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American Immigration History: From British Colonies to the Present

Throughout its history, the United States witnessed large-scale waves of immigration, while the policy and attitude towards non-natives repeatedly changed. This paper examines the significant episodes in the history of American immigration from the establishment of the British colonies to the present. Additionally, immigration regimes and legislation will be analyzed from a historical perspective and in a modern context.

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Before the arrival of the first British colonists in Virginia, America had been populated by indigenous cultures. Encountering with European colonists brought conquest and oppression to pre-Columbian civilizations and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. The first colony formed by the British in 1607 was Jamestown, with about 17 thousand people (Anderson 3). Along with European settlers searching for religious freedom and cheap land, the African slave trade proliferated. In the 1700s, the North American colonies and the British West Indies received about 134,000 and 609,000 enslaved people to work on tobacco and sugar plantations (Anderson 8). Thus, forced migration became another critical factor in the growth of the foreign-born population of the colonies.

During the 19th century, America experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration. Historians Abramitzky and Boustan identify the period from 1850 to 1920 as the Age of Mass Migration, since about 30 million newcomers arrived from Europe (1314-1315). By the mid-century, prices for crossing the Atlantic dropped markedly, and immigrant networks and ethnic diasporas in America strengthened. Most of the immigrants came from Northern and Western Europe, with the Irish fleeing the Great Famine. One of the factors that affected the growth of the non-native population was the annexation of Texas and California.

The numerous waves of migration from China occurred in the mid-19th century and was primarily the outcome of the Opium Wars. Many Chinese laborers worked in the gold mines in California during the Gold Rush. Over the next 30 years, more than 300,000 Chinese arrived in America, although not all workers stayed in the country for long (Anderson 29). The influx of foreign labor sparked anti-migrant solid sentiment in American society. The Nativist movement, especially the Know-Nothing party, lobbied for policies to restrict immigration and phase out naturalization for those born outside the United States.

In the post-Civil war period, several federal laws were passed restricting immigration and the rights of aliens. The first federal act to restrict entry was the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited “the importation of women” from East Asian countries (“Forty-third Congress, Session II. Chapter 141, 1875”). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted laborers from entering the US. The subsequent nativist legalization was the Immigration Act of 1882, which introduced a special tax on immigrants and prevented the entry of specific categories of travelers. Thus, the first American restrictive immigration legislation targeted Asian laborers and explicitly discriminated against non-White races.

With the First World War outbreak, the American government launched a new restricting immigration policy known as the National Origins Act. In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was passed, allowing only 3% of the total number of aliens living in America to immigrate. The quotas set by the government varied according to nationality and race (Anderson 66-69). For instance, this time, preference was given to aliens from Western Europe and Scandinavia, while migration from the former Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy was significantly limited. During the Great Depression and World War II, migration to America declined. In the 1950s and 1960s, the discriminatory policies of the National Origins Act were revised and abandoned, and the new immigration system was to be designed. Although the new legislation had its problems, it nevertheless sought to address discrimination and inequality introduced by the previous immigration system.

Since the 21st century, immigration numbers have remained fairly high, and the instruments of its regulation vary. One of the indicators that can be used to analyze the immigration regime is detentions and deportations numbers. According to the Department of Homeland Security statistics, since mid-1997, the number of forced aliens’ removals gradually increased, with minor fluctuations in some years (“Table 39. Aliens Removed or Returned”). Additionally, according to the latest DHS statistics, in 2018, the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States was estimated at 11.4 million (Baker). This number, with some changes, has remained stable over the past ten years.

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One of the vivid examples of changing policies towards undocumented aliens is the case of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Issued in 2012 by President Barack Obama, DACA granted some immigrants who came to the United States as children a chance to gain temporary legal status and a work permit. In 2017, the DACA renewal was challenged. After assuming the presidency, Joe Biden reintroduced DACA, but on July 16, 2021, Texas federal judge Andrew S. Hanen called the program “illegal” (“Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”). New nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments are also reflected in constructing additional miles of the Mexico–United States barrier under Donald Trump’s presidency.

In summary, it can be argued that regimes and legislation regarding immigrants have changed in the United States in the past few centuries. First, balancing between inclusion and exclusion, the government gave a chance, for example, to DREAMers, then significantly limited the rights of certain nationalities.

Works Cited

Abramitzky, Ran, and Leah Boustan. “Immigration in American Economic History.” Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 55, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1311–1345.

Anderson, Kristen L. Immigration in American History. Routledge, 2021.

Baker, Bryan. “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2015–January 2018.” Official Website of the Department of Homeland Security, 2021.

“Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2021.

“Forty-third Congress, Session II. Chapter 141, 1875. An Act Supplementary to the Acts in Relation to Immigration.”

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“Table 39. Aliens Removed or Returned: Fiscal Years 1892 to 2017.” Official website of the Department of Homeland Security, 2019.

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