Except for the people that had lived in the United States for centuries ahead of the European explorers, aren’t we all immigrants? Immigration was the main reason why America grew in the first place. But, even though our fledgling country needed people in order to survive, from our earliest times, we started a selection process for the groups we thought were the desirables. The Naturalization Act of 1790 established a two year residency requirement to aliens who were “free white persons” of “good moral character.”
I’m writing this blog as a research project for an independent U.S. History seminar class. In this blog, I’m going to explore the many different ways we, in the U.S. have looked at immigration. I’m also going to do some comparing and contrasting to see how other countries and regions have handled immigration.
From my research, one of the threads I saw was the idea that Northern Europeans in our historical pecking order, always seemed to come out on top. In fact, most of our 19th and 20th century polices favored protections for immigrants from Northern Europe. Lucky for me (though throwing in a little mix) I’d get the benefit of this preference. But this is only because my parents follow what was pretty much the norm of assimilation for certain immigrant groups. My mother is a second generation Greek American. All of her grandparents came from Greece.
Greek people in the early part of the 20th century were not considered to be as desirable as people from Northern Europe and our immigration policies reflected our resistance towards Greeks (through quotas that the United States goverment established). What the Greeks had going for them, though, similar to other immigrant populations from areas outside Northern Europe (mainly Southern and Eastern Europe) was their ability to intermarry. In the early part of the 20th century, immigrant groups did not intermarry. By mid-century only a minority of the descendants of Southern and Eastern Europe were not of mixed parents. My parents follow this trajectory. My father’s family came to the United States many decades ahead of my mother’s family from Greece.My parents met in college, and by their marriage, added to the percentage of early 20th century immigrants assimilating into America’s melting pot.
Here’s a tough question. Do we in the United States, even now, still cling to a notion that certain groups of people are more desirable? We’ve had some booming immigration periods. Taking from the U.S. census bureau, during the first two decades of the 20th century, the percent of foreign born people to the overall U.S. population reached its peak of 14.7 percent. This percentage went down mid-century due to restrictive immigration maneuvering and since the 1960’s has now steadily climbed. From our latest census data taken in 2010, foreign born people now make up 12.9% of total U.S. population. What’s interesting is the change in where immigrants are coming from. In the 1960’s, 75% of foreign born immigrants came from Europe. In 2010, only 12% of foreign born immigrants come from Europe. Currently, the two largest immigrant populations come from Latin America with 53% and Asia with 28%. More will come discussing these immigration patterns. For now, a thought to raise is whether we still cling to immigration policies that have undercurrents of preferential treatment for certain ancestries. One might argue that we don’t because at present, people from Asia are not excluded from our immigration policies. In the late 1800’s into the 1900’s, however, people from Asia were prohibited from entering America.
Two central themes that I’ll explore as I write these blogs will focus on our supposed economic pragmatism and the preferential treatment we applied to different immigrant groups (known in the earlier 20th century as Eugenics) and how these two themes have shaped our immigration policies over the past decades.