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

Donna R. Gabaccia is Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She recently edited, with Vicki Ruiz, American Dreams, Transnational Lives (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

When confronting recent debates, historians of migration often muse over similarities between past and present. Certainly there are so many continuities in the positive and negative qualities attributed to foreigners a century ago and today that one wonders whether any new data could ever possibly resolve such long-standing disagreements.

Here, however, I want to focus not on the persisting stereotypes of foreigners but on striking discontinuities among those persons—almost all of them natives and citizens—who debate public policy. Today’s debates feature two key phrases—“illegal immigrants” and “nation of immigrants”—that especially divide the debaters. Neither phrase figured in the passionate debates of the past. Today, whether they worry over illegal immigrants or celebrate a nation of immigrants, North Americans agree they are debating about “immigrants.” That consensus is so fundamental that few realize how new such terminology is. By acknowledging the newness of “immigration” and “immigrants” as keywords we can see what policy debates reveal about the debaters. Historical analysis provides a mirror into which North Americans can peer in order to better understand themselves and their own attitudes toward foreigners.

The study of language and meaning has been dominated recently by post-modern philosophers. Now the availability of searchable, digitized, online collections of texts opens up new methodological options. Using digitized sources, scholars can more easily identify and more effectively contextualize the invention, use and spatial or temporal diffusion of key words and phrases through systematic analysis of vast collections of texts. Boolean searches (e.g., of immigr* and “x,” where “immigr*” covers all variations of the root word and “x” is a second term or a qualifier) facilitate analysis of the webs of association—between and among words—that help produce meaning. Specialized online collections (of digitized newspapers, government documents, periodicals, books, library catalogues, and personal narratives) document linguistic practices among diverse social groups—the urban and political elites of New York and Washington, African-Americans, feminists, southerners. (Tellingly, digitized texts written by immigrants are still rare. But see

Historical analysis of policy debates is scarcely new (see Zolberg 2006). Still, analysis of digitized texts provides new insights. For example, in the 1850s, the supporters of the nativist American Party (also known as the “Know-Nothings”) complained mainly about “foreigners” and about “foreign” influences (especially in the Catholic Church) at a time when most of their contemporaries wrote instead about “emigrants” and “emigration.” Searching the vast “Making of America” digitized collection of nineteenth-century books and periodicals (  generates 51,570 references to emigr* but only 16,000 for immigr*.

Occasionally Congressmen of the antebellum years referred to “emigrants” in ways we do today (as persons leaving the U.S.)—for example, when referring to emancipated slaves returning to Africa ( More often, however, “emigrant” encompassed both persons we would today call internal migrants (those moving about within a country) and those we label “immigrants” (foreigners arriving from another country). Immigr* and emigr* were not completely interchangeable terms, so variations in their use point to how meaning differed in the nineteenth century. For example, discussions of emigr* appear with the greatest frequency in texts from the nineteenth-century West. In a collection focused on Illinois (, references to emigr* outnumber immigr* four to one. In Illinois “emigrants” included both English-speaking citizens arriving from New England and those traveling to the prairies from Germany or Sweden. “Emigrant” often appeared as a synonym for “colonizer” or “settler”; “emigration” suggested colonization not just of the U.S. but of other empires. European settlers of Australia, Canada, and South Africa also preferred “emigrant” when discussing the British Empire. In both contexts, emigr* seems to have called attention to the pioneering act of “going out” and to what migrants carried with them—the civilization of Europe in general and of Protestantism in particular. Apparently, no English-speaking American in the U.S. in the 1850s expected “emigrants” to adopt the culture or social mores of the earliest natives of the west—the Indians—although they did expect that life on American soil made emigrants builders of an American empire, not of a British, German or Swedish one.

Even this association of “emigrants” with colonization and with the transplantation of Europe’s “civilization” to the lands of the native “savages” was far from universal, however. Congressmen also called American Indians “emigrants” when they were forced over the “trail of tears” to the trans-Mississippi territories in the 1830s ( And the digitized New York Times also regularly described the Irish fleeing starvation to Castle Garden in the 1850s as “emigrants.”

The gradual switch to “immigration” and “immigrants” as the preferred language for discussions of international border-crossing can best be traced in a digitized newspaper with a long run. Figure 1 tracks the actual occurrences of immigr* and emigr* in the New York Times over 80 years. In the 1850s, references to emigr* outnumbered those to immigr* by a factor of between five and ten in any given year. By 1930, the relative frequency of the two terms had almost exactly reversed. It was in the 1890s that references to immigr* began to consistently outnumber those to emigr*.

Figure 1
“Emigr*” and “Immigr*” in the New York Times, 1851-1930

Timing alone thus suggests that the closing of the frontier and the completion of western colonization encouraged the shift. Relatively fewer Irish emigrants headed west and many more of them settled in cities, so in New York Times reportage the ratio of references to Irish emigr* and to Irish immigr* was only 2 to 1, even in the years prior to 1890. Whereas Americans associated “emigrants” with the settlement of the land, they associated “immigrants” with wage labor. Boolean searches in the New York Times suggest that ratios of immigr* to emigr* were much higher in articles treating labor (3:1), wages (2:1), and strikes (2.5:1). Because African Americans so often viewed foreigners as potential competitors for waged work, their newspapers, too, as documented in a pre-1890 collection (, discussed immigr* more often than did contemporaneous Illinois texts.

