- Historic Sites
A Look At The Record:
The Facts Behind the Current Controversy Over Immigration
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Comparable categories reported from 1971 to 1978 include 10.2 per cent professional, 2.7 per cent managerial, 5.0 per cent skilled craftsman, 3.8 per cent clerical, 3.7 per cent manual labor, and 1.6 per cent farm labor. (In this period, 60 per cent of the immigrants listed no occupation on entry.)
Unlike the French and Spanish who contended with them for empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English came to America to stay. After several false starts, Parliament, in 1618, settled on three key policies—applied in time in every New World colonial venture: 1) land was made easily available to almost all settlers at relatively low cost; 2) the rights of English settlers were the same as those who remained in England; and 3) a measure of political freedom—gradually expanded as the colonies developed- was provided in representative assemblies and later, in New England, in the town meetings. All three helped attract substantial numbers of settlers.
Both the home government and the colonial assemblies eagerly recruited colonists and readily extended citizenship, landowning rights, and other civil protections to them. In 1740 Parliament ruled that any alien who had resided on British territory for seven consecutive years was entitled to full citizenship.
To encourage migration, the various governments established protections for indentured servants, those who sold themselves into bound service for two to seven years in return for passage. At the conclusion of their contract, such persons were given full freedom and civil rights. Called redemptioners, they are estimated to have composed between 60 and 77 per cent of the immigrants through 1776.
After the Revolution the Founding Fathers viewed immigration with the same ambivalence that continues today. Alexander Hamilton argued in 1791 that it was of primary importance “to open every possible avenue to emigration from abroad …” because the newcomers, skilled artisans in particular, would provide useful, productive labor and encourage the rapid expansion of American manufacturing. Moreover, as George Washington put it, there was an ideological commitment to actively seek out “not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions. …”
On the other hand, there was the lingering fear expressed by Thomas Jefferson that the fugitives might carry with them the very contagion of tyranny and despotism they had fled Europe to avoid. En masse, he believed, they would threaten the republican virtues of the government, introduce turbulence, and turn the nation into “a heterogenious [sic], incoherent, distracted mass. ” While individual artisans would be most welcome (“Spare no expense in obtaining them … they will teach us something we do not know”), he argued that no “extraordinary encouragements” should be given to mass immigration.
For most of the century, the federal government set no limitations on immigration, while some thirty states actively recruited overseas. The only barriers, in fact, were those erected by European states. (England, for example, prohibited the emigration of skilled artisans until 1820.) But as the century wore on, population pressures in Europe encouraged foreign states to assist those who wished to leave, as did the British and Irish authorities who helped Irish emigrants flee the great famine of 1846.
The federal government generally assumed an overseer’s role (as Parliament had in colonial times) leaving most of the responsibility for enforcing immigration and naturalization laws to the states. In 1790 Congress set a two-year residency requirement for citizenship. (The naturalization period was briefly extended to fourteen years in 1798—by the Federalist majority in Congress, who were alarmed at the eagerness with which immigrants were joining the Democrats.) With Jefferson’s inaguration in 1801, the residency requirement was set at five years—where it has remained since.
By 1855 nearly two-thirds of all immigrants were entering the country through New York. (By the end of the century, that figure would rise to three-fourths.) The reception center was Castle Garden, a converted opera house at the tip of Manhattan that provided a hospital, a low-cost restaurant, and free baths. Incredibly it was run as a volunteer operation, its unpaid staff offering a wide range of employment and housing services. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the volume of immigration threatened to overwhelm the states, and, responding to demands for increased federal participation, Congress passed a comprehensive law in 1882 that opened the way to a complete federal take-over. Within a decade, the government had created a permanent Immigration Service with broad powers to set health standards, to manage immigration law, and to arrange deportation proceedings for any aliens who failed to meet the required criteria for entry. In 1892 Ellis Island was opened on the site of an old naval arsenal as the principal reception center.