Immigration and Discrimination
Americans have extended an ambivalent welcome to newcomers. In the mid-nineteenth century, employment posters often read “Irish Need Not Apply.” Today United States Border patrol officers seek to keep Mexican and other Latin American immigrants out of the country. Yet, America is a nation that was founded by immigrants.
In the early years of the republic, Federalists sought to make it harder for European immigrants to become naturalized citizens. They thought that they might be contaminated by the radical ideas of the French revolution. The nation’s first naturalization law barred black immigrants from obtaining citizenship. The first attack against immigrants occurred as a result of the surge of immigration in the 1840s and 1850s. This assault was directed by establish immigrant groups (the descendants of settlers from Britain and northwestern Europe) at unfamiliar newcomers, particularly the Irish.
The Federalists were apprehensive that the Irish would take jobs away from American workers and lower their wages. Furthermore, taxpayers would have to “foot the bill” for the strains the newcomers imposed civil services such as schools and hospitals. Nativists especially feared religious contamination. They claimed that the Catholicism of the Irish was alien to the Protestant values held to be indispensable to the preservation of American liberties.
The Irish eventually merged into the economic and political fabric of American life. In the late nineteenth century a massive new immigrant surge dominated. People of Southern and Eastern Europe came to America seeking economic opportunity and hoped to flee religious oppression, which renewed nativists’ fears. Race replaced religion as the basis for drawing invidious comparisons between established residents and newcomers. It was said that the newcomers were unfit democratic government and would endanger American civilization. This led to strict...