Still, one would not want to focus exclusively on economy in explaining this transition in the language of debates about international migration. Figure 1 also suggests how a changing political context influenced terminology. The ratio of immigr* to emigr* jumped permanently upwards from 1869–71 and again in 1882. After 1888, references to immigr* became a persistent majority but only after 1920 did immigr* attain the very large majorities emigr* had enjoyed in the 1850s.

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.

Only during the Cold War did “nation of immigrants” enter discussions of national policy. In the 1950s, President Harry S. Truman found the phrase useful both in emphasizing the assimilatory successes of the U.S. (which understandably suffered from global Cold War attention to “Jim Crow” failures) and in his quarrels with Congressional leaders who insisted on continuing national origins quotas in the 1952 McCarran–Walter immigration act. In 1958, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy, likely with the help of historian Arthur Mann, wrote his influential A Nation of Immigrants for the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League’s “One Nation Library.” By then Kennedy was the best-known advocate of eliminating the national origins quotas. Still, it was only after 1965, after quotas had been eliminated, that the term spread rapidly through journalism, scholarship, and popular political writings, including into some of the earliest multicultural texts, whose authors apparently hoped the metaphor could be expanded to include the histories and American experiences of all outsiders, whether or not they had come to the U.S. as European “emigrants” or “immigrants” or as slaves.

Writing about “illegal aliens,” Mae Ngai has argued recently that immigration reformers succeeded in abolishing the national origins quotas only because they did not attack restriction or advocate significant increases in the numbers of visas available to prospective immigrants. This cautious approach may have been the only politically possible option open to reformers then. And it may remain the only politically viable option today. Since the 1930s, public opinion polls have fairly consistently documented that the largest group of respondents believes current levels of immigration—at any given time, and regardless of the actual volume—are “too high” (see Blendon et al. 2005). Because restriction defines the shared ground for contemporary debaters’ otherwise sharp political differences, including Presidents Bush and Clinton and recent presidential candidate John Kerry, all can insist that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants even while they worry about the impact of “illegal immigration” on the rule of law. Opponents in today’s debates disagree mainly about how to restrict and how much to restrict.

Critics on both the far right and left grasp how phrases such as “illegal immigration” and “nation of immigrants” unite mainstream debaters. Thus, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who recently urged multicultural activists to “Stop Saying This is a Nation of Immigrants!” (, finds herself oddly in  agreement on this one point with strict restrictionist Peter Brimelow ( Brimelow repeatedly asserts the legitimacy of the restrictionist tradition in the U.S. His argument that all nations—including his country of birth, the United Kingdom—are also amalgams of many peoples, and thus also “nations of immigrants,” is well taken although it scarcely supports his portraits of today’s immigrants to the U.S. as devastating threats to American culture or nationhood. If Brimelow cannot imagine today’s immigrants assimilating or contributing to a nation of immigrants, Dunbar-Ortiz worries instead that immigrants of color might embrace a myth of nationhood built on the “comforting lies of the Colonizers” rather than on the opposition of the country’s anti-colonial racial minorities.

To attend to which debaters use which keywords, in what context, and to what end, is to borrow the traditional tools of historians of ideas. The use of digitized texts in these familiar ways is by no means revolutionary. Such texts do, however, build a methodological bridge from humanist concerns with meaning and language to the social sciences most concerned with systematic analysis through quantitative methods.

Whether applied to digitized or traditional print texts, analysis of keywords will not resolve contemporary policy conflicts. But when they reveal past alternatives, they can at least remind us of the ideas that have completely disappeared from today’s debates. Notably absent today are debaters who unapologetically advocate free human movement across international boundaries. Yet even in the nativist 1850s, the Know-Nothings did not dare challenge that freedom: they were not restrictionists seeking to diminish the number of entrants but rather advocates of longer waiting periods prior to naturalization, limits on the rights of resident foreigners, and limits on the Catholic Church. Neither the Know-Nothings nor their contemporaries imagined themselves living in a “nation of emigrants.” Prior to the Civil War many were far too skeptical of extending federal powers to write comfortably of an American “nation.” Even today most Americans prefer to celebrate an “American people” rather than the “American nation.” (In the digitized New York Times, one finds roughly one reference to an “American nation” for every ten references to the “American people.” Discussions of an “American nation” surged only temporarily during times of threatened or actual war—hot or cold.)

In today’s age of globalization, by contrast, even libertarians and neo-liberals—those who remain ideologically closest to eighteenth-century political philosophy—hesitate to advocate freedom of movement as an essential form of liberty, alongside freedom of speech or free trade. (For suggestive evidence on this point, see, as examples:;; Apparently, Americans can no longer imagine a nation that does not restrict the movement of persons across its borders. While many of the stereotypes of the foreign-born have persisted for more than a century, the debaters themselves and the nationhood they seek are not what they once were.


Blendon, Robert J. et al., “Immigration and the U.S. Economy,” Challenge 48, 2 (March-April, 2005): 113–132.

Fleegler, Robert L., “A Nation of Immigrants: The Rise of ‘Contributionism’ in the United States, 1924–1965” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation Brown University, 2005).

Gabaccia, Donna R. “Nations of Immigrants,” Przeglad Polonijny XXXI, 1 (2005): 31-50.

______. “Is Everywhere Nowhere? Italy’s Transnational Migrations and the Immigrant Paradigm of American History - Special Issue on Transnational History,” Journal of American History 86, 3 (December 1999): 1115-1134.

Lee Erika, “A Nation of Immigrants and a Gatekeeping Nation: American Immigration Law and Policy,” in Reed Ueda, ed. Companion to American Immigration History (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell 2006).

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2004).

Zolberg, Aristide R. Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).