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The History of American Immigration By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, September 06, 2002


Immigration is a frequently misunderstood part of our history. Many people, even those who aggressively use our history of immigration as an argument for mass immigration in the present day, tacitly imagine nothing more complex than a steady stream of people over time. But the reality is far more complex, and speaks to our present immigration crisis in a number of ways.

Strictly speaking, the first settlers to come to this country were not immigrants at all, but colonists, a distinction between the founders of a nation and later additions to it that has been largely forgotten. The first great wave of settlement in what was to become the 13 Colonies was the Puritan wave of 1629-41. In the rest of the 13 Colonies, settlement came in waves followed by troughs: one peaking in the 1720’s, another in the early 1750’s, and another from the late 1760’s until the outbreak of the American Revolution, the pauses between them being mostly due to wars in Europe. After the revolution, there was a great lull in immigration for nearly 70 years — two whole generations — until the Irish started arriving in the 1840’s in flight from the potato famine. This makes sense: we were weeks away from Europe by an expensive, unpleasant, and dangerous sailing-ship voyage. There was no TV to broadcast the charms of America to the world, and nothing but hard work to do when immigrants got here.

After the Irish came Germans fleeing the failed revolution of 1848 and the general poverty and authoritarianism of Germany in this period.For the next 40 years, immigration surged and plunged as wave was followed by trough time and again.As the century wore on, the main source of immigrants moved from northern Europe to southern and eastern Europe. Transportation became cheaper as railroads penetrated every corner of Europe and steamships grew in size, making the passage more available to the poor. Immigration became a well-organized corporate business. There were peaks in 1851-4, 1866-73, 1881-83, and 1905-7. Specific events, like the 1881 pogrom in Russia or regional harvest failures, triggered waves of people which eventually subsided, at least until some fresh cause emerged.

My point here is that our heritage is not just immigration; it is also periods of little or no immigration. Whoever who would justify on historical grounds ceaseless mass immigration like we have had since 1965 , is lying about history.(I also cannot help noting that people who appeal to tradition to justify immigration are not particularly interested in conserving our other traditions, and that our tradition of immigration is actually a tradition of European immigration, to be quite factual about it.) These pauses in immigration were key to the process of Americanizing the immigrants. Without them, as we may observe among Hispanics today, a continual flow of newcomers keeps immigrants poor and sucks them back into the culture from which they came.The Internet and Spanish-language TV only make things worse, as does the fact that Mexico is next door and has already sent 30 million immigrants. (Italy, for example, sent only 3 million total.)

Another thing that we are all going to have to get honest about is that America’s history of immigration is not entirely a pretty picture, i.e. not something we should use as a precedent.There is the fact, for example, that 1/3 of all the immigrants who came to America between the Revolution and 1965 went back.Only the Irish and the Jews failed to return home in significant numbers. Given that people generally came to this country because of intolerable conditions in Europe, this implies that they found life here, whether in the teeming slums of New York or the freezing prairies of North Dakota, even worse. There is also the fact that — how can one put this politely? — there is a reason why even that arch-romanticizer of immigration Emma Lazarus referred to immigrants as “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” in her famous poem.I beg the reader not to react to this emotionally; my own ancestors were no different.But we will never get any rational debate on this issue until people learn to take family and ethnic feelings out of it. We’re ethnic Americans now, anyway — or ought to be. I allow myself a little sentimentality about where my ancestors came from, but that’s it. It is an amply-documented fact that immigrants brought to this country a host of social pathologies: poverty, disease, violence, family breakdown, alcoholism, illiteracy, crime, socialism. It is thus no surprise that many were stigmatized, much as their Americanized and civilized descendants today rightly stigmatize social groups that exhibit these same pathologies.

People who would like to use our history of immigration as a justification for immigration in the present day have to face the fact that the conditions of immigration have radically changed.To immigrate to the U.S. in 2002 is nothing like immigrating in 1902. In the old days, America had no welfare state and no affirmative action for immigrants.It offered immigrants, in effect, a sink-or-swim proposition. Not only was this fair in the sense that it didn’t ask Americans to subsidize foreigners, it also served as a good screening test to bounce those incapable of making a success of themselves. Immigrants in 1900 had many social pathologies, but circumstances generally did not permit laziness to be among them. Today a lavish welfare state has upended this proposition. Other key policies that have changed, for example bilingual education.And America’s confidence in its cultural superiority and its right to impose that culture on immigrants has been destroyed by cultural relativism. Even if you are pro-immigration in principle, surely you must concede that immigration should be paused until these changes are reversed?

None of this would matter today if we hadn’t undone the work of two of the most beneficial pieces of social legislation of the 20th Century: the 1921 Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act. Now these acts have had a bad reputation at least since the 1950’s, when they were legally supplanted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.This bad reputation stems from the fact that they reflected the ethnic prejudices of they day (as did other legislation of that era.) Nevertheless, they had many positive aspects and their results were hugely beneficial.

