Throughout America’s history, immigration policy has been a controversial and complex topic. Since Colonial times, Americans have weighed the benefits of immigration against the costs, and more often than not, called for limits on immigration to protect their interests.
In the 1880s, immigration to the United States increased sharply leading to the first “Great Wave” of immigration. Between 1897 and 1914, over 13 million immigrants arrived including more than 1.2 million in 1914 alone. During World War I, immigration declined, but began to balloon again as soon as hostilities ceased.
In 1924, Congress overwhelmingly passed a set of immigration measures aimed at curtailing the unprecedented level of immigration. From then until 1965, admissions averaged around 150,000 per year.
But mass immigration was revived by the 1965 Immigration Act, characterized by historian Theodore White in his book, America in Search of Itself (Warner Books, Inc., 1982), as “probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society” [of President Lyndon B. Johnson].
Otis L. Graham, Jr., professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writes in his book, Unguarded Gates: A History of America’s Immigration Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) that “we are now in a phase of our national life in which immigration is taking America where it doesn’t want to go … . The costs of this new mass immigration collect across the ledger. They include labor market competition with native workers, rising social service costs, nurturing of illegal trade in drugs and indentured labor, the immigration contribution to population growth with all the costs that come attached to it in this era of global ecocrisis, an intensifying intersection of mounting human numbers with … other stresses of a global ecosphere mauled by more than six billion people in the process of expanding to or beyond ten billion … . [T]he national question is being asked again—is our fundamental national cohesion and coherence being lost? … Against this are weighed immigration’s benefits—cheap labor for harvest agriculture and urban menial tasks, relatively cheap skilled labor in certain industries, a more culturally diversified cuisine and society, and scattered stories of urban revitalization.”
In this section, we review the history of American immigration policy since the founding of the Republic.