Europeans have faced the fewest immigration restrictions because they have been considered the most assimilable and suited for U.S. citizenship and immigration. From the earliest decades of the U.S. republic, citizenship and immigration laws distinguished newcomers primarily on the basis of race, gender, and class. The earliest citizenship law reserved rights to citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons,” or white male property owners, and subsequent immigration laws barred legal entry to categories of persons based on these values, starting with Chinese, the poor (LPC), and contract workers in the 1880s. European immigration predominated through the 1950s even after becoming subject to severe restriction in the 1920s when Congress enacted quantitative caps based on national origins aiming to sharply lower overall immigration levels. Only Europeans and persons from the Americas, whose immigration remained unrestricted, could legally immigrate. Alongside restrictions imposed by immigration laws, immigration was driven chiefly by the search for better economic opportunities and social stability. For these reasons, immigration waves shifted (graph of immigration, 1821-2000) according to economic and political conditions, with western and northern Europeans dominating through the 1860s, followed by eastern and southern Europeans, and then Asians and Central and Southern Americans after the 1960s. The 1965 Immigration Act ended the emphasis on race and national origins and used a system of preferences prioritizing skilled employment, family unification, and refugees and for the first time capped immigration within the Americas. These changes in law enabled more diverse immigration from around the world, with Asians and Latinos overtaking Europeans in numbers because they had many more incentives to seek better opportunities.
Algonquians, Micmac, and Iroquois were among the Native peoples that Europeans encountered and almost completely displaced when they arrived and settled in North America. The earliest conquerors and colonialists were Spaniards whose “Kingdom of New Mexico” extended from St. Augustine, Florida (1565) through Santa Fe, New Mexico (1598) and California and at one point occupied most of central and south America. The French arrived next, trading furs with the Montagnais along the St. Lawrence River and establishing trading outposts in Nova Scotia before moving southward to New Orleans and the Caribbean. The Dutch and Swedish first settled the New York and Delaware regions, which were later absorbed by the British. The British became the largest population of early migrants through a system of royal land grants and chartered merchant companies. These land grants and merchant companies created colonies in Massachusetts, Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia, from which emerged the core of revolutionaries that established the republic of the United States of America.
Uncertainty about prospects and the difficulties of travel limited migration to colonial-era North America to mostly western and northern European immigrants who differed in languages, religions, and regions of origin. Efforts to expand farming and develop profit-making enterprises led to a high demand for manual labor. One-half to two-thirds of all English, German, and French-speaking immigrants arrived under indenture, bound to work three to seven years to pay off the costs of their passage. In southern areas, enslaved Africans came to replace indentured Europeans on plantations. Colonial immigration peaked between 1760 and 1776 with about 15,000 annual arrivals, including the largest ethnocultural group of 85,000 enslaved Africans. By 1790, the U.S. population was 49 percent English, 20 percent African (most of whom were enslaved), and 7 percent each of German and Scottish. Scots-Irish, Irish, Dutch, French, Swedish, and Spanish migrants making up the remaining 17 percent.
The European American founders of the U.S. republic initially designated citizenship only for persons of their own race. Native and African Americans were summarily categorized as ineligible for citizenship even as Congress enacted legal provisions to integrate continuing influxes of Europeans. The 1790 Nationality Act reserved the right to citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons,” which included white male property owners but not indentured laborers. Though the Act’s requirement for property ownership was not actively enforced within a few decades, this conception of fitness for U.S. citizenship – as white, male, and wealthy enough to own property – shaped immigration restrictions and enforcement for the centuries following. Questions such as who should be admitted into the U.S., in what numbers, and who should be granted or denied citizenship provoked deeply divisive struggles. Although European immigrants faced some hostility to their equal inclusion into U.S. democracy based on poverty, ideology, and religion, these barriers were relatively porous compared to persons categorically defined as racially unfit for U.S. citizenship. Until the 1920s, Europeans faced qualitative, rather than categorical restrictions on their rights to gain citizenship and to immigrate. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, for example, targeted those who might endanger peace and security in the United States.
