Immigration policy has been a contentious issue practically throughout our entire history. If we were to take a look back on historical policy governing immigration reform, then hopefully we can shed some light on the culture of America, and the issues of the past comparable to the modern influx of undocumented immigrants.
A popular way of referring to immigrants since the 1980’s has been to call them illegal aliens. After this pejorative term was abandoned, we adopted the slightly less offensive term of illegal immigrant. Now in 2013, unrepresented migrants to the U.S. are still widely considered to be “illegal immigrants”. No person in the United States can be considered “illegal”. The unreported stay of any person in the United States cannot be labeled criminal until they are charged by a court and convicted. Essentially, until the Court tells you that you have done something wrong, then in this country, you are innocent. That said, it is reprehensible that we should refer to any individual who has crossed our border as a criminal, or “illegal” in any sense until they are caught, and charged by the courts. There have been many people to cross our borders due to political strife without first asking permission. If that person happens to be a refugee who does this, we are far less quick to consider that person illegal.
Since the founding of this nation, the American people have continued to slander, and libel immigrant peoples of all sorts. German and Irish migration began in the early half of the Nineteenth century. Benjamin Franklin was quoted in a letter:
“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, and will never adopt our language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”
When the Chinese began immigrating to the U.S. prior to the 1870’s, after a brief acceptance of them, their migration came to be known as the Yellow Peril. Chinese immigrants built our railroads, mined our coal and participated in the Gold Rush of 1849. Congress would later draft the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During Irish migration by the mid-Nineteenth century, they were depicted as ape-like and bestial. There was a fear by Protestants at the time that Irish Catholics would be overly loyal to the Pope and try to subvert the government. A national literacy test was implemented in 1917, in which MA Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, was quoted as stating:
“[The test] will bear most heavily on the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asiatics, and very lightly, or not at all upon English-speaking emigrants or Germans, Scandinavians, and French.”
Many national immigration quota laws were also adopted in the U.S. during the 1920’s until the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 repealed all quotas.
Institutional bias, racism, and general antipathy towards migrants throughout history has been prevalent since the conception of the Union. We must consider how poorly the Irish have been treated throughout the Nineteenth century, and basically Catholics in general. The underlying fear of immigration is the cultural impact, and the fear of the infusion of new ideals in place of hardened traditions. The Grapes of Wrath tells an abrupt story of how migrant Oklahomans were treated in California during the great dust bowl of the 1930’s. Even interstate immigration can be an ugly affair.