What does it mean to be American? Though American patriotism and nationalism have ebbed and flowed in the nearly 250 years of its existence, one reality has remained universally constant: American identity is predicated on diversity. America is the land of pluralism, the land of multitudinous backgrounds and beliefs, and the land of immigrants.
It is no wonder that immigration fights, debates and reforms have inundated our societal and political spheres for as long as we have existed. In 1790, just two years after the Constitution was ratified, Congress set the terms of what it meant to be "an American" with the Naturalization Act. This initial definition limited American citizenship to "free white persons" who have lived "under the jurisdiction of the United States" for at least two years. This very restrictive definition has since morphed into the current definition, which, though less confining, still limits immigration far more than many would like. This reality, steeped in centuries of identity crises, has cultivated the current rancor-rich debate over "proper" immigration policy.
Yet in order to properly understand the current debate in all of its nuance, it is essential to understand the waves of immigration that have sculpted the American psyche and brought us to the present.
The first major wave of migration, albeit forced, was the mass importation of slaves, predominantly from Africa, in the time period between America's founding and the early 19 century. Slave importation was banned in 1808, ostensibly ending this mass migration. African migrants' early and tragically immoral introduction to the United States has plagued America’s conscience arguably more than any other historical event. Their presence resulted in seminal legislation and legal decisions, most notably in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all of which have helped define American identity.
The second mass influx of individuals from foreign countries into the United States was the result of famine, revolution, and the emergence of industrialization. These three realities combined resulting in numerous Irish, German, and other European immigrants flooding into the United States just a decade and a half before America's own civil war. Though roughly 40 years before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the world's tired and poor sought refuge in the new, promising land of America. This huge influx renewed the European heritage of young America such that until the 1970s, the majority of naturalized citizens in America were born in Europe. The shear volume of immigrants during this period also created much of the impetus behind expanding and honing the quota system still at the heart of much American immigration debate.
The third major wave of American immigration came in the form of laborers from Central and South America. This wave has prompted intense debate across the political spectrum that reaches every policy sphere. The breadth of this spectrum of opinions has exhibited everything from xenophobia to policy opinions that raise substantial security concerns. Regardless of one's opinion on the massive population of Hispanic individuals currently residing in the United States, it is important to understand this population's historical relationship with America. In 1848, the U.S. signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which incorporated 80,000 Mexicans into the United States without their consent overnight. The geographic proximity to Central America, coupled with the massive and porous Southern border, contribute to the overwhelmingly large migration of Hispanic laborers.
However, it should be noted that U.S. policy initiated this tide. World War II resulted in a shortage of American laborers and prompted the creation of the Bracero Program in August 1942. After an estimated 3 million Mexican laborers migrated to the United States in hopes of amassing wealth, exploitation and overwhelming numbers of migrants prompted the United States to end the program in 1964. Yet, the flow of migrant workers continued resulting in the massive number of undocumented immigrants present in America today.
While most individuals acknowledge that something must be done (whether wholesale deportation, universal amnesty, or something in between), understanding America's tumultuous immigration history is a critical point from which to begin the discussion. Though security concerns and policies to stem the tide of an untenable influx are present in America's current immigration debate, the heart of the immigration issue is on what to do with the undocumented individuals already in the United States. When answering this question, let us bolster our opinions with our own history and remember the words of the poem The New Colossus inscribed at the base of our icon of liberty:
"Give me…your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,