THEN: Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island in the late 1800s (left).
NOW: People rally to support DACA recipients in October 2017 (right)

Fotosearch/Getty Images (left); Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images (right)

The Great Immigration Debate

America is a nation of immigrants, but we’re forever arguing about who to welcome to our shores.

Who gets to be an American?

That’s the question at the heart of the immigration debates that have consumed Washington, D.C., and the nation during President Donald Trump’s first year in office. In that time, Trump has moved to reshape U.S. immigration policy in a dramatic way. 

Trump has stepped up arrests and deportations of immigrants here illegally, including high-profile raids on 7-Eleven stores last month. He has announced that a program  protecting young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children will soon end (unless Congress agrees on a deal to save it). He’s reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States to the lowest number in decades. And he’s started to talk about putting new restrictions on legal immigration.

That’s the question at the heart of current immigration debates. These debates have consumed Washington, D.C., and the nation during President Donald Trump’s first year in office. In that time, Trump has worked to reshape U.S. immigration policy.

Trump has increased arrests and deportations of immigrants here illegally. For example, there were raids on 7-Eleven stores last month. He has announced that he will soon end a program that protects young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The only way it will not end is if Congress agrees on a deal to save it. Trump has also reduced the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. to the lowest number in decades. And he’s started to talk about putting new restrictions on legal immigration.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a president focus on immigration quite like this one has,” says Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C. 

The United States is a nation of immigrants. But Americans remain divided about what kind of immigration to allow and from where, and whether to permit people who come here illegally to stay.

President Trump’s intense focus on immigration issues and his controversial statements have raised the temperature of the debate. His pledge to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border has been cheered by his supporters but criticized by many other Americans. His travel bans on people from six majority-Muslim countries, announced as part of tighter security measures, prompted outrage and lawsuits.

And recently, reports that Trump used disrespectful words to describe Haiti and certain African countries that some immigrants to the U.S. come from sparked an uproar.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a president focus on immigration quite like this one has,” says Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute. That is a research group in Washington, D.C.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. But Americans remain divided about what kind of immigration to allow and from where. They also disagree on whether to permit people who come here illegally to stay.

President Trump’s intense focus on immigration issues and his controversial statements have raised the temperature of the debate. For example, he pledged to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. That promise has been cheered by his supporters but criticized by many other Americans. He also approved travel bans on people from six majority-Muslim countries, announced as part of tighter security measures. That has prompted outrage and lawsuits.

And recently, there were reports that Trump used disrespectful words to describe Haiti and certain African countries that some immigrants to the U.S. come from. That has sparked an uproar too.

“Throughout American history, there has always been a tussle over immigration.”

But even though immigration seems to be generating a lot of headlines today, historians say the debates about who to let in and who to keep out are nothing new.

“Throughout American history, there has always been a tussle over immigration,” says Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

“We have admitted millions of people because we needed their labor, their talents, their bodies, to settle our vast territories and work in our factories. At the same time, we’ve resisted their presence.” 

Immigration issues are making a lot of headlines today. However, historians say the debates about who to let in and who to keep out are nothing new.

“Throughout American history, there has always been a tussle over immigration,” says Alan Kraut. He is a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

“We have admitted millions of people because we needed their labor, their talents, their bodies, to settle our vast territories and work in our factories. At the same time, we’ve resisted their presence.”

“A Colony of Aliens”

Conflicted feelings about immigrants go back to the nation’s founding (see timeline, below). In 1776, most Americans were immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, from the British Isles. The majority were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who came in search of economic opportunity or to escape religious or political persecution. 

But the U.S. population also included Native Americans and large numbers of Dutch, Spanish, and Germans, in addition to Africans, who were brought against their will as slaves beginning in 1619.

Americans have often been wary of welcoming foreigners. Even before the nation’s founding, Benjamin Franklin worried that German immigrants were taking over Pennsylvania.

In 1751, Franklin referred to the German newcomers as “a colony of aliens [who] will never adopt our language or customs.” 

The 19th century brought very different immigrants, starting with the Irish and later the Italians, both of whom were largely poor farmers and Catholic. Then came the Chinese—who arrived in large numbers during the California Gold Rush—and Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Conflicted feelings about immigrants go back to the nation’s founding (see timeline, below). In 1776, most Americans were immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, from the British Isles. The majority were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They came in search of economic opportunity or to escape religious or political persecution.

