How has immigration changed over the centuries?

Amy Zhang
10 min readAug 8, 2020
Migrant children today are being detained and caged in inhumane conditions. Something needs to be done.

My parents came to America in 2000, with nothing but a couple of hundred dollars and hearts full of hope. Hope that they could find a better life, a better job, and a better future for their kids. They started from the bottom, with only a dingy apartment and an air mattress, and have built up their lives so much that they both graduated graduate school, had two kids, live in a two-story house in a suburban town, and have stable jobs. I will always be in awe of my parent’s strength and perseverance. They’re living what many immigrants call the “American Dream”. However, this “dream” was not (and still is not) a reality for millions of immigrants. How did we get to where we are in immigration today? Let’s rewind a bit in history.

After Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, Europeans started mass immigration to the Americas. Americans were America’s first immigrants; how funny is that? The first Americans mostly consisted of Europeans from Northern and Western Europe (England, Spain, France) seeking the three G’s: Gold, God, and Glory. However, many more Europeans came to the Americas to escape religious persecution and establish a refuge where they could practice their religion freely. Groups such as the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and the Quakers achieved this goal and formed the present-day states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Other Europeans took the voyage to America simply to search for a better life- a reason for immigration that still exists today. The number of Europeans immigrating to the New World kept growing and growing, and these Europeans eventually came to be known as “colonists”, with the first colony of present-day America being established at Jamestown, Virginia. It also must be acknowledged that millions of people also immigrated to the Americas against their will. During this colonial immigration phase, millions of African Americans were sailed across the horrific Middle Passage and were forced to live and work on American land, away from the land of their ancestors and culture. And that was the first wave of immigration to the Americas: early colonists and African Americans.

The second wave of immigration to the United States occurred after 1776- the start of the American Revolution. The immigrants who came during this era (approximately 1776–1850s) were primarily Germans and Irish. The Irish came in mass numbers due to the fact they were escaping the potato famine in Ireland, which was causing death, misery, and starvation in Europe. The Irish, generally impoverished, settled mainly in big cities, where they set out to find city jobs. About 4.5 million Irish came to the United States during this time. Also in the 19th century, the United States received 5 million German immigrants. Many of them journeyed to the present-day Midwest to buy farms or congregated in such cities as Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. In the national census of 2000, more Americans claimed German ancestry than any other group. This increase in immigration in post-Revolution years led John Adams, the second President of the United States, to pass the Alien Act of 1798, which was the first act in American history that limited immigration. This law raised the residency requirements for citizenship from 5 to 14 years, authorized the President to deport aliens and permitted their arrest, imprisonment, and deportation during wartime, and also made it harder for new immigrants to vote. In the early 1800s, a new idea known as Nativism emerged in American society. Nativism is the concept of favoring native-born inhabitants as opposed to immigrants. A number of political parties, such as the Know-Nothing/American Party formed as a result of Nativism, and these parties focused on being anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. The Irish especially faced massive backlash from the American population. This was mostly because the Irish were Catholic, which directly contradicted the mainly Protestant religion of most Americans. During the early Industrial Revolution, when factories were in full boom, many Irish in the cities were looking for factory jobs. Because they were so impoverished, they were willing to work longer hours for less pay just so they could get a job. Because the Irish were so willing to work for so little, factory bosses and corporations favored hiring them over American workers, who weren’t as willing to work so long for so little. This pitted the Irish and the Americans against each other, as the Americans accused the Irish of stealing their jobs, which furthered American dislike and hatred of the Irish. Political cartoons in newspapers portrayed the Irish as “drunken bastards” and were drawn as gorillas and monkeys. The anti-immigrant feelings of this era would pass over to later eras and would be prevalent in American society for decades, even to this day.

The third wave of immigration included several different groups, such as immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe (Italy, Russia, etc) and Asia (China and Japan). This era, known as the New Immigration era, took place from around the end of the Civil War to the 1920s. Immigration spiked during this era due to a multitude of reasons. First, the Gilded Age occurred, which was a time where big business and labor factories boomed, which drew in many immigrants for jobs. Secondly, the Gold Rush and mining were in full swing in California, which attracted many Chinese and Japanese laborers looking for work. These immigrants had to go through the famous checkpoint islands- Ellis Island for the European immigrants, and Angel Island for Asian immigrants. The European immigrants, on their way to Ellis Island, would catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, which became a beacon of hope and light for these immigrants. Seeing the statue meant they were close to their new life and home. The famous poem, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, reinforced the “American Dream” that many Europeans were seeking- a life full of liberty and freedom and opportunities without pain and suffering.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus

