Great Migration Debates: Keywords in Historical Perspective
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Historians of U.S. policy will recognize how this chronology mirrors the legislative history of the federalization, regulation, and restriction of international migration. Setting the rules for the naturalization of aliens had been a constitutional obligation of the federal government since 1790. But the procedures for naturalization along with most of the practices of citizenship rights were still set at the state level in the first half of the nineteenth century. Individual states, not the federal government, also originally set regulations on migration. Changes in citizenship and the regulation of the country’s borders shifted to the federal government only after the Civil War. Responding to abolition and emancipation, Americans in 1869–71 debated the meaning of citizenship; the result was a series of laws and amendments to the constitution—including the Naturalization Act of July 14, 1870—that decisively re-located citizenship from state to federal jurisdiction. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act and the first Immigration Act were the first passed at the federal level to exclude entire categories of foreigners. Thereafter, federal regulation of migration increased. The subsequent Act of 1888 was the first in a century to provide for expulsion, this time of immigrants who had entered in violation of the contract labor restrictions. ( Finally, as is well known, discriminatory and heavily restrictive national origins quotas legislated in 1921 and 1924 effectively ended the mass migrations of the nineteenth century, ushering in an era of restriction—and the terminology of restriction—that persists to the present.

A wide variety of digitized texts link the growing popularity of the terminology of immigration to the expanding role of the federal government as regulator and restrictor of movements across national boundaries. Every federal law governing entry and naturalization referred to “aliens” or to “immigr* and not to emigr* ( Similarly, the supporters of the American Protective Association and the Immigration Restriction League and the members of the American Federation of Labor—three influential advocates of restriction in the late nineteenth century—fairly consistently discussed “immigration,” not “emigration.”

By the 1920s, restrictionists had accomplished their goal of fundamental policy change. While the terminology of migration had been reversed between 1850 and 1920, it would not change as rapidly in the 70 years that followed. Although new keywords have certainly entered the vocabulary of twentieth century debates, immigr* is at the heart of all of them. North Americans today continue to discuss immigration—and restriction—in their policy debates.

As Mae Ngai has argued recently, the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” could only emerge in a nation that restricted movement across its borders. Digitized texts confirm her conclusions. The earliest references are to “illegal immigration,” which referred to the movement of workers from China; they appeared immediately after passage of the 1882 Chinese exclusion. With the exclusion of all Asians and the restriction of southern and eastern European migrations in the 1920s, “illegal immigrant” became an intermittent fixture in the pages of New York Times, where it usually meant stowaways, persons who “jumped ship,” or the “immigrant bootleggers” who supposedly smuggled in workers and “immoral” women. Only after World War II (and a brief period when most stories about “illegal immigrants” focused on European Jews entering the British mandate in Palestine) did the term—understood by then to mean “wetbacks” crossing the Rio Grande—become attached firmly to workers from Mexico. And only after 1965 did the term become common in a wide array of writings by journalists, scholars, and Congressional representatives. (By contrast, “illegal alien”—first used in the New York Times in 1926—never became as popular.)

With “illegal immigrants” already in debate thirty-five years ago, those who today wish to substitute more neutral terminology fight an uphill linguistic battle. A recent Google search returned over 17 million “hits” for “illegal immigrants” (and circa 7.5 million for “illegal aliens”) but fewer than 2 million for “undocumented immigrants,” a term that first appeared in the New York Times only in 1977.

My research also suggests that few Americans considered the United States to be a “nation of immigrants” prior to restriction (Fleegler 2005; Gabaccia 1999; Gabaccia 2005; Lee 2006). Once again, the earliest accessible digitized text points to the 1880s when a Presbyterian missionary writing about American Freedmen and African “evangelization” used the phrase to contrast the rapid assimilation of European immigrants to the African immigrants who “remain identified with the land of their fathers”
 ( This distinction between European-origin and African-origin Americans would plague discussions of the “nation of immigrants” as it spread and attained popularity.

That popularity was not instantaneous, however. References to the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” increased modestly as advocates of restriction gained political ground and as their opponents developed an array of counter-arguments. References to the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” emerged from the pens of historians (such as Max Ferrand, writing assertively and positively in the New Republic in 1916, and Charles and Mary Beard, writing far more skeptically in their History of the United States), of local politicians, journalists and rabbis in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, and even from a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers in 1923. Those who wrote of the U.S. “nation of immigrants” created a positive, if ultimately mythologized past that sought to undermine the justification for discriminatory national origins quotas. As Robert Fleegler has argued, descriptions of the “nation of immigrants” emphasized only the contributions of immigrants from Europe (2005). This bias helped to keep alive alternative phrases, including “nation of nations”—the phrase preferred by writers from Walt Whitman in the 1850s to Louis Adamic in the 1940s, and to Colin Powell, today—that seem to freer of such problematic Eurocentrism.