“The Anti-Chinese Wall — The American Wall Goes Up as the Chinese Original Goes Down.” Cartoon by Friedrich Graetz, published in Puck in 1882. (Library of Congress)

America’s love-hate relationship with immigrants

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Oddly for a nation made up mostly of immigrants, the United States has always had a problem with immigration. Long before President Trump called for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, generations of Americans have advocated limiting immigration to the country. Most recently, Trump endorsed a plan to cut legal immigration by half.

In the 1800s, the Irish were a favorite target, and newspaper wants ads commonly included the phrase “No Irish need apply.” Later in the 19th century, anti-immigration sentiment was codified in federal laws that singled out Asians. Later federal laws targeted Italians and Southern Europeans.

OLD WAVE NEW WAVE POST-1965 WAVE 0 0.5 1 1.5 2 million immigrants 1850 1900 1950 2000 ’15
Total number of immigrants granted permanent U.S. residency, 1840-2015. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Scholars have identified three waves of immigration: the first era, the second era and the current era. As the U.S. once again debates who should be let into the country, perhaps it’s time to review major immigration laws passed from 1870 to the present day. Some tried to bring order to the immigration process. Others aimed to keep out those perceived as un-American.

FIRST ERA

The ‘free white persons’ and Asian ‘coolies’

0 200 400 600 800 thousand immigrants 1889 1880 1870 1860 1850 1840 Immigration law passed Immigration law passed
Total number of immigrants granted permanent U.S. residency, 1840-1889. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Poor and unskilled immigrants from Northern Europe and Asia poured into the United States in the mid-1800s. Most of the European immigrants were German and Irish, and under the law they were considered “free white persons” able to achieve citizenship.

Citizenship wasn’t an option for the growing numbers of Chinese and Asian immigrants settling on the West Coast. A cheap source of labor for mines, farms and railways, the Chinese were called “coolies.” The word originally meant “unskilled laborer,” but became a slur hurled at workers who labored for low wages or came to the U.S. as indentured laborers. Chinese women were largely assumed to be prostitutes.

Germany Ireland United Kingdom Canada and British North America Norway-Sweden 4.2 million 3.2 2.5 1 883,000
Top sources of immigration, 1840-1889. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

In Los Angeles, the backlash against Asians culminated in 1871 with the Chinese Massacre. A mob of more than 500 white men killed at least 18 Chinese men and boys near downtown. No one was ever convicted of the killings.

The growing animus against Asians across the country led to discriminatory laws that would remain on the books for decades.

Major immigration laws

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    Chinese miners in Idaho Springs, Colo., in the late 19th century. (Denver Public Library)

    “[The Chinese] strengthened our nation’s infrastructure, only to be prosecuted when their labor was seen as competition and when the dirtiest work was done" — Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), during debate in 2012 before the passage of House Resolution 683 expressing regret for the treatment of Chinese migrants


    SECOND ERA

    Southern Europeans not welcome

    0 0.5 1 1.5 million immigrants 1924 1920 1910 1900 1890 Immigration law passed Immigration law passed
    Total number of immigrants granted permanent U.S. residency, 1890-1924. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

    During the next wave of immigration, from the late 1800s to the 1920s, immigration laws continued to target Asians, but also tried to discourage immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

    Roger Waldinger, a UCLA distinguished professor of sociology, said the laws passed during this era "set a low limit on total immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere and virtually stopped migration from Asia."

    Italy Austria-Hungary Russia and Poland Canada and British North America United Kingdom 4.3 million 3.7 3 1.7 1.5
    Top sources of immigration, 1890-1929. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

    The poor, the sick and those espousing certain political beliefs were barred from entry into the U.S. under other new laws. Laws discouraging immigration from Southern Europe — mainly from Italy — reflected widespread anti-Catholic sentiment. Italians were frequent targets of abuse and one of the most infamous mass lynchings in U.S. history occurred in New Orleans, where 11 Italians were attacked and killed by a mob in 1891.

    After World War I, immigration decreased dramatically with the passage of more restrictive legislation. Permanent residency status grants went from 1.2 million in 1914 to a little more than 110,000 in 1918.

    Major immigration laws

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      A political cartoon highlighted the literacy test immigrants would face under the Asian Barred Zone Act advocated by U.S. Rep. John Lawson Burnett of Alabama. (Library of Congress)

      CURRENT ERA

      Secure the border and build the wall

      0 1 2 million immigrants 2015 2010 2000 1990 1980 1970 1965 Immigration law passed Immigration law passed
      Total number of immigrants granted permanent U.S. residency, 1965-2015. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

      The immigration control system in place today began to take shape with passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which eliminated the quota system based on national origin.

      Mexico China India Philippines Korea 16.2 million 3.1 2.7 2.3 1.7
      Top sources of immigration, 1965-2015. Sources: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

      Reflecting larger, global conditions, later laws addressed refugees, border security or illegal immigration. The most far-reaching legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, a law that, depending on the point of view, is hailed as groundbreaking or denounced as a huge mistake. In addition to immigration laws passed by Congress, two executive actions by President Obama also prompted praise and criticism.

      Major immigration laws and executive orders

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        Warning signs and an eight-foot fence were installed in the early 1990s to discourage dashes across Interstate 5 by immigrants trying to evade detection near San Diego. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

        Immigration under the Trump presidency

        President Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, has stepped up deportation efforts and continues to call for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

        In a series of executive actions, Trump has also tried to temporarily halt refugee resettlement and bar travel from six Muslim-majority countries. The motivation driving these efforts, Trump says, is national security.

        Trump’s executive actions continue to be challenged in the courts, and how those cases will be resolved is anybody’s guess.

        But one thing is certain. The nation’s demographics will continue to change and immigration, no doubt, will remain part of the national conversation.

        According to Pew Research Center studies, in less than 40 years, there will be no ethnic majority group in the U.S., and by 2065, Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group.

        Executive orders

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          (David Horsey/Los Angeles Times)

          Sources: Migration Policy Institute, Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian

          Credits: Additional programming by Chris Keller. Library of Congress, Historical Collections, Security Pacific National Bank, Migration Policy Institute, Los Angeles Times Library