United States Immigration in the 20th Century

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From its inception in the 1700’s up until the 20th century, immigration policy within the U.S. was limitless. Anyone who could afford passage aboard a boat from their home country could enter the United States and live unconditionally. This changed slightly with the adoption of the 1882 Immigration Act. With this act, the federal government imposed a tax of 50 cents per person, in the hopes that it would keep out immigrants that were “idiots, lunatics, convicts and persons likely to become a public charge” (KQED). Shortly after the act was adopted, at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. experienced the most dramatic increase of immigration in its history. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 14.5 million people were admitted into the United States (KQED). While Americans welcomed the immigrants – it needed them as laborers – the sudden influx of people also created a strain on the system, as the infrastructure of the U.S. was not yet set up to handle such a high population. As a consequence, immigration policy drastically changed during the 20th century, resulting in the strict policies that today dominate the issue of immigration in America.

The immigrants at the turn of the century were generally from northwestern and eastern Europe – England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Greece, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain and Turkey (KQED). Prior to the 20th century, there had also been a high percentage of immigrants from China entering on the U.S. via the west coast. However, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act completely barred further immigration of laborers from China. However, Chinese merchants, students and diplomats were still allowed to enter. The 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan also limited the number of Japanese allowed to immigrate to America – only the educated and business classes were allowed to immigrate to America (Zolbert).

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Immigrants entering from the east coast of the United States generally came through Ellis Island. Ellis Island is a small island in the New York Harbor (Ellis Island). While originally the island was only 3.3 acres in size, it was enlarged to 27.5 acres over the years. It is owned and operated by the federal government. During the time it was open, over twelve million immigrants passed through, leaving their old nationality behind and emerging as U.S. citizens (Ellis Island). By 1924, Ellis Island was not needed for immigration purposes as most new arrivals obtained visas though consulates in their own countries before immigrating. Today, Ellis Island is a museum and visitors system and is a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument (Ellis Island).

Immigration policy became increasingly limiting throughout the 20th century. In 1924 the Johnson Act severely limited the number of Europeans who could immigrate to the U.S. In 1965, President Johnson further limited the amount of annual immigrants to the United States to 170,000, with no more than 20,000 from each of the eastern Hemisphere countries. However, immigration policy did not deter Mexican immigrants as these immigrants were still considered valuable laborers to industry (Zolbert).

Today, there is much debate in the United States over the immigrants from Mexico. There are many industries – agricultural, construction, etc – that continue to depend on Mexican immigrants to meet their labor needs. However, many of these immigrants are undocumented (“illegal”). It is my belief that there should be a better pathway to citizenship in order to allow workers to become legal, tax paying citizens. It is obvious that current methods of deterring illegal immigrants are ineffective and expensive. There will always be jobs available for Mexican immigrants and the current state of affairs in Mexico guarantees that there will be no shortage of those desperate enough to risk their lives in order for an opportunity to work and live in America.

  • Ellis Island – History (2010) Retrieved from ellisisland.org website: http://www.ellisisland.org/
  • U.S. Immigration: A brief history of immigration laws from the 19th century into the 20th century (2013). Retrieved from KQED.com website: http://www.kqed.org/
  • Zolbert, A. (2006) Rethinking the Last 200 Years of US Immigration Policy. Migration Information Source Retrieved from http://www.migrationinformation.org/

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