Now, imagine reading this poem, seeing the Statue of Liberty, feeling like all the pain and the struggles to get to America was finally worth it, and then being detained at Ellis Island and being refused entrance. Unfortunately, this was a reality for many immigrants on both coasts. Immigration officers would perform multiple background and physical tests, and any tiny thing wrong with your documents could leave you detained and refused entry. Any signs of a disability, disease, or illness would get someone detained. It was very difficult for most immigrants to even make it past immigration checkpoints. Sometimes, immigrants would be refused entry for no apparent reason. On Angel Island, many Chinese immigrants were refused entry and jailed for months before being released and sent back to China. Even if they were able to gain entry to the United States, immigrants would find themselves facing extreme poverty, horrible working conditions, and Nativism from Americans, making their lives extremely difficult. As labor increased, Nativism also increased, with many Americans using immigrants as “scapegoats” to blame all of America’s problems on them. Most new immigrants lived in slums and tenements, where conditions were downright awful, as depicted in photographs taken by Jacob Riis. Immigrants tended to group in these cities, as Americans strongly disliked them, and “towns” such as Chinatown and Little Italy emerged. The growing influence of Social Darwinism, the belief that Anglo-Saxon ancestry was superior to all other races, didn’t help immigrants either. In the West, many Asian immigrants tried to find work as miners and railroad workers. Soon enough, railroad companies realized the usefulness of hiring Chinese laborers to help build the first transcontinental railroad. The Chinese proved to be phenomenal workers, as they worked faster, more efficiently, and for less pay than white laborers. They ever complained, worked effectively and diligently, and soon gained the respect of many whites. However, when the railroad was done in record time, guess who didn’t gain ANY recognition? The Chinese laborers who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into that railroad. Unfortunately, this was a pretty common theme in American history: minority groups gaining no recognition for their unprecedented accomplishments. So, how were the Chinese rewarded? With the first immigration exclusion act- the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. This was followed by the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which allowed the government to impose immigration quotas to limit Japanese immigration.

The horrible treatment of immigrants was not helped by the First Red Scare of the 1920s. During this period right after World War I, fear of communism spread like wildfire as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union. Because communism directly contradicts capitalism, many Americans were afraid of communism spreading. This led to a fear of immigrants and radicals, as many immigrants were from eastern and southern Europe. This wave of hysteria led to the famous case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian radicals accused of murder and armed robbery. The two individuals were never convicted guilty or given a fair trial, but because they fit the description of anarchists who were a “threat” to American society, they were immediately executed. This case showed just how much fear was prevalent in American society, and this fear of communism would come in a second wave in the 1950s with the Second Red Scare.

As a result of the First Red Scare, the U.S. government passed two acts that severely limited the number of immigrants coming into America: The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924. The Emergency Quota Act established the nation’s first numerical limits on the number of immigrants who could enter the United States; the government limited each country’s immigration count to 3%. The National Origins Act severely restricted immigration by establishing a system of national quotas that blatantly discriminated against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and virtually excluded Asian immigration. These two acts stayed in place until the 1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Immigration Act of 1965. This law abolished the National Origins Formula, which had been the basis of U.S. immigration policy since the 1920s. Coupled with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, restrictions and quotas from immigration were virtually over. But this doesn’t mean that it’s easy to immigrate to the United States today.

In modern times, the United States sees a huge influx of Asians and Mexicans, and internal migration of Americans from the East coast to the “Sunbelt”, which are the more southern and western states of the United States. The immigrants coming here today face less discrimination than they did a hundred years ago, but they still face blatant racism and are characterized by stereotypes that are more harmful than good. Although it may be “easier” to immigrate to America for some groups today, this doesn’t mean all groups can immigrate to America to live out their “American” dreams. One of these groups is Mexicans. Over the past decade, America has been desperately trying to keep Mexicans from crossing the border. Due to this, many families have been immigrating without a green card, leaving them “illegal immigrants” because the U.S. government gives them no other choice. When the government tries to deport these illegal immigrants, it becomes a problem because their children are American citizens, as deemed under the fifteenth amendment, which gives people birthright citizenship. Families are often torn apart, and children are left without parents. Children are locked in inhumane looking cages at the border, and although government officials call them “detainment” camps, they’re in reality so much worse than that. Thousands of children are granted a legal stay in the United States with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and are called “Dreamers”. However, if they break just one law, no matter how minor it may be, they can be deported back to their home country, as demonstrated in Season 14, Episode 19 of Grey’s Anatomy, which sheds light on the unfairness and injustice of the immigration system. Sadly, the Trump administration has been working furiously to abolish DACA. Most Dreamers are American in every way except legally. They’re our friends, neighbors, workers; most of them don’t even have a life outside of the United States. I read a book by a woman named Sara Saedi called Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card last year. It’s about a young girl who immigrated illegally to the United States and stayed there in hiding for over a decade. They lived in constant fear that they would be discovered and deported. Saedi and her family were great people, hard workers, and had no reason to be denied a green card. But they were. After turning 18, she worked very hard to get her citizenship and it took her almost five years to do so. Why is it so hard to obtain legal status in the United States when you’re a good, hardworking person who does not harm America? This book opened my eyes to the hardships millions of families face every year. After all, many of these people just want a better life and a better future for their kids. The only reason I’m where I am today is because of my parent’s sacrifice, and to even imagine what my life would be like if they weren’t allowed legal immigration status twenty years ago is terrifying.

Given America’s horrible history with immigration and immigrants, it’s not too surprising that our society still is flawed and many people still embrace Nativism and strongly dislike immigrants. But society is changing- more and more people are fighting for change, and more and more people are becoming accepting of all people in the United States. So do your part: sign petitions, attend protests, donate money, and fight for the rights of immigrants. They deserve the same human rights as Americans should be; they should not be kept in cages and separated from the people they love- that’s just inhumane. Diversity and people who are of all creed, race, color, and come from different backgrounds is what makes a place so special. It’s what makes America special. How boring would it be if a place only had one type of people! It’s time for all Americans to embrace the diversity and stories that immigrants bring. Remember, they’re sacrificing everything just to come here, to give themselves and their family a better life, and they deserve to be treated with basic human rights, kindness, and dignity. The next time someone says they don’t like immigrants, don’t be shy to tell them they were the first immigrants in the United States.

Thank you for reading.



Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.