But the U.S. population also included Native Americans and large numbers of Dutch, Spanish, and Germans. And it included Africans, who were brought against their will as slaves beginning in 1619.

Americans have often been wary of welcoming foreigners. Even before the nation’s founding, Benjamin Franklin worried that German immigrants were taking over Pennsylvania.

In 1751, Franklin referred to the German newcomers as “a colony of aliens [who] will never adopt our language or customs.”

The 19th century brought very different immigrants, starting with the Irish and later the Italians. Both of those groups were largely poor farmers and Catholic. Then came the Chinese and Jews. The Chinese arrived in large numbers during the California Gold Rush. The Jews came to flee persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Early Backlash

Before 1875, few restrictions on immigration existed. America’s westward expansion, the Industrial Revolution, and the abolition of slavery in 1865 created enormous demand for labor to work on the nation’s farms and in its factories and mines.

But the surge in Irish and Italian immigrants to a largely Protestant nation provoked a backlash. In the 1840s, the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings, formed in opposition to immigration. Its members feared that immigrants would steal their jobs and that Catholics would take over the country. In the West, people protested against Chinese immigrants. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigrants from China. (The ban was repealed in 1943.)

Before 1875, few restrictions on immigration existed. America’s westward expansion, the Industrial Revolution, and the end of slavery in 1865 created a large demand for labor. Workers were needed for the nation’s farms, factories, and mines.

But the surge in Irish and Italian immigrants to a largely Protestant nation caused a backlash. In the 1840s, the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings, formed in opposition to immigration. Its members feared that immigrants would steal their jobs and that Catholics would take over the country. In the West, people protested against Chinese immigrants. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to ban immigrants from China. (The ban was lifted in 1943.)

“Nobody’s suggesting that we stop immigration . . . just that we slow it down.”

Opposition to immigration intensified as the number of immigrants soared at the start of the 20th century. In 1907, the peak year for immigration in that period, almost 1.3 million new immigrants arrived on America’s shores.

In the 1920s, Congress imposed quotas that sharply reduced the number of immigrants and gave preference to Northern Europeans. As intended, those quotas worked against Southern and Eastern Europeans. During World War II (1939-1945), they also prevented millions of Jews and other refugees from escaping the Holocaust.

In 1965, the U.S. eliminated quotas altogether, leading to an influx of arrivals from Asia and Latin America. That marked the last time lawmakers passed a major immigration overhaul.

The number of immigrants soared at the start of the 20th century. And opposition to immigration grew stronger. In 1907, the peak year for immigration in that period, almost 1.3 million new immigrants arrived on America’s shores.

In the 1920s, Congress introduced quotas that sharply reduced the number of immigrants and gave preference to Northern Europeans. As intended, those quotas worked against Southern and Eastern Europeans. During World War II (1939-1945), they also prevented millions of Jews and other refugees from escaping the Holocaust.

In 1965, the U.S. stopped using quotas altogether. That led to a flood of arrivals from Asia and Latin America. It was the last time lawmakers passed a major immigration overhaul.

Fixing Illegal Immigration

In recent decades, much of the debate and many of the political battles over immigration have focused on people who cross the border illegally—largely from Mexico—or who try to stay permanently after their temporary visas expire (see tables “Where They’re From,” below). That was a key issue of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and his promise to build a stronger border wall to keep out undocumented immigrants resonated with many Americans.

As president, Trump has cracked down on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., which fulfills promises he made on the campaign trail.

“We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you, and we will deport you,” Trump promised last summer at an event in New York.

In recent decades, many of the political battles and debates over immigration have focused on people who cross the border illegally, mostly from Mexico. They have also focused on people who try to stay in the U.S. permanently after their temporary visas expire (see tables, “Where They’re From,” below). That was a key issue of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. His promise to build a stronger border wall to keep out undocumented immigrants resonated with many Americans.

As president, Trump has cracked down on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. This fulfills promises he made on the campaign trail.

“We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you, and we will deport you,” Trump promised last summer at an event in New York.

But Americans remain divided about whether undocumented immigrants should be forced to leave. Some argue that they’re good for the U.S. economy because many of them do jobs that most Americans don’t want to do. 

However, others say people here illegally compete with Americans for jobs, often commit crimes, and drain the country’s resources. 

