The Naturalization Act of 1790, for example, said that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” Blacks, indentured servants, and most women couldn’t be citizens no matter where they came from, but the underlying approach to immigration would boggle the mind of today’s strict constructionists. If you were a free white male, you came, you saw, and you signed up. As the Citizenship and Immigration Services describes ti, “the law required a set period of residence in the United States prior to naturalization, specifically two years in the country and one year in the state of residence when applying for citizenship. When those requirements were met, an immigrant could file a Petition for Naturalization with “any common law court of record” having jurisdiction over his residence asking to be naturalized. Once convinced of the applicantÂ’s good moral character, the court would administer an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States.”
The essence of immigration as we know it today – i.e. the restriction of immigration – didn’t become a major issue until the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882, hardly something of which Americans should be proud. This was the period of the great post-reconstruction counter revolution during which corporations gained enormous power but the rest of America and its citizens lost it.
The counter-revolution was not only an attack on would-be immigrants, it was aimed at American ethnic groups who had proved far too successful at adding to their political clout in places like Boston and New York City.
Richard Croker, a tough 19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, grew almost lyrical when he spoke of his party’s duty to immigrants:
“They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state . . . There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citizen. Who else would do it if we did not? . . . [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them.”
Alexander B. Callow Jr. of the University of California has written that Boston pol Martin Lomansey even met every new immigrant ship and “helped the newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives. James Michael Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare newcomers for the citizenship examination . . . Friendly judges, anticipating election day, converted their courts into naturalization mills, grinding out a thousand new Americans a day. . . . Flags were waved, prose turned purple, celebrations were wild on national holidays. . . . Patriotism became a means for the newcomer to prove himself worthy.”
By 1891 the federal government had assumed control of admitting or rejecting all immigrants and one year later Ellis island opened. By 1903 we had a law restricting Mexican laborers and during and after World I, laws were expanded greatly including a ban on all Asians save the Japanese.
We did not have the equivalent of a green card until 1940 and the actual card of that name only came in during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. What we think of as our immigration system is in no small part a leftover from the McCarthy era.
It is common today to discuss immigration as though it were primarily an employment and economic matter. The trouble with this claim is that many of the people who are most anti-immigration are the same who have caused infinitely more economic harm to the country through globalization and outsourcing.
In truth, what really scares the exclusionists is the politics of immigrants, potentially more progressive than they would like. From Nordic populists in the northern middle west to European socialists, to the right immigration has meant left.
This, of course, isn’t always true as in the case of Cuba but it helps to make the debate a bit clearer to understand what it is about.
In the end, we don’t really have an immigration policy but an exclusion policy, outsourcing our prejudices by not letting their targets enter the country.