The Story of Immigration in America: Though It Is Not Often Acknowledged Today, Immigration Policy of the Past Was Designed to Ensure That Immigrants Assimilated Quickly and Became Americanized

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The story of immigration is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Tales of immigrant efforts to achieve success and assimilation have enlightened and inspired generations of Americans and have served as object lessons in courage and determination. Americans are proud of their immigrant past, and rightly so. Even today over 43 million Americans still claim German ancestry and 34 million claim Irish roots. But despite our history as a nation of immigrants, Americans have never really been comfortable with the idea of mass immigration. At times we have tolerated it, usually when the economy is good, but at other times it met with strong opposition. After four decades of virtually unrestricted immigration, much of it illegal, Americans are reexamining the nation's most enduring issue.

Early Years

Americans wrestled with the immigration issue even before achieving independence. Built largely upon English stock, and hoping to stay that way, colonists viewed with suspicion even their Northern European neighbors with whom they shared royal lineal ties. In 1751, growing numbers of German settlers in Pennsylvania compelled Benjamin Franklin to denounce the ascendancy of German-speakers in that part of the country:

Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?

Despite some intermittent pressure from England, the colonies were largely successful at regulating the numbers and nature of arriving immigrants. Prior to the war for independence, new settlers accounted for only about one in twelve colonists, most of them coming from the British Isles, Germany, or Holland. Indeed, the best estimate for the total number of new settlers during the 18th century is only about 450,000.

By 1790, the newly independent colonies had developed into a distinctly Anglo-American culture characterized by a distrust of foreign influence that would simmer beneath the surface of the nation's collective conscious and influence the coming immigration debate. The bitter war with England served to strengthen an American identity distinguished by a dogged adherence to the ideals of self-reliance and personal liberty. America had emerged from the crucible of conflict convinced of its destiny as the only legitimate model of the republican principles of consensual governance. Indeed, it was the idea of American exceptionalism coupled with America's determination to expand territorially that made the very idea of immigration attractive to Americans and immigrants alike.

During the period between 1790 and 1815, immigration issues scarcely occupied the minds of most Americans. Only a trickle of immigrants arrived annually and a prolific native population had no trouble in increasing its numbers so that natives vastly outnumbered immigrants; and imported customs and languages did not overwhelm native ones. America was still an agricultural society and the massive railroad and canal projects requiring large numbers of laborers were years away from commencement. There was simply no need to augment the population with foreign labor. Nevertheless, a number of local and federal laws were enacted to restrict what little immigration did exist. The Alien and Sedition Acts were devised by the Federalist-controlled Congress mainly as an attempt to deprive Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party of a portion of its voting strength by postponing citizenship from five years to 14. This action adversely affected recently arrived Irish and French emigres who identified closely with Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. President Adams, however, never supported the laws, and they were allowed to expire or were repealed during the Jefferson administration. Some states took action to bar unwanted aliens, mostly criminals and the poor, but the federal government had yet to assume control over what was still a minor issue. …