The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

The hostility of old line Americans to “foreigners” accelerated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as racial ideology and anti-Semitism also became part of American consciousness. The rising tide of nativism—the fear of foreigners—had deep roots in anti-Catholicism and a fear of foreign radicals. The new dominant element of this ideology in the late 19th century was the belief in the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon “race” (Higham 1988: Chapter 1). These beliefs and the link to immigration restriction had widespread support among many well-educated elites. The Immigration Restriction League, founded by young Harvard-educated Boston Brahmins in 1894, advocated a literacy test to slow the tide of immigration (Bernard 1980: 492). It was thought that a literacy test would reduce immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, which was sending an “alarming number of illiterates, paupers, criminals, and madmen who endangered American character and citizenship” (Higham 1988: 103).

Cities, where most immigrants settled, were derided and feared as places filled with dangerous people and radical ideas (Hawley 1972: 521). These sentiments were often formulated by intellectuals, but they resonated with many white Americans who were reared in rather parochial and homogenous rural and small town environments. While some reformers, such as Jane Addams, went to work to alleviate the many problems of urban slums, others such as Henry Adams, the descendant of two American presidents and a noted man of letters, expressed virulent nativism and anti-Semitism (Baltzell 1964: 111).

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first step toward a closed society. From the 1880s to the 1920s, a diverse set of groups, ranging from the old line New England elites to the Progressive Movement in the Midwest and to the Ku Klux Klan led a campaign to halt immigration from undesirable immigrants from Europe (Higham 1988; Jones 1992: Chapter 9). In the early decades of the 20th century the nascent pseudo-science of Eugenics was used to support claims of the inferiority of the new immigrants relative to old stock Americans. Passing the national origins quotas in the early 1920s was intended to exclude everyone from Asia and Africa and to sharply lower the number of arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The period from 1924 to 1965, when a highly restrictive immigration policy was in place, was exceptional in American history. For those who were reared in this era, it might seem that the high levels of immigration experienced during the last three decades of the 20th century are unusual. However, high levels of immigration characterized most of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the first two decades of the 20th.

The impact of the 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, was a surprise to policy makers and many experts. The primary intent of the 1965 Act was to repeal the national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s, which were considered discriminatory by the children and grandchildren of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. The advocates of reform in the 1960s were not pushing for a major new wave of immigration. Their expectation was that there would be a small increase of arrivals from Italy, Greece, and a few other European countries as families that were divided by the immigration restrictions of the 1920s were allowed to be reunited, but that no long-term increase would result (Reimers 1985: Chapter 3).

The new criteria for admission under the 1965 Act were family reunification and scarce occupational skills (Keely 1979). The new preference system allowed highly skilled professionals, primarily doctors, nurses, and engineers from Asian countries, to immigrate and eventually to sponsor their families. About the same time, and largely independently of the 1965 Immigration Act, immigration from Latin America began to rise. Legal and undocumented migration from Mexico surged after a temporary farm worker program known as the Bracero Program was shut down in 1964 (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). Migration from Cuba arose from the tumult of Fidel Castro’s Revolution, as first elites and then professional and middle class families fled persecution and the imposition of socialism in the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning in the 1970s, there were several waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong refugees following the collapse of American-supported regimes in Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, there were new refugees from Central American nations such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala (Lundquist and Massey 2005).

Each of these streams of immigration as well as refugee inflows has spawned secondary waves of immigration as family members followed. By 2000, there were over 30 million foreign-born persons in the United States, of whom almost one third arrived in the prior decade. Adding together immigrants and their children (the second generation), more than 60 million people—or one in five Americans—have recent roots from other countries (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2005). Although the current levels of immigration are not equal—in relative terms—to the Age of Mass Migration in the early 20th century, the absolute numbers of contemporary immigrants far exceed that of any prior time in American history or the experience of any other country.

American history cannot be separated from the history of immigration. As Handlin (1973: 3) puts it, “immigrants were American history.” During the middle decades of the 19th century, immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia played a major role in settling the frontier. Irish immigrants worked as laborers in cities and were the major source of labor in the construction of transportation networks, including canals, railroads, and roads. Some have estimated that the manpower advantage of the Union forces during the Civil War was largely due to immigrants who had settled in the northern states (Gallman 1977: 31).

Immigrants have also played an important role in the transition to an urban industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Immigrant workers have always been over-represented in skilled trades, mining, and as peddlers, merchants, and laborers in urban areas. Immigrants and their children were the majority of workers in the garment sweatshops of New York, the coal fields of Pennsylvania, and the stockyards of Chicago. The cities of America during the age of industrialization were primarily immigrant cities (Gibson and Jung 2006). The rapidly expanding industrial economy of the North and Midwest drew disproportionately on immigrant labor from 1880 to 1920 and then on African American workers from the South from 1920 to 1950. In 1900, about three quarters of the populations of many large cities were composed of immigrants and their children, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Detroit (Carpenter 1927: 27). Immigrants and their children remained the majority of the urban population, especially in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest until the 1920s (Carpenter 1927: 27; Eldridge and Thomas 1964: 206-209).