In lieu of GenFKD’s Oppression to Opportunity (#Op2Op) campaign, and the wall-construction plans of some presidential hopefuls, we are exploring the issue of immigration in a three-part blog series. The first segment will discuss a brief history of United States immigration. The second part will discuss the political standoff behind this issue. Finally, we’ll conclude the series with some economics, which could help round out your thoughts on immigration and its effect on our wallet.

Even though the United States is the first choice destination for 150 million foreign adults, that love has typically been a one-way street throughout U.S. history.


This graph depicts the amount of legal residents admitted by the U.S. annually.

Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years). Available at

Wavy Immigration

Although a sizable portion of migrants were slaves, foreigners have voluntarily migrated to the United States in search of political freedom, economic opportunity, political asylum and escaping armed conflict. If you notice the graph, the United States has received immigrants throughout its history in the form of waves. The first large wave of immigration was during the colonial era (remember, we all had an English accent at one point). Followed by a wave in the middle of the 1800s, from 1880 to 1920, and in the late 1980s.

In the span of 1815-1870, settlers were mainly from Northern Europe, with two distinct groups supplying most of the migrants. In 1840, over half of the newcomers were Irish, due to the famine in Ireland, while Germans also flooded into Wisconsin farmland. The gold rush in the middle of the 19th century attracted a new group to American shores, with Asian immigrants arriving on the west coast in great numbers. By 1850, over 25,000 Chinese immigrants had settled in the area. They not only took advantage of the easy gold findings, but were critical in the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Employers, at the time, were partial to the willingness of Chinese migrants to accept lower wages and brutal labor conditions.

After the “Long Depression” (lasting from 1873-78), the country experienced a 40-year period of rapid industrialization and urbanization that resulted in the United States receiving over 20 million immigrants from all over Europe. Fleeing persecution and wanting to pursue economic prosperity, Italian, Jewish, German and Irish immigrants entered the nation through Ellis Island.

Immigration Limitation: Bringing Down the Hammer

The first real piece of anti-immigration legislation — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 came in reaction to the Chinese influx of the gold rush. When gold was abundant, Chinese migrants were well-received. Though, as soon as gold became scarce, the Chinese were pushed out of the mines to take up low-end wage jobs in the city.

The increased competition for labor gave politicians the perfect rallying cry of blaming the Chinese for bringing wages down. So, in response, this act would imprison or deport any Chinese worker that entered the United States for the next 10 years.

This was the first law implemented that would keep a particular ethnicity from coming into the country and, perhaps uncoincidentally, marked the birth of illegal immigration in the United States. Although this particular legislation was only supposed to last 10 years, it was extended through the Geary Act, which regulated immigrants through quotas based upon the country origin, and did not get repealed until 1943. So much for a nation of tolerance and freedom, right?

This law was followed by several more pieces of legislation that would limit the amount of people that could come into the states. In 1891, the first comprehensive immigration laws were passed that would respond to immigrants who entered illegally. The respective Immigration Acts of 1903 and 1907 prohibited anarchists, prostitute importers, beggars, and anyone with a disability of any kind.

Since then, every decade has virtually had some sort of restrictive immigration law. Though in 1986, Ronald Reagan decided to tackle illegal immigration by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act. In addition to tightening the border, this law provided amnesty, or legal status, to those who had migrated illegally as long as they paid their back taxes, knew some English, and were not criminals. It also brought down the hammer on employers by making it a crime to hire undocumented workers.

The Surge Of the 90s and Beyond

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the amount of immigrants allowed to enter the country to 700,000 per year from 1992 to 1994, and to 675,000 in the subsequent years. This didn’t last for long though. Following that influx of immigrants, the United States has slowly decreased the quota and has made it more difficult to become a legal resident. In addition, refugee limits are down to 70,000 today from 230,000 in 1980. This has resulted in an increase in the number of people migrating illegally, with the estimated total currently standing at around 20 million migrants today.

Although the United States was founded by immigrants and prides itself on being the world’s melting pot, natural-born residents have not been so welcoming to the ensuing waves of migrants. Generation after generation, immigration laws have become tighter and less friendly toward outsiders. With Generation Y being the most diverse generation in American history , will this anti-foreign sentiment change in the future?

In the next piece we will dive deeper into the political rhetoric swaying public opinion against immigrants: crime and blue collar jobs.


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