European immigration increased during the nineteenth century, drawn by opportunities in the expanding U.S. which offered comparatively greater political access, potential for upward socioeconomic mobility, and growing communities of co-ethnics which buffered the effects of transplantation. Economic, political, and environmental upheavals in Europe fueled emigration as well. For example, the onset of the Irish Famine in 1845 prompted about 1.8 million Irish to migrate to the U.S.; the Irish made up about 45 percent of immigrants to the U.S. in the 1840s, and 35 percent in the 1850s. Transatlantic travel to the U.S. became easier and more systematic through improvements in communications and infrastructure for travel by railroad and steamship, thickening networks of earlier arrivals, and the emergence of passenger brokers and other transportation businesses. As a result, greater numbers and a greater range of Europeans could conceive of, afford, and journey to North America. From 1815 until the mid-twentieth century, about 33 million Europeans came to the United States, although about seven million eventually left.
The earliest targets of immigration restriction reflected the parameters for citizenship set forth in 1790. Immigration regulation was under the purview of state governments before 1875. During the 1840s, the states of New York and Massachusetts implemented bans against poor immigrants and established agencies to return them home. When the federal government asserted sole authority over immigration in 1875, it adopted many of the goals and strategies developed by New York and Massachusetts. The 1882 Immigration Act, for example, banned the immigration of persons deemed “likely to become a public charge” (LPC), while laws passed in 1862 and 1886 barred contract or “unfree” labor. Congress also excluded Chinese defined by race (1882-1943) but chiefly targeting “coolie” workers as unfree. In practice, Chinese were far more readily identifiable racial targets for debarment than were Europeans based on qualitative attributes such as poverty or labor contracts. Very low percentages of Europeans were debarred–only up to 5 percent of arrivals at Ellis Island Immigration Station. In contrast, all Chinese arrivals received close scrutiny and about 25 percent were refused entry at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.
Before 1860, most new migrants were from German-speaking regions, Ireland, and Scandinavia and consisted primarily of peasant families seeking farmland in the Midwest and prairie regions. Farmland was made available as the U.S. expanded westward by driving out Native Americans, conquering territories to its west, and signing treaty agreements. However, as land became harder to acquire by the 1870s, newer immigration influxes of eastern and southern Europeans headed to cities in search of factory jobs rather than rural areas to farm. The industrializing northeast and Chicago became primary destinations for new migrants including Jews from tsarist Russia, Italians and others from Mediterranean Europe such as Greeks and Lebanese. Their urban concentrations and neighborhoods were far more visible to native-born Americans than agricultural settlements. Industrialization of the U.S. economy generated anxieties about corporate monopolies, concentration of wealth, and rising inequality, fueling fears about immigration, labor competition, and whether the U.S. could continue to absorb growing numbers of new arrivals of questioned assimilability.
Rising levels of immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century fueled campaigns to significantly reduce overall influxes. These migrants came from areas like Italy, Russia, Poland, and Greece, and included many Jews. In 1891, Congress authorized funding for the Immigration Bureau, housed in the Department of Labor, and in 1894, four Harvard graduates established the Immigration Restriction League. Unlike restrictions based on race and class, however, U.S. society and Congress struggled to develop rationales for excluding significant numbers of Europeans whose differences from earlier generations of immigrants were not so visible, justifiable, or enforceable.
It took Congress two decades to enact a literacy test, over several presidential vetoes, but the 1917 Immigration Act failed to significantly affect immigrant numbers. After a lull during World War I, immigration surged again. Congress reacted by imposing a draconian system for limiting immigration that set quotas according to national origins with a sharply lower overall numeric cap. The quotas derived from flat percentages of particular nationalities from past census counts. The baseline percentages were calculated using a dated census (from before southern and eastern European migration increased), so the resulting quotas greatly favored “old stock” immigrants such as English, Irish, and Germans while severely diminishing immigration by “new stock” arrivals such as Italians, Poles, and Greeks. Congress also implemented a more effective system of enforcement that required potential immigrants to carry passports and apply for visas at the U.S. embassy closest to their homes. If their national quota had been exhausted, they would not make the journey to the U.S., which then avoided dealing with the logistics of sending them away. This system of remote control and the quantitative quotas were extremely effective at limiting immigration, particularly of southern and eastern Europeans. Legal immigration by Italians fell from over 100,000 to about 3,500 per year, while British and Germans often failed to exhaust their quotas (which numbered in the tens of thousands). During the 1930s and the Great Depression, immigration averaged about 33,000 per year. Even despite these low numbers, the U.S. refused visas to refugees desperate to flee fascist governments.