Democrats have generally favored some kind of path toward legalization for those here illegally, provided they pay fines, speak English, and wait their turn to be considered. But many Republicans say that would reward those who’ve broken the law, so the priority should be on tightening border security instead. 

But Americans remain divided about whether undocumented immigrants should be forced to leave. Some argue that they’re good for the U.S. economy because many of them do jobs that most Americans don’t want to do.

However, others say people here illegally compete with Americans for jobs, often commit crimes, and drain the country’s resources.

Many Democrats say that immigrants who are here illegally should be allowed to stay if they pay fines, learn to speak English, and wait their turn to be considered. But many Republicans say that would reward those who’ve broken the law. They say the priority should be on tightening border security instead.

What to Do About the “Dreamers”

There has been more sympathy across political lines for young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents as children because they are here through no fault of their own.

These so-called Dreamers have been protected since 2012 by a program known as DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—that President Barack Obama created. DACA has shielded them from deportation and allowed them to work in the U.S. legally. 

Last fall, though, President Trump announced that DACA protections will end in March unless Congress comes up with a plan to save the program before then. 

Aside from cracking down on undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration has also proposed major changes to the country’s legal immigration system. These include sharp reductions in the number of legal immigrants and making the criteria for selection more merit-based. Immigration critics have applauded these moves. 

“Nobody’s suggesting that we stop immigration entirely, just that we slow it down,” says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports more restrictions on immigration. “This isn’t the 1870s—we’re not trying to populate a continent.”

There has been more sympathy from both parties for young people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children. There is concern for these young people because they are here through no fault of their own.

These young people are called Dreamers. They have been protected since 2012 by a program created by President Barack Obama. It is known as DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA has shielded them from deportation and allowed them to work in the U.S. legally.

However, last fall President Trump announced that DACA protections will end in March. It can be saved only if Congress comes up with a plan to keep the program before then.

Aside from cracking down on undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration has also proposed major changes to the country’s legal immigration system. These changes include sharp reductions in the number of legal immigrants. They also include making the criteria for selection more merit-based. Immigration critics support these moves.

“Nobody’s suggesting that we stop immigration entirely, just that we slow it down,” says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group supports more restrictions on immigration. “This isn’t the 1870s—we’re not trying to populate a continent.”

“The identity  of the United States is a nation of immigrants.”

But others see robust immigration as critical to the nation’s well-being. After all, some of the most innovative high-tech companies, such as Google and eBay, were founded by immigrants, they note.  

“The identity of the United States is a nation of immigrants,” says Kraut, the historian. “[They] have made an enormous contribution. Their talents have helped make us the preeminent society in the world in terms of higher education and advanced research.”  

Some scholars see recent calls to restrict immigration as evidence of anxiety about the country’s changing demographics. 

The Pew Research Center projects that foreign-born Americans will exceed 15 percent of the population by 2025, breaking the record of 14.8 percent set in 1890. And by 2055, white people will make up less than half of the nation’s population. 

“The immigration debate is bound up with fears about America becoming a majority-minority country,” says Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at Cambridge University in England. 

But Gerstle thinks Americans will eventually put aside their fears, as they did with previous generations of immigrants.

“These moments of transition in America’s perception of itself are very trying times,” he says. “But ultimately the new America wins, and the new America turns out to be something the old Americans can live with.” 

But others say continued immigration is important to the nation’s well-being. After all, some of the most innovative high-tech companies were founded by immigrants, they note. These companies include Google and eBay.

“The identity of the United States is a nation of immigrants,” says Kraut, the historian. “[They] have made an enormous contribution. Their talents have helped make us the preeminent society in the world in terms of higher education and advanced research.”

Scholars say recent calls to restrict immigration show that some people have anxiety about the country’s changing demographics.

The Pew Research Center estimates that foreign-born Americans will be more than 15 percent of the population by 2025. This would break the record of 14.8 percent set in 1890. And by 2055, white people will make up less than half of the nation’s population.

“The immigration debate is bound up with fears about America becoming a majority-minority country,” says Gary Gerstle. He is a professor of American history at Cambridge University in England.

But Gerstle thinks Americans will eventually put aside their fears. They did so with previous generations of immigrants.

“These moments of transition in America’s perception of itself are very trying times,” he says. “But ultimately the new America wins, and the new America turns out to be something the old Americans can live with.”

CORE QUESTION: How is the current immigration debate similar to and different from those of the past?

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