From the colonial period to 1882, immigration into the United States was essentially free and unrestricted. Millions of immigrants poured into the country, helping to transform a peripheral outpost of the British Empire into one of the most populous and prosperous nations in the world. Immigration always generated opposition, however, and nativist movements regularly appeared in American life.
Who cares about the history of immigration to America 100 or 200 years ago? Sure, immigration today is a major political issue, inflaming strong passions on all sides of the debate over what should be done (or not done) to change our country's immigration laws. But America in 1750 or 1850 was a very different country, and immigration issues back then looked very different than they do today. There were no Minutemen guarding the Mexican border, no armies of activists marching through the streets of Los Angeles shouting "¡Legalización Para Todos!," no Spanish spoken in our classrooms or our DMV offices. What can the distant past possibly teach us about the very different world we live in today?
A lot, actually.
It turns out that past immigrant experiences, and past controversies over immigration policy, bear startling similarities to the situation we face today.
Two hundred fifty years ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that a huge wave of German-speaking immigrants then pouring into Pennsylvania would make it impossible for the colony's English settlers to preserve their language or government.
One hundred sixty years ago, millions of Americans feared that sudden, heavy immigration of a foreign and "inferior" race—the Irish—would undermine the country's Anglo-Saxon social and political traditions.
One hundred thirty years ago, American workingmen in San Francisco fought to kick out Chinese immigrants who were willing to work brutal jobs for lower wages.
In retrospect, we can see that none of these great immigrant threats destroyed the American Republic. In fact, today most Americans celebrate rather than condemn the contributions made to our economy and culture by German, Irish, and Chinese immigrants and their American- born descendents. Yet controversy continues to surround the immigration of other, more recent arrivals to this country.
Is history simply repeating itself, then? You'll have to make up your own mind about that.