Wednesday, January 30, 2013


To a large extent, the story of the US is the story of immigrants. Nearly all of us either came here from somewhere else, or our ancestors did.

In colonial times, most immigration was from England, and the earliest "settlers," or "invaders" if you prefer, faced the necessity of taking the land, if they were to truly possess it, from its previous owners. This was done partly by the sword and musket, but mostly through the result, unintentional at first, and with forethought afterward, of exposing the natives to European diseases for which they had no acquired immunity -- smallpox, measles, whooping cough, alcoholism.

Before long, 90 percent of the natives were killed off and the government of the mother country kicked out. The nineteenth century brought an increase in immigration and changes in where the immigrants came from, with most coming from Ireland and Germany. This was the first of several major shifts in the pattern, and started a trend of periodic resettings of the ethnic makeup of the US which continues down to the present. It also gave rise to the first anti-immigration movement, the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and anti-Freemasonry Know-Nothings of the 1830's and '40's.

During this time also, the forced immigration of slave labor from Africa rose and flourished; it was fully established by the time of independence, and produced an enslaved black population of four million by the time of the Civil War.

After 1860, the main sources of immigration to the US shifted again, and millions arrived from Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, and the Balkans to work the steel mills and coal mines of the growing industrial powerhouse. In the west, a flood of immigrants from the far east prompted Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880.

From that time forward until the present, immigration and the policies which attempt to govern it have oscillated between two opposed tendencies, as the descendants of earlier arrivals try to limit or stop the intrusion of unfamiliar races and cultures into the nation. They claim the American identity is being swamped by a flood of racial, linguistic, and culturally alien outsiders who are refusing to "be assimilated." "Bringing with them flags and customs belonging to primeval man," is the way the lyricist of a popular KKK song, recorded in Indiana in the 1920's "Mystic City" put it.

Against this tendency of resistance to further immigration, which takes the same form and uses the same arguments in every generation and against every new group that comes, is the ebb and flow of immigration itself. It varies in scope and intensity mostly depending on US law, and even more on conditions and crises elsewhere in the world.

In the 1920's, as fascism was gaining footholds in Europe, Congress passed openly racist immigration restrictions based on a country-by-country quota system. This law echoed the words of the old African-American refrain, "If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're black, stand back, stand back," and remained in effect until 1965.

The quotas responded to the American-born residents' feelings of being deluged. Peak year immigration from Europe came in 1907, with one-and-a-quarter million arriving here. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States, and made up about 15 percent of the US population of 92 million.

The end of the quota system opened the gates once more to a new wave of immigration, with the bulk of the new arrivals now coming from Latin America and the Caribbean, or Asia. The current pie chart of the 37.6 million US residents born outside the country looks like this:

Despite the rise of the Arizona Minutemen, only 12 percent of our population of 315 million is foreign-born, well below the peak of the early 20th century. The main part of our population growth is now, as it often has been in the past from immigration. It's who we are and undoubtedly who we will continue to be, but with an eye now to limiting total population, for suddenly, with 315 million people, the US is the third-most-populous nation, behind India and China.

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