A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

We, the American Foreign
Born (1993)
United States Census Bureau

“America is a nation of immigrants.” It’s a truism, and a fairly accurate one. But who those immigrants are—where they come from and why; how big a proportion of the U.S. population they represent; where they settle and what they do—all has changed dramatically over the course of U.S. history. In the late twentieth century, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty have been replaced by LAX (the Los Angeles airport) or by the U.S.–Mexico border as immigrants’ first glimpse of their new land.

And despite the patriotic rhetoric describing America as a nation of immigrants—whether the metaphor employed is melting pot, stew pot, or salad bowl—immigration has been a difficult issue in American life since well before the Civil War. A strong anti-immigration party emerged in the 1850s, following a dramatic rise in the number of Irish immigrants during Ireland’s great potato famine. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in response to pressure from native-born workers who wanted to prevent competition for jobs from low-paid Chinese laborers. In the 1920s, Congress enacted a series of Immigration Acts meant to stem the flow of immigrants—the “barbarian horde,” in the words of one congressman—and to establish quotas based on “national origins” that favored immigrants from northern and western Europe over those from eastern and southern Europe.

Though the 1924 Immigration Act was modified somewhat through the years (in 1943 the United States opened its borders to 105 Chinese immigrants per year), it was the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that fundamentally changed American immigration policy—and the face of America. In keeping with other legislation aimed at ending racial discrimination, the act replaced the national quotas with hemispheric “ceilings,” emphasized family reunification, and gave professionals and skilled workers high priority. In the years following 1965, immigration from Latin America and Asia grew dra-

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