What does it mean to be a 'nation of immigrants?'

Not only are those who do not learn from history doomed to repeat it, they also miss an opportunity to learn who they really are. Such is the case with the debate over immigration, specifically illegal immigration. One side says “we are a nation of immigrants” and the other responds with “but it’s illegal.” Neither looks at the historic big picture.

Immigrants disembark at Ellis Island in New York harbor.

To say that America is a nation of immigrants is about more than just our origins. If you go back far enough, everyone here came from someplace else. The larger definition is that America was, and is, about a journey and a destination.

America has been described variously as a melting pot, a mosaic, a salad or a stew. In my view, it is a quilt. Yet none of these metaphors truly capture what America, or an American, is.

“America was not just a place, but an idea, and as such, the migrants destination was just beyond the horizon; a nation of sojourners in a nation itself on a journey,” wrote David Jacobson in The Immigration Reader: America in a Multidisciplinary Perspective.

We are the only nation in the world were real citizenship is not determined your social, racial, cultural or political status, or by where you or your parents come from, but by who you are and what you believe.

For most of our history there no such thing as an illegal immigrant because there were few immigration laws. The British and colonial governments encouraged immigration to America. Colonial governments even paid for transport, subsidized land purchases and gave bonuses to immigrants. The goal of these inducements was simple. America needed the labor to develop the continent.

Most early immigrants came from England, but later they came from other parts of Europe. By the time of the revolution, nearly one-third of Americans were of non-English origin. People came then for the same reasons they come now, freedom from tyranny, religious liberty and economic opportunity.

Each colony had its own rules for naturalizing immigrants, but they enjoyed somewhat less than full rights of British subjects, until the British Parliament passed a law to allow immigrants to become British subjects after living in the colonies for seven years.

Attempts by the British government to limit immigration to the colonies, and prevent their expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains become one of the issues of the American Revolution. Among the “long train of abuses” perpetrated by King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence was that the king “has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

“In their struggle to separate themselves from Englishmen, Americans began to see themselves as a unique people, bred from the frontier and from the mingling of several nationalities,” wrote William S. Bernard (The Immigration Reader).

The issue of immigration and naturalization was debated in the Constitutional Convention, where West Indies-born Alexander Hamilton urged that immigrants be given equal status with other citizens. James Madison wrote, “America was indebted to immigration for her settlement and prosperity. That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts.”

As a result, the only restriction on immigrants in the Constitution was that the president be a “natural born” citizen. As in colonial times, each state handle the naturalization process, under rules set down by the Congress.

Under what Philip L. Martin, chair of the University of California’s Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, calls a “laissez-faire immigration policy” states, private employers, shipping companies and railroads, and churches promoted immigration.

With federal government encouragement and subsidy, private companies recruited Asian labors, mostly Chinese, to build America’s transcontinental railroad system. About one-third of the U.S. Army regulars were immigrants. Meanwhile, high tariffs kept European goods off American shelves and protected American jobs.

This is not to say Americans were always totally comfortable with immigrants. “Immigration always has been controversial in the United States,” writes Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. “More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that too many German immigrants would swamp America’s predominantly British culture.”

In 1798 a Federalist-controlled Congress, alarmed by the growing support for revolutionary France in their war with England, passed the Alien Act. This raised the citizenship residency requirement to 14 years. It was a blatant attempt Federalists to suppress support for the Democratic-Republicans Party among the immigrants, who favored France. Sound familiar?

In the 1840s, the second great wave of immigration, mostly of Roman Catholic Irish, sparked the first organized anti-foreign movement embodied in the “Know-Nothing” Party. None of their ideas were enacted into law but the stage was set for the next phase of U.S. immigration policy.

This began in the late 19th century when Congress began placing qualitative restrictions on immigration. Convicts, prostitutes, “mental defectives,” and illiterates were barred. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked almost all immigration from that country, after the railroads were built, or course.

Finally, following World War I, Congress began setting immigration quotas. As the Cato Institute notes, these quotas “were designed to preserve the country’s existing racial and ethnic composition.” From this point on mathematics and politics became the dominate factors in immigration, not liberty and economic opportunity.


Chapter 60, Cato Handbook for Policymakers

The Immigration Reader: America in a Multidisciplinary Perspective

Working Paper CIIP-2 Immigration in the United States