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A renewed immigration debate and immigration restriction

The size of the new immigration and the altered job market resulted in larger urban immigrant quarters than Americans had ever seen. Crime, overcrowding, insanitary conditions and epidemics in immigrant ghettos caused alarm and reform before the Civil War. Now these problems seemed insurmountable, and many Americans doubted that the more ‘exotic’ foreigners could he assimilated into society. Reactions to the situation in the cities were various. Reformers established ‘settlement houses’ and charities to help immigrants adjust, worked to Americanize them and fought for better housing and parks. Some saw that the ghettos were important buffer zones where immigrants could use their mother tongues and follow old-country traditions while gradually adjusting to the USA. Others concluded that the ghettos proved that restrictive immigration laws were needed.

In 1909, Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot popularized the idea that the diverse groups in the USA would eventually fuse many races and cultures through

intermarriage and become a new people. To many a native-born reformer, that

was a more radical version of the melting pot than they could accept, and to them

the metaphor meant that the immigrants should conform to Anglo-American

culture, for their own good. Nativists of the time could not imagine a greater calamity than such a melting-pot mongrelization’ of the white race. An opposing, traditional view was that the USA should be an example of what Horace Kallen called cultural pluralism’, the belief in a collection of cultures united by loyalty to the same political and civic ideals. But pluralists had long split over the issue of race. The founding fathers, for example, made the national motto ‘e pluri bus unuin’ (out of many one), but in the Naturalization Act of 1790, they permitted foreigners to become American citizens only if they were white.

Restriction, even regulation of immigration, was slow to develop in the USA, which encouraged immigration and, until 1875, only asked local authorities to count immigrants. Foreigners could become citizens in five years and vote as soon as they applied for citizenship. Finally, in 1891, the federal government took responsibility for regulating immigration and the next year opened Ellis Island, the famous screening depot for immigrants in New York Bay. In the 1 920s, however, those who believed the USA could not successfully integrate so many immigrants won the passage of severely restrictive, racist immigration laws. The National Quota Acts represented the climax of a campaign for restriction that achieved its first result in 1 875, when the federal government began a piecemeal listing of banned groups that, in time, included convicts, prostitutes, the Chinese, lunatics, idiots, paupers, contract labourers, polygamists, political radicals, the Japanese and illiterates.


The influence of eugenics, the pseudo-scientific racism of the early 1900s, which purported to prove experimentally the superiority of Anglo-Saxons over all other ‘races, was evident in the list and later legislation. So was the combination of First World War super-patriotism that demanded 100 per cent Americanism, and the ideological insecurity that grew after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finally in 1921, Congress passed the first general limitation on immigration, the Emergency Quota Act, that drastically reduced the annual number of European newcomers to 358,000 (less than a third of pre-war levels), and introduced nationality quotas. Each European nation’s allotment of immigrant visas per year equalled 3 per cent of the foreign-born in the USA from that country at the federal census of 1910.

The dissatisfaction of restrictionists with this law revealed the groups they feared most, Asians and the new immigrants from Europe. In 1924 the Asian Exclusion Act ended all immigration from Asian nations, and a National Origins Quota Act reduced European nationality quotas to 2 per cent. More important, it moved the census for counting the foreign-born of each group back to 1890, when only small numbers of new’ immigrants were in the USA, so that their quotas became much smaller. The 1924 Act also introduced a new concept, national origins quotas, based on the accumulated part of the American population of each European national background between 1790 and 1920, which cut the quotas for all European nations hut the United Kingdom by one half to two thirds. In 1929, when the national origins quotas went into effect, Britain’s was 65,361, while Italy’s, for example, was 5,802 and Syria received the minimum of 100 visas. This narrow, specifically Anglo-American definition of the national identity remained the legal framework for immigration to the USA until 1965.


Date: 2016-04-22; view: 599

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