The first thing the 1921-4 legislation did was cut the raw number of immigrants, from 800,000 in 1921 to 154,000 in 1924. The second thing it did was more complex, namely to address the issue, contentious still today, of ethnic balance in immigration.The 1921 act was motivated in part by a sense that immigration is in some sense an unearned gift to the ethnic group that is allowed to immigrate. In particular, it is a gift to those members of the ethnic group that already live in America. In a multi-ethnic democracy, political power and all it implies flow to ethnic groups that can increase their numbers, as Hispanic politicians are well aware.Irishmen would rather have Irish immigrants, Poles Polish immigrants, and so on (even if they are better off with none of any kind.) It follows that immigration really ought to be rationed among ethnic groups according to some metric of fairness. What the 1921 act did was allocate annual quotas by country of origin equal to 3% of that nation’s existing ethnic stock in the US as of 1910.In 1924, this was amended to 2% and 1890, in order to avoid over-rewarding groups that had already massively benefited from the great wave between 1890 and 1910.

This legislation has been maligned by the Left as extremist and cold-hearted. In fact, with 154,000 immigrants per year, (the equivalent of over 300,000 today, relative to population) the US was still far and away the world’s largest recipient of immigration. In today’s terms, it would be the equivalent of taking in a city the size of Chicago every decade. If it was extremely anything, it was extremely generous to immigrants.

Interestingly in light of our present predicament, the 1921-4 acts were partly motivated by a fear of immigrants harboring ideologies hostile to American society. Today the enemy is Arabs bearing Islamic fundamentalism; then it was East Europeans bearing Bolshevism. The Russian Revolution and civil war had just happened, and people were legitimately afraid. There is no doubt that there was some tacit anti-Semitism in this legislation, but there is also no doubt that a lot of Jewish immigrants in this period were socialists or communists. This is a properly documented fact and cannot be dismissed as a canard; see Nathan Glazer’s book The Social Basis of American Communism. Still, the act did not mention Jews by name, classifying them instead according to their country of origin, but since most immigrants from Poland, Russia and Rumania were Jewish, and these countries had their combined quota cut to 8,879, Jewish immigration was virtually stopped. (Ironically, in this same year, 1924, Stalin replaced Lenin, drove Russian Jews out of positions of authority, and instituted the anti-Semitic policies which lasted until Gorbachev and made the phrase “Jewish Communism” a cruel joke.)

To be honest about it, the 1921-4 acts were also motivated by then-fashionable theories of Nordic racial superiority, as expressed in such books as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race and The Conquest of a Continent and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. The sentiments expressed in these books cannot be considered respectable today, but it is unfair to classify them, as current reputation has it, as Nazi-like. They did not advocate totalitarianism or extermination. They honored American democracy and liberal institutions.They considered some races inferior, but no one subhuman. They had some appreciation of the positive qualities of the races they looked down on. “Nordic,” like their other favorite phrase, “Anglo-Saxon,” was in practice what one immigration official called “a term of art,” i.e. rather elastic. Sometimes it meant something close to the actual definition of these words, particularly as one went up the social scale; usually it meant “similar to existing Americans, minus existing racial minorities and recent immigrants.” This simply reflected a bipartisan consensus, shared on all levels of society and by a good many people who were not “Nordic,” that was simply the belief of the time.Most respectable mainstream institutions endorsed these conclusions, even if some did not.

But however questionable some of their motivations, the 1921-4 acts did deliver immigration fairness to the various ethnic groups that make up our country. Today, we are confronted with the monstrously arrogant greed of a Mexican-American community that considers itself entitled not only to a grossly disproportionate share of American immigration, but to engross its numbers in a way that other ethnic groups are not doing. Any upcoming immigration reform must address this issue.

It should also address, as these acts did, the desirability of ethnic stability in this country.Our goal should not be to freeze America in amber,but to bring us back to the slow, gradual, and non-disruptive change that has been the norm for most of our history and is the absolute norm for most nations. How anyone can call themselves a conservative and favor the sudden ethnic change this country is now undergoing, is beyond me.

Let’s look at the results of the 1921-4 cuts in immigration. Namely:

  1. The cut-off of the supply of cheap labor into the bottom rungs of the labor force reduced the poverty rate.

  2. Average wages rose.

  3. Per-capita GDP rose.

  4. American cities, no longer bloating to absorb millions of immigrants, could devote themselves to becoming civilized middle-class places.

  5. Immigrants began to Americanize themselves.

Contrary to the absurd myth, still propagated today, that immigrants are essential to our prosperity, the 20’s were the most prosperous decade in American history up to that point, marred only by a stock-market crash that had nothing to do with immigration. Contrary to the myth that immigrants are essential for cultural vitality, they were also one of the most culturally exciting.

The subsequent decade was marred by the Great Depression, which resulted in quotas going unfilled and even brief net negative immigration.With up to a third of the nation unemployed, America was hardly a land of opportunity. The other key immigration fact to notice about the 1930’s is that immigrants from the great wave of 1890-1910 made up a key portion of the new Democrat majority that took over American politics in 1932, a pattern that will shortly be repeated if nothing is done. The subsequent decade was half taken up by WWII, which virtually shut down international travel, and the other half was covered by the 1924 legislation and therefore had relatively modest immigration. The contentious issue of America’s limited acceptance of refugees from Hitler in the 30’s must wait for an article in its own right, given that this topic is a touchstone for some key people on this issue.

To be continued...

Note: Part II of this article will cover the legislative changes of the 1950’s and 60’s which created our present predicament. Part III will cover the quantitative results of these changes to the present day. My data in all these articles comes from Peter Brimelow’s excellent book Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, from the Center for Immigration Studies, from NumbersUSA.com, and from various other sources.




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