WARNING: This article contains personal opinion.
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-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These are the words of poet Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty, erected in New York harbor in 1886. Perhaps one more phrase should have been added to that poem:
As long as they come from predominantly Anglo-Saxon-Germanic stock.
In the first 100 or more years after the first Europeans arrived in North America, almost all immigrants were welcomed. While the English-speaking settlers didn't really trust the Dutch or the German settlers, the fact is that the new continent needed many strong men and women willing to work hard to settle the land. Political, cultural, and ideological differences were significant, but they did not stop immigration.
In the late 1700s, King George III of England was alarmed when thousands of his subjects wished to leave England to settle in America, where the King exerted less influence and more freedom was available. He tried to slow emigration to the Colonies. The colonists responded by furiously accusing the King of trying to "prevent the population of these states."
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention after the American Revolution, James Madison declared, "That part of America that has encouraged [immigrants] has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts." America's founding fathers made sure that America would be free and open to all immigrants. Or so they thought.
The Federal government imposed no restrictions on immigration until 1882 and then only sought to deny entry to lunatics, convicts, and idiots.
About the same time, the wave of immigrants started to come from different directions. Until the 1880s, most immigrants were from the British Isles and northern Europe. Most were Protestants. Starting in the 1880s, more and more started arriving from Catholic southern and eastern Europe. Jews started arriving in large numbers from the same lands as well. Oriental immigrants were arriving on the country's western shore. Conservative politicians decided the rising tide of immigration should be slowed, if not stopped. The intent was to keep out "the undesirables."
An article by Cynthia Crossen published in the Yale Global Online describes how immigration quotas were first enacted. The politicians and bureaucrats used the 1890 U.S. census to count the number of foreign-born immigrants already in the U.S. and determine how many came from each country. Thereafter, 2% of the total of each nationality would be admitted annually. These laws slowed immigration and also reduced the effect of America's "melting pot."
NOTE: This all happened before the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire on January 10, 1921.
Had these laws gone into effect years earlier, many of us would not be here today to enjoy our freedoms and legal rights as native-born American citizens. Our ancestors would have been locked out, just as many later would-be immigrants were barred. Actually, much of America was built by these hordes of "undesirables" from eastern and southern Europe as well as from the Orient. Our society has benefited greatly from "the undesirables" and their descendants.
Immigration remains a contentious issue in the U.S. today as people from every part of the globe try to enter the country. I find it amusing that the descendants of earlier immigrants are trying to block others from doing the same today. In effect, many are saying, "Now that my family has already arrived, let's lock the gates behind us."
We no longer willingly accept the tired, the poor, or the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Maybe we should rip the poem off the base of the Statue of Liberty.
You can read more about the use of census records to determine the formula for limited immigration in Cynthia Crossen's article at http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=6785
My thanks to Glen Gallagher for telling me about Cynthia Crossen's article.