the proper documentation. In 1980, the U.S passed the Refugee Act which allowed persecuted individuals to come to America to seek asylum. Many Cubans arrived by boat seeking asylum under this Act. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan enacted Immigration Reform in order to deal with the growing number of illegal aliens. This reform granted legal status to any alien who entered the country illegally before January 1, 1982.It would also make it illegal for businesses to hire illegal aliens. The hope was that this would take care of the ones who were already here and were working, but would deter more from coming in. However, since the laws banning businesses from hiring illegals were not enforced, it did nothing to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. By 1994 it was estimated that there were 3.4 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Immigration Issues Today Today immigration is still a hot issue. In many cities in the U.S., the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow. I hear people all the time complaining about the number of Mexicans. They accused Mexicans of not learning the language, being dirty, doing drugs, and stealing “our” jobs. Yet, the Mexicans I know work hard without complaining and send most of the money they make back to their families in Mexico. Often they are taken advantage of by employers who pay them low wages in cash to avoid getting in trouble for hiring illegals. Many of the same things that people today say about Mexicans are the same things earlier generations said about the Irish and the Chinese. Throughout the history of our country, those who were here “first” (which is ironic, since the American Indians were the ones who were here “first”) are always suspicious of those who arrived later.
Making Immigration Easier In the debate about immigration, most people say they aren’t against Mexicans immigrating, they are just against illegal immigration. I believe that the laws are far too restrictive towards immigrants. It should not take ten years for someone to immigrate legally. When becoming legal is that difficult and time consuming, it is no wonder that immigrants come over illegally. One of our greatest landmarks and symbols of America, the Statue of Liberty, has a sign on its base with a poem welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They are noble, inspiring words, but they are not words our country has lived up to. I would like to see us welcome those who are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. We claim that America is the greatest country in the world, but we want to keep it all to ourselves. I think we should remember that once upon a time, our ancestors were immigrants, too.
References Camarota, Steven A. “New INS Report: 1986 Amnesty Increased Illegal Immigration.” Center for Immigration Studies. 12 October 2000. Web. 6 April 2011. http://www.cis.org/articles/2000/ins1986amnesty.html “Historical Timeline: History of Legal and Illegal Immigration to the United States.” ProCon.org. 27 September 2010. Web. 4 April 2011. http://immigration.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=002690#3