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A Look At The Record:
The Facts Behind the Current Controversy Over Immigration
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Similar discrimination was later extended to the Japanese, and the Immigration Act of 1924 reaffirmed the principle of racial exclusion for all Asians, barring them from seeking citizenship and, because they were so barred, also denying them entry as immigrants.
In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the 1924 act was repealed for the Chinese alone, and they were assigned an annual quota of 105. Nine years later the McCarran-Walter Act removed all restrictions for other Asians as well but kept the quotas at token levels: 185 for Japan, 105 for China, and 100 for each country in an area designated the Asia-Pacific Triangle.
The removal of all barriers—other than the fixed total of 170,000 immigrants from countries outside the Western Hemisphere—in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 (effective 1968) produced immediate and remarkable results. In the fortyyear span from 1920 to 1960 Asian immigrants accounted for roughly 3 per cent of the immigrant total; in 1978 the comparable figure was 40.5 per cent. In 1965, there were 300 immigrants from India, compared with 19,100 thirteen years later. In the eight-year period from 1971 to 1978, over 206,700 Koreans migrated to America, five times as many as had arrived in the preceding twenty years.
But it was the European wave of the last century that provided the broad base of the nation’s current population. Although an Immigration Service survey of 800,000 immigrants in New York State in 1979 identified individuals from 164 different countries or dependencies, five nationalities account for over half of the immigrant total since 1820 (through 1978), and another six contributed one-quarter of the whole.
The factors that compelled this mass migration were undoubtedly as varied as the individuals involved. Political and religious motives played a part (as in the extensive migration of the Jews out of Russia during the pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century). But the main reason was probably economic, for the ebb and flow of the immigrant wave is keyed to the rise and fall of the American economy in any given period before the quota system was established in 1924.
The marked surge in immigration after 1850 can be tied to several concurrent developments, among them the introduction of steamships and the safer travel they provided. The industrial growth of the United States and the westward movement together led to a demand for manual labor in the East as the native-born population pushed beyond the Mississippi. At the same time, rapid population growth in Europe (earlier in northern and western countries, later in the southern and eastern) closed traditional avenues of economic advancement. Revolutions, epidemics, and crises like the Irish potato famine were instrumental in the decision of many to emigrate.
Who and what the immigrants were remains subject to popular misconception, however, if only because it is obviously difficult to create a single model for more than 40,000,000 people over a three- or four-hundred-year span. Nevertheless, much of the pressure to build restrictive legislation, notably the national-origins system after 1924, was generated by stereotyping. The poverty which many immigrants experienced in their early years in the country was often automatically equated—in a time-worn American formulation—with shiftlessness. Broken English or a foreign tongue signified low intelligence. Unfamiliar customs or styles of dress were cause for derision or complaint.
Ironically, that stereotype of the European peasant has been permanently carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty in the unintentionally condescending lines of Emma Lazarus’ poem that speaks of the tired, the poor, the “wretched refuse” of Europe’s teeming shores.
Undoubtedly there were many who were unfitted for settling in a new land, but in general, immigration was not for the faint-hearted, the unimaginative, or the dull. As George Santayana once pointed out, most immigrants had exercised a kind of self-selection: the lazy, the rich, and the wellconnected remained at home. The immigrants were those whose “wilder instincts,” Santayana wrote, “tempted them beyond the horizon. The American is accordingly the most adventurous, or the descendant of the most adventurous, of Europeans.”
It could not have been otherwise. As Oscar Handlin wrote in his classic, The Uprooted (1951), “America was the land of separated men,” who were forced to make the painful transition from “the tried old to the untried new.” They were strong enough to bear leaving friends and family behind, to endure steerage, and to enter nakedly into an alien culture where language, custom—even the forms of work—were unfamiliar.
Nearly half of all immigrants have reported their occupational status on entry. Of those reporting from 1820 to 1920, only 1.5 per cent were professionals. Farmers or farm laborers made up 23.6 per cent, and 20.2 per cent were nonfarm manual laborers. Those identified as skilled craftsmen or as engaged in commerce constituted 11.2 per cent. Another 43.4 per cent were recorded as general labor or household servants.