World War II transformed priorities for immigration restriction by breaking the U.S.’s isolationism and launching its drive for international influence that intensified during the Cold War. To gain global leadership, the U.S. had to convey support for political allies by admitting migrants in need. Under pressure from the White House, Department of State, and coalitions of ethnic and religious organizations, Congress legislated temporary refugee admissions, chiefly from Europe, with allocations of several hundred thousand immigrant visas.
Congress attempted to reform the openly discriminatory general immigration laws in limited ways. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act retained the offensive national origins quotas, designating over 80 percent of visas for western and northern European countries, while also providing miniscule, token quotas for once barred and newly decolonized countries in Africa and Asia. Citizenship by naturalization was made available to all races and preferences implemented based on employment and family reunification. The quantitative discrimination still embedded in the Act’s national origins quotas provoked immediate protests.
Despite the open favoring of western and northern Europeans, the balance of immigration was shifting to previously excluded or once negligible sources of migrants. The swift economic recovery of many western and northern European countries reduced migration outflows while the Cold War strangled migration from communist bloc countries. As politics surpassed racial discrimination as a priority in immigration restriction, pressures continued for the U.S. to stop emphasizing racial preferences and prioritize economic, military, and technological competitiveness. Not until the civil rights upheavals in the 1960s, however, would reform be enacted.
The 1965 Immigration Act implemented a preference system granting legal admission only for family reunification, skilled employment, and refugees. [Pathways to legal immigration since 1965] The Act allocated 75 percent of At a time when 85 percent of the U.S. population was white, advocates of the law predicted that this emphasis on family reunification would maintain the predominance of European immigrants without overt racial discrimination. However, those most motivated by economic and political instability to immigrate came from poor and politically unstable nations in Asia, central and south America, and the Caribbean, transforming the demographic composition of the U.S. Even with the end of the Cold War, and renewed immigration from Eastern European countries, the largest influxes of immigrants originate in Spanish America and Asia.
Irish and Italians were exceptions in having high numbers wishing to immigrate who did not qualify through either the skilled employment or family unification preferences. Congress sought to alleviate this problem by enacting a diversity lottery visa system in 1990 which reallocated visas unused by other countries. At that juncture, the Irish and Italian economies improved, diminishing motives to leave, and the chief beneficiaries of the diversity lottery became Africans and Eastern Europeans. The disconnect between this law’s intentions and its outcomes reflects the reality that immigration flows are shaped chiefly by conditions in regions that produce migrants motivated to seek better options, rather than legal conditions imposed by the U.S. For these reasons, immigration from Asia and central and south America have been the highest since the 1960s.
1. Have students explore the Scholastic interactive tour of Ellis Island.
1. Ellis Island Processing: As a class, construct a chronology of Ellis Island processing using information from the website they explored. The chronology should include whatever students find compelling (This portion can be done on paper, white board, padlet, prezi, etc.)
2. Processing and Laws: Divide students into groups. Give each group two or three primary sources for laws pertaining to European migration (19 total). Each group will highlight the primary source for important details and write a one sentence summary. Then they will determine where their primary source belongs in the Ellis Island process and tape/input their law with the summary onto the chronology.
–Example: The 6th Stop of the Scholastic Ellis Island tour notes that, “if someone was considered a risk to the public health, his or her clothes were marked by a piece of chalk with an identifying letter. An “X” denoted insanity. A “P” denoted pulmonary (lung) problems.” This stop could be matched with the Immigration Act of 1882 in which “excludable aliens include “lunatics.”
