In 1882, for the first time in American history, Congress passed a law that systematically restricted free and open immigration into the United States. That first act specifically targeted Chinese immigrants for exclusion from the American Dream, but subsequent legislation added many other categories of foreigners to the ranks of the excluded. By the 1920s, American immigration policy evolved into a nakedly discriminatory ethnic quota system, allowing most Northwestern Europeans to enter freely while strictly limiting the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans and excluding Asians entirely. Despite the increasingly stringent controls imposed upon American immigration between 1882 and 1952, the period still witnessed the largest immigration surge (relative to the overall population at the time) in American history. And contrary to the fears of many native-born Americans of the era, the so-called "new immigrants" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did not, in the end, undermine American culture and society. Indeed, by the time the quota system imposed in the 1920s reduced the "new immigration" to a trickle, it had begun to become clear that the "new immigrants" were acculturating to American society just as fully as their "old immigrant" predecessors. Czechs and Poles and Jews and Italians made just as good Americans as had Germans and Englishmen. E pluribus unum.
Immigrants pour across America's borders in unprecedented numbers. They settle in overcrowded, ethnically ghettoized urban communities where the English language is rarely heard or spoken. They work in jobs offering brutal labor conditions and terribly low pay. Foreign-born radical activists stir up social and political discontent. Anxious native-born American citizens, reduced to a demographic minority within their own cities, clamor for government action to stop the immigrant influx. Their fears of the impact immigrants have on American society sometimes morph into ugly racial and ethnic resentments. Conflicts over immigration threaten to tear this self-proclaimed "nation of immigrants" asunder. And through it all, new immigrants continue to pour into the country, thousands of them arriving every single day.
If these sound like stories ripped straight from the headlines, they are. But they're not from foxnews.com or Lou Dobbs Tonight. No, these are the headlines that dominated American newspapers in 1882, 1901, 1917, and 1924. For nearly fifty years, spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the greatest wave of immigration in the history of the United States transformed American society and roiled American politics.
"History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain once said, "but it does rhyme." And the turmoil over immigration in America today does seem to resonate deeply with the contentious immigration history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But what is the next verse?