Saying America is “a nation of immigrants” is a tautology, an axiomatic statement that should not prevent us from formulating an immigration policy that best serves our needs today. When politicians or opponents of immigration reduction blithely say America is a nation of immigrants, most often they are making the argument that history precludes any reduction in immigration at present, even though the current immigration level is more than double the historical average.
The United States government did not begin recording annual immigrant admissions until 1820, when 8,385 newcomers were admitted. Immigration to America did not take place in significant numbers until the after the Great Famine struck Ireland in the 1840s, which brought hundreds of thousands of Irish to the United States in the years directly preceding the Civil War.
Following the Civil War and coinciding with rapid industrialization in the United States, the Great Wave of immigration took place, from 1880 to 1924, when millions of Europeans came to the United States to serve as “factory fodder” in cities of the Northeast. When people say that America is a nation of immigrants, they are generally referring to this period, when shiploads of Europeans disembarked onto Ellis Island under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Understanding the history of immigration to the United States is vital to understanding who we are as a people today, which is why the mythologization of that history is so destructive to the present debate about the best immigration policy moving forward.
Those who argue that our history demands we admit more than a million foreign nationals every year in perpetuity are insinuating that the practices of one anomalous era must remain unaltered no matter what the present circumstances demand. This is an absurd position to take, especially for those who consider themselves “progressive” and who are usually the loudest voices speaking out in favor of continuing immigration polices first implemented in the late-nineteenth century.
This mentality also informs those who contend that because the percentage of the foreign-born population in the United States is not at its historical peak (though it soon will be again), we actually have lower levels of immigration than in the past when the overall population is taken into account. This kind of reasoning ignores the fact that the U.S. foreign-born population today is much higher than at many other times in the past, including the recent past. Today the foreign-born population is over 13 percent. In 1970, it was around 4.5 percent.
One would be hard pressed to find anyone who pushes for expansive immigration policies who is willing or able to discuss the history of the Great Wave in its totality; to acknowledge that the mistreatment of immigrants by employers was so egregious that the Progressive movement arose in response; or to admit that mass immigration from Europe during the Great Wave prevented Black Americans from gaining economic standing in their own country – a country to which they had come not as immigrants but as slaves.
The Great Wave also drove the rapid settlement of the American West, propelled by the passage of the Homestead Acts, and improvements in land and sea travel. It was during this period that many American Indian groups were forced off their lands and/or died after coming in contact with settlers. What the Indians saw as the white man’s insatiable desire for land was propelled by the expanding population driven by immigration.
Of course, America benefited greatly from immigration from Europe, but we shouldn’t whitewash out the parts of our history that are inconvenient to a contemporary political narrative. Mass immigration has always come at the expense of those already here. That is why an ethical immigration policy is one that is in accord with the interest of the American people, and that means an immigration system that admits fewer people every year.
When someone says “we are a nation of immigrants” in order to justify current policy, they are defending, consciously or not, an immigration system that discriminates in favor of narrow but powerful special interests who have taken full control of our political and economic systems, and our popular culture – or at least had control.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA