History of U.S. Immigration


The members of a MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational gang, start young. Most of the members are recruited, usually forcefully, from high schools, middle schools and juvenile detention centers. Their rite of passage involves getting beaten up by older gang members; women have the choice, if one can call it a choice, of picking between intercourse or a beating. The gang comprises primarily Salvadorian people, but it had its origins in the context of 1970s and 1980s U.S. immigration laws, at a time when civil wars were erupting in Central America. Hordes of citizens of Central American countries saw the US as a place for refuge. 

When the U.S. rejected Salvadorian claims for asylum and instead labeled the desperate migrants as undocumented, the Salvadorians had to come in illegally, which meant that they weren’t privy to the legal advantages that legal residents had. This, with the piling cultural and economic pressures and the preexistence of gangs in Los Angeles, where most of the migrants settled, was the perfect environment for a group of youths to collectivize and form one of the most vicious gangs of the time and even of today.

“The undocumented Salvadorian gangs became increasingly violent to distinguish themselves from the other gangs,” said Kim Morse, professor of History at Washburn.

Members of the gang, after the introduction of stricter immigration policies, went back home to terrorize Salvadorian neighborhoods where laws were lax and institutions were weak. Some of the honest Salvadorian migrants that the U.S. were turning away, were then going to a home where a grisly fate awaited them.   

This history, the history of immigration the U.S. in general and the economic realities are often forgotten in the discourse, and consequently, in the formation of immigration policies.

Immigration became an issue primarily in the 19th century when countries started defining borders and identities. According to Morse, this is when nation states sought to define themselves and looked at resources and labor they could control. 

“Nations [were] defining politically what their borders were. In addition to that, there is the 19th century process of figuring out belonging. Who belongs to the nation? And who doesn’t belong to the nation? Those definitions of belonging often is rooted in the concept of race,” Morse said. 

The Mexican-American war in 1845, for example, was an enterprise for expansion by the U.S.; the U.S. wanted to control the resources of Texas, which had gained independence from Mexico in 1836. The then-Mexican strongman leader still saw Texas as a Mexican state, and an attempt at annexation would be a strong impetus for war. The U.S., touting the Mexican aggression after Mexican troops attacked American forces, declared war. The purchase of Oregon and Gadsden was a similar attempt at defining borders and controlling natural resources and exploiting cheap labor. 

This expansionism was happening globally, although African nations were an exception in that they could not define their own borders, owing to the colonization by European nations. The colonizing nations were the ones defining their borders for them. 

If history tells us anything, the U.S. has often failed to uphold its founding ideals and the subsequent ideals that were developments of the founding ideal. The country has a troublesome history with immigration, and the history doesn’t lean favorably toward immigrants. 

“The U.S., throughout history, has gone through punitive cycles,” said Morse. According to her, the US has at times brought in or allowed people from other countries for its benefit and added strictures later when convenient. “Historically, there have been many cases where the US viewed immigrants as ‘the racial other’,” she added.  

She gave the example of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which the U.S. used to outlaw Chinese labor immigration. This was problematic, as previously, the U.S. had recruited Chinese laborers in conjunction with Irish and Mexican laborers in to expedite the railroad-building process.

Other immigrants were subject to this as well regardless of their ethnicity. For example, until the 1920s, Mexican people would enter the U.S. boarder seasonally to provide agricultural labor, as they harvested crops during cultivation season. After their stint in the U.S., they returned home to do the same. 

“They would do this year after year after year,” Morse said. “And that way, the United States got the labor that it needed, and the Mexican economy and the Mexican agricultural projects continued to function. That was normal. That kind of circular migration pattern was an incredibly normal process into about the 1920s. It was only after the 1920s that the United States began to criminalize Mexican labor, but even then, it was really normal, and it was technically undocumented for Mexican labor to cross the border to work, especially in Texas, in migrant farm labor contexts, and Texas was fine with that because they needed the labor.”

The U.S. has never put a halt to that. Officially, the migration has been deemed illegal, but since the US economy depends on low-skilled labor, which its indigenous demographic is failing to produce, it has looked the other way at times. The policies haven’t been and aren’t strong enough to prevent this problem, which admittedly is one of its own creations. 

“The bulk of the undocumented workforce is not people who cross without documentation. The bulk of them are those who overstay their visas,” said Morse. This accounts for 42 percent of the total illegal immigrants. If the US were to deport all the illegal immigrants, it would be devastating. “And, frankly, the Chambers of Commerce all over the country, lobbyists all over the country associated with the agro-business are all over that problem and they tell the politicians that.” 

The “Immigrants are taking our jobs” rhetoric has been spouted many-a-times in the past, with one of the first instances being the utterance of President Herbert Hoover in 1929. However, this has to be examined in this historical context. 

