Back in Unit 1, you read about the 1798 Alien Acts, which restricted immigration in response to fears about international threats. The Alien Acts didn’t last, but they hinted at the immigration restrictions that were still to come. Although the practice was relatively unrestricted for the first half of the 19th century, limits on immigration began to increase in the 1870s. These limits were often targeted at immigrants from specific countries.
EXAMPLEIn 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, prohibiting Chinese laborers from entering the United States. The law was revised over time but stayed in effect in one form or another until the 1940s.
Angel Island was a U.S. immigration station built to process the applications of immigrants arriving primarily from Asia. It was in full operation from 1910 to 1940 and was responsible for helping to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. About one million immigrants were processed at Angel Island. About 100,000 Chinese were detained.
One way detainees could tell their story was to carve their writings in the walls. Below is an example of poetry carved on the wall of the Angel Island immigration station's detention barracks (Lai, Lim, & Yung, 2014).
Primary Source Excerpt
Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?
I look to see who is happy, but they only sit quietly.
I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.
The days are long and the bottle constantly empty;
My sad mood, even so, is not dispelled.
Nights are long and the pillow cold;
Who can pity my loneliness?
After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,
Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?
By the 1920s, opposition to immigration was still strong in some parts of American society. The Immigration Act of 1924 introduced limits on immigration from more Asian countries by using a quota system based on national origin. The quota system also allowed more immigrants from northern and western Europe to enter the United States while reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe.
By the 1930s, immigrants had to navigate a complicated bureaucracy and strict immigration laws in order to come to the United States. Below we see a page from the 1931 immigration application of Ng Shee. As an immigrant from China, she was granted a visa only because her husband already lived in the United States. Although allowed to enter the United States, she—like other Chinese immigrants—was prohibited from becoming a citizen (Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, n.d.).
Navigating the complicated immigration process required a great deal of agility and problem solving . Immigrants used critical thinking to understand complex documents, and often to marshal evidence to make a case to immigration agencies. Many immigrants also had to gain new communication skills by learning English. And, in addition to these challenges, many immigrants struggled to join a society that did not welcome them.
To understand immigration restrictions, we need to consider their historical context—what else was happening when the restrictions were implemented. For instance, in the 1870s, many white Californians felt economically threatened by Chinese immigrants. They worried that the immigrants, who were desperate for employment, would accept lower wages and take jobs away from white workers. This is part of the historical context that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Like that act, the Immigration Act of 1924 was based in both nativism and fear of economic competition from immigrant workers. As you read earlier, fear of competition for jobs is still a cause of concern for people who want to limit immigration to the United States.
Historical context is key to understanding limits on immigration that were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As we’ll see in the next lesson, it’s also an essential part of examining one of the darkest episodes of U.S. history.
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Source: Strategic Education, Inc. 2020. Learn from the Past, Prepare for the Future.
Lai, H. M., Lim, G., & Yung, J. (2014). Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants On Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act). (n.d.). Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute. www.history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act