-For laws that are not included in the Ellis island process chronology, have the group add a step to the Ellis Island process that would reflect the law.
-Students should note that later laws do not apply to Ellis Island (following its closure in the 1950s).
3. Continuity and Change: Each group will have a copy of the remaining laws. By comparing the Ellis Island processing chronology and the remaining laws, list continuity and change over time of European migration laws as a class.
Each student will complete a writing assignment that traces the changes and continuities in European migration laws in the U.S. As a part of the assignment, students will posit a theory as to why these changes and continuities took place.
This was the first law to define eligibility for citizenship by naturalization and establish standards and procedures by which immigrants became US citizens. In this early version, Congress limited this important right to “free white persons.”
Congress enacted deportation laws targeting persons deemed political threats to the United States in response to conflicts in Europe.
The Supreme Court designates the authority to legislate and to enforce immigration restrictions a matter of federal authority rather than a state or local power.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 explicitly extended naturalization rights already enjoyed by white immigrants to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” thus denying access to the rights and protections of citizenship to other nonwhite immigrant groups.
Legislated a few months after the Chinese Exclusion Law, this immigration legislation expanded the ranks of excludable aliens to include other undesirable persons and attributes such as "convicts," "lunatics," and "those likely to become a public charge."
Increasing immigration, mainly from southern and eastern European countries, along with a series of economic downturns fueled nativist fears and the founding of the Immigration Restriction League by three influential Harvard graduates.
This law identified anarchists as targets for exclusion and made provision for their removal if detained after entry.
Under the principle that women assumed the citizenship of their husbands, this act stripped citizenship from U.S.-born women when they married noncitizen immigrant men.
Congress funded this high-level commission to research the causes and impact of recent immigration to build support for significant restrictions on European immigration. The commission produced a 41-volume study in 1911.
Although this law is best known for its creation of a “barred zone” extending from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from which no persons were allowed to enter the United States, its main restriction consisted of a literacy test intended to reduce European immigration.
This act gave the executive branch greater powers to enforce immigration restrictions during World War I. It particularly targeted anarchists and other potential radicals.
The U.S. Department of Justice conducted a series of raids to round up, arrest, and deport suspected anarchists and left-wing radicals.
Fears of increased immigration after the end of World War I and the spread of radicalism propelled Congress to enact this "emergency" measure imposing drastic quantitative caps on immigration.
To further limit immigration, this law established extended "national origins" quotas, a highly restrictive and quantitatively discriminatory system. The quota system would remain the primary means of determining immigrants' admissibility to the United States until 1965.
Congress enacted exceptions to the national origins quotas imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924 in order to help World War II soldiers and veterans bring back foreign spouses and fiances they had met while serving in the military.
In contrast lawmakers' widespread indifference before World War II, after the war, under pressure from the White House and Department of State, Congress authorized admissions for refugees from Europe and permitted asylum seekers already in the U.S. to regularize their status.
The McCarran-Walter Act reformed some of the obvious discriminatory provisions in immigration law. While the law provided quotas for all nations and ended racial restrictions on citizenship, it expanded immigration enforcement and retained offensive national origins quotas.
Dissatisfaction with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act inspired support for this legislation which provided 214,000 visas to refugees, primarily from Europe but with 5,000 designated for the Far East.
The parole authority granted the attorney-general in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act was used three times to aid refugees fleeing communism. To avoid public outcry, each use of parole was accompanied by extensive publicity campaigns to promote acceptance.
This law set the main principles for immigration regulation still enforced today. It applied a system of preferences for family reunification (75 percent), employment (20 percent), and refugees (5 percent) and for the first time capped immigration from the within Americas.
The UNHCR issued this protocol in 1967 to implement the goals of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which set forth the key principle of refoulement, or that persons in flight from persecution and danger cannot be forced to return to places of danger.
Congress revised the Immigration Act of 1965 by implementing the H-1B visa program for skilled temporary workers, with some provisions for conversion to permanent status, and the diversity visa lottery for populations unable to enter through the preference system.