When these fears and negative perceptions manifest themselves in policies, oftentimes, it brings not only economic ramifications, but also humanitarian problems, as any sort of deportation of an illegal immigrant normally break families apart. 

It hasn’t been just the “job-saving” or the “border-protecting” that has broken families apart, punitive measures directed toward refugees do the same. David Rubenstein, Director of the Robert J. Dole Center for Law and Government at Washburn, spoke of how the forlorn conditions at detention centers affected immigrants deeply. 

“We saw an unprecedented number of immigrants being put in detention centers across the US border.” Rubenstein said and expressed worried about the mushrooming of private, for-profit detention companies. “Not only are the conditions in the detentions centers bad, but the government is spending exorbitant amounts of money to run them.” 

This racial othering towards anyone who wasn’t American—although the definition of the word has been ambiguous at best and downright dangerous at worst—has been the thorn in the side of immigration issues. Public perception and media portrayal of immigrants have shaped policies and vice versa. 

Impoverished Irish immigrants striped away from their source of income and food by the potato famine, when they came to the country for the first time, had derogatory political cartoons drawn of them. The racist overtones present in these cartoons were evident in the features ascribed to them. They had beast-like armature; huge noses and shaggy hair defined the Irish aesthetic. Interestingly enough, the color of their skin was depicted as being black. And to top it all off, they were subjected to the rhetoric of them being rapists and criminals. 

German immigrants, too, faced the hardship of being first-time immigrants, maladjusted to the prevalent indigenous culture. Congress passed laws that prevented them access to the same opportunities that citizens of the U.S. had. This racism heightened especially after the World War I, as any German-speaker was perceived as a security threat. 

According to Cheryl Childers, associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology, the acceptance of immigration in the US has run in parallel with the economic situation.

“Between 1880 and 1930, we had the largest number of people come. And instead of coming from Northern Europe, Central Europe, Scandinavia, which assimilated very easily into this very waspy, middle-class, Protestant culture, these folks were coming from Eastern Asia, from Hungary, Poland, Russia, and they were bringing with them extremely different lives and culture. And the cities weren’t equipped to deal with them,” said Childers. 

In 1921, the Immigration Act or the Quota Law, curtailed the immigration from those countries and then some. The immigrants not being of a similar culture was a significant factor in the creation of this law. This preceded the creation of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which effectively banned Asian immigration. And later in 1929—when it gave birth to the National Origins Law—half the quotas were reserved for British immigrants only.   

This racist rhetoric, a constant throughout history, went hand-in-hand with public perception. The racial othering of culturally different immigrants has worked as a framework for policy-making and has influenced politicians, as when it comes to immigration, politicians concerned about winning try to side with their constituents.   

“Our immigration law, as a whole, tries to balance a range of values that sometimes compete with each other: humanitarian, security, economic, and the general welfare of the country. Not every piece of immigration law, past or current, reflects all of these values,” Rubenstein said. “For instance, some immigration laws specifically target national security. Other immigration laws aim at protecting or promoting the labor market, while other laws like asylum and family-based immigration are humanitarian in nature. The contours of America’s immigration policies ebb and flow over time, generally in line with ebbs and flows about American sentiments about these values.  The immigration debates in America today are less about what we value as a people, but more about how to best balance a number of different values that we share.”

Mary Sheldon, associate professor of English, agrees. She also emphasizes preserving the dignity of immigrants. She saw how Guatemalan refugees were turned away when they sought refuge in the U.S. during the 1980s Guatemalan Civil War. She was working with Guatemalan orphans who had made it to the U.S. They were the lucky ones—if one can call it luck. They were in a similar predicament to the Salvadorians.  

“I think it is a matter of opening hearts and minds,” said Sheldon. “First-time immigrants have always had a hard time adjusting to a new place. And that is not their fault.” 

She sees cultural education for both sides as a band-aid for immigrant-native relations. Immigrants, to function in the new place, could learn about the different markers of culture and history, the way of life, so to speak. Americans receiving the immigrants would do better by learning the history of immigration in America, the situation of the immigrants, and the economic realities of the country as a way of empathizing with them. 

People have always worried about the cultural degradation that immigration brings. And there have always been people trying to define what is means to be American. But that and the notion of assimilation are problematic words. America, after all, has required immigrant efforts for progress. That America has a homogenous culture that immigrants have to subscribe to is a false notion, and looking at history and the economy would tell one that. 

Today’s divide on immigration is partly a consequence of Americans forgetting their history and being blinded by rhetoric to economic realities. History hasn’t been kind to the immigrants, but the present is where reparations can be made.