Commentary: Michael Green on the Past and Present of U.S. Immigration Debates


President Donald Trump’s recent, frequently condemned comments about certain foreign countries, and the drawn-out battle over the fate of the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, are part of debates about immigration that are as old as the United States itself—indeed, older. In addition to affecting the lives of Native peoples, settlers at Jamestown, Plymouth, and other English colonies in North America were immigrants to a new land. They also wrestled with questions about immigration in their own right: Puritans tried to keep people of different faiths out of their colony, Pennsylvania sought German migrants and later debated whether their numbers had become too great, and the slave trade involved a forced migration that did much to shape the economic, politics, and society of the colonies and, later, the nation.

The existence of that nation would have been impossible without help from France during the American Revolution, but that relationship soured by the late 1790s amid the twists and turns of the French Revolution. When U.S. envoys refused to pay a bribe to the French foreign minister to be able to speak to him, Congress responded by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Alien Act, which made it more difficult for immigrants to win citizenship, clearly was aimed at potential French immigrants.

Although immigrants continued to come to the United States during the first half of the 19th century, a marked increase in the late 1840s and 1850s caused considerable controversy. The potato blight drove about 1 million Irish to eastern U.S. cities like Boston and New York. A wave of revolutions in 1848 prompted central and eastern Europeans, especially from modern-day Germany, to move. This influx stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment and, eventually, a new political party, the Know-Nothings.

The Civil War would affect immigration, sometimes in ways that few realize. Affected by their own racism and mistreatment, the Irish were involved in riots against the draft in New York City in 1863. Germans, mostly Protestant and more warmly received, joined the Republican Party and the war effort; their political influence prompted Abraham Lincoln to try to appoint several German immigrants to diplomatic posts and military commands.

Chinese Immigration

Yet another immigrant group felt the effects of the war. Seeking their fortune and to escape political upheaval at home, several thousand Chinese migrated to California in the wake of the Gold Rush of 1849. Still more arrived after Lincoln signed legislation to build the transcontinental railroad in 1862. The Chinese provided labor, and railroad officials got away with paying them less than they would have paid white workers. The Workingman’s Party labor movement, which demanded Chinese deportation and limits on further immigration, gained support from easterners who shared their racism. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislation that barred a specific group of people from the country.

Although Americans proved unwelcoming to people from Asia, they also had concerns about Europeans. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of southern and eastern Europeans, many of them Catholic or Jewish, poured into the United States. Jobs awaited many of them, thanks to the industrialization that created factories with the need for a large labor force. But they often wound up segregated within cities into crowded ethnic, low-income neighborhoods while also being criticized for not doing enough to assimilate into Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society. Americans also blamed them for keeping wages low.

Immigration Laws in the 1920s

These factors prompted passage of two laws early in the 1920s to limit immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the United States and imposed quotas on various groups. The Immigration Act of 1924 lowered the quotas, restricted African immigration, and prohibited Arabs and Asians entirely. The number of immigrants fell dramatically, although the Great Depression contributed to that. The federal government made it even clearer that Americans wanted fewer immigrants among them by refusing to let most Jewish refugees into the country during Adolf Hitler’s reign from 1933 to 1945, and by deporting Mexicans through a program whose name reflected the prevailing attitudes toward Latinos at the time: “Operation Wetback.”

Two laws changed the scope and face of immigration. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the quotas from the 1924 legislation, prompting a significant jump in the number of non-European immigrants. In 1990, an immigration act signed by President George Bush increased the number of immigrants who could enter the United States as well as eliminating an English test for immigrants and a prohibition on gay men and lesbians.

Today’s population statistics reflect increases in immigration, changes in who has immigrated, and responses to them. The two million who have immigrated to the United States in the 21st century—more than the number who arrived from 1930 to 1990—have come less frequently from Europe and more often from Latin America and Asia. Several cities and counties, especially in the southwestern United States, are now majority-minority, meaning that less than half of the population belong to racial or ethnic minority groups. According to projections based on the 2010 census, the U.S. as a whole will be majority-minority in 25 years.

This change in America’s complexion has a great deal to do with the controversies over limits on immigration and the debate over “Dreamers” whose parents brought them here as children. The ramifications are many: economic, given the availability of jobs and the evolving economy; political, since most ethnic groups in recent years have leaned Democratic; and social and cultural. In other words, today’s battles over immigration are similar to those over the Irish in the mid-19th century, and the Chinese and southern and eastern European migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. America may well be changing, but the issues remind us of the old adage: history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it rhymes.

About the Author

Michael Green, PhD, is associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His publications include ABC-CLIO’s Politics and America in Crisis: The Coming of the Civil War and Ideas and Movements That Shaped America: From the Bill of Rights to “Occupy Wall Street” (2015), and several books on the Civil War era and on Western history. He holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University and was the recipient of the American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award.


Green, Michael. “The past and Present of U.S. Immigration Debates.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018,

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