By CYNTHIA CROSSEN
How U.S. Immigration Evolved
As the Nation Grew and Changed
January 9, 2006; Page B1
In the beginning, America -- vast, raw and sparsely populated -- needed every immigrant it could get.
When King George III tried to stem an exodus of his subjects to the New World in the 18th century, the colonists furiously accused him of trying to "prevent the population of these states." At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James Madison declared, "That part of America that has encouraged [immigrants] has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts." Well into the 19th century, American employers paid the passage of Europeans who were willing to come to America to work.
Not until 1882, more than two centuries after the first European immigrants set foot in America, did the federal government take immigration policy away from individual states, passing a general law to filter the nation's borders. Even then, only a few classes of "undesirables" were excluded: lunatics, convicts and idiots.
But in the early 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of people were immigrating each year (in the peak year of 1914, 1.2 million immigrants sought admittance), the nation stopped seeming quite so roomy. Cities were overflowing with poor, unskilled refugees whose cheap labor was believed to be undercutting wages for everyone else. Many Americans, known as nativists, decided the rising tide of immigration must be slowed, if not stopped.
"The myth of the melting pot has been discredited," declared Albert Johnson, a Republican representative from Washington State who led the fight in Congress to close America's borders. "The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended."
In 1917 Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto and decreed that prospective immigrants would have to pass a literacy test. When that test barred fewer than 1,600 people from entering the U.S. the following year, legislators began considering other ways to discourage immigration.
Their solution was two pronged: They would drastically lower the ceiling on total immigration, to about 180,000 a year. And the available slots would be allocated by a quota system based on a single fact: Where had each aspiring immigrant been born?
Under the so-called national origins system, created first on an "emergency" basis in 1921 and renewed in a more restrictive form in 1924, the U.S. census would count the number of foreign-born immigrants already in the U.S. and determine how many came from each country. Thereafter, 2% of the total of each nationality would be admitted annually. (The 1924 law fixed no quotas for immigrants from New World countries, including Canada and Mexico, whose seasonal laborers were crucial to the nation's farmers.)
To compute the number of people of each nationality living in the U.S., however, Congress used a little sleight of hand. Instead of utilizing the 1920, 1910 or 1900 censuses, it reached all the way back to the 1890 census to create its quota baselines.
Why turn the clock back more than 30 years to establish current policy? Because before 1890, most immigrants came from northern and western Europe, including Britain, Scandinavia and Germany. Between 1890 and 1920, many more immigrants sailed from southern and eastern European countries like Italy, Poland and Greece. And in 1924, wrote Roger Daniels in his 1990 history of immigration, "Coming to America," the U.S. was deeply split between "an old-stock, Protestant, small-town and rural America and an immigrant-stock, Catholic and big-city America."
Harvard University Prof. Robert DeCourcy Ward described the nativist position in a 1922 article in Scientific Monthly magazine: "If we want the American race to continue to be predominantly Anglo-Saxon-Germanic, of the same stock as that which originally settled the United States…; if we want our future immigration to be chiefly of more kindred peoples… easily assimilable, literate, of a high-grade intelligence, then the simplest way to accomplish this purpose is to base the percentage limitation upon an earlier census than that of 1910… before southern and eastern Europe had become the controlling element in our immigration."
In 1921, about 220,000 Italian-born men, women and children immigrated to the U.S.; in 1925, about 6,000 were allowed to enter the country. In 1921, some 33,000 people came to the U.S. from eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey); in 1925, fewer than 1,600 were admitted. The law had achieved exactly what it had set out to do: "America would be a nation ethnically frozen in time," as Ellis Cose wrote in his 1992 book, "A Nation of Strangers." National origin quotas would govern immigration policy for four decades before being abolished in 1965.
Immigration remains a contentious issue in the U.S. today, as people from every part of the globe try to enter the country, legally and illegally, to enjoy America's opportunities and freedoms. When Chicago Mayor William Thompson was challenged in a 1931 election by a second-generation Czech immigrant, he called his opponent, Anton Cermak, a "pushcart Tony." "It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower," Mr. Cermak replied, "but I came over as soon as I could."
Write to Cynthia Crossen at email@example.com