HIS 203 American History to 1865
Instructor Eric Fox
May 28 , 2012
This paper will examine how immigration has transformed America from her earliest days as a nation, how immigration policies, and views on immigration, have changed so drastically, and how immigration continues to affect and change our society today. Also explored will be the arrival of America’s earliest immigrants, how these immigrants were viewed and treated by Americans, and the immigration battle that continues today with the flood of illegal immigrants pouring into America every day seeking safe haven from drugs, tyranny, and poverty.
According to the federal government’s 2010 American Community Survey, “The United States remains a nation that people from around the globe hope to call home” (McClatchy-Tribune News, n.d.). Simply put, America has been a creation of a mixture of cultures, religions, and different ethnic groups, and the term melting pot still applies today. Immigration began years ago during America’s earliest days. People were traveling to America in the hope of a better life, free to live their lives without tyranny, violence, and poverty. Not all of those immigrants found what they had been promised to expect, and many returned to their home country if they could afford to. But a large majority stayed and fought to make a better life, if not for them, then for their children. These immigrants felt great fear that they had made a mistake. No one spoke their language; they were in a foreign land, so most of them lived in in their ethnic neighborhoods, further preventing them from being assimilated into American life. The United States still today remains a “beacon of hope and symbol of freedom the world over and becomes even more attractive as succeeding waves of immigrants and their cultures continue to be folded into the durable fabric of U.S. society”(McClatchy-Tribune News, n.d.).
The early colonists were not considered immigrants; they were considered settlers as they were sent from another thriving continent, even though Native Americans had occupied America long before they arrived. It was those who arrived when America had already been settled and occupied that were considered immigrants. Immigrant is defined by Dictionary.com as a “person who immigrates to another country, usually for permanent residence” (Dictionary.com, n.d.). In the early days of America, the United States welcomed immigrants who were looking for a better life from their home countries due to poverty, starvation, lack of work, or religious prosecution, although there were a great many immigrants escaping criminal prosecution as well.
But long before the immigrants began to come to America for freedom and a better life, America’s history, most often thought of when mentioning plantations in the south, slavery ran rampant. African’s were brought to America by ship, living in the most horrible conditions on the journey where many died. They were treated as animals, less than animals. Bought, sold, traded, beaten, raped and starved, among those running plantations in the south. For many years this was accepted as normal by southern society, and wealthy plantation owners thought nothing of separating families by selling the father or young sons who could produce the most work. But when most people think of slavery, they think of the south, and forget that for two hundred years there had been slaves in all the old colonies of early America. Oh yes, those northerner’s who so despised slavery, who fought a destructive and devastating Civil War with the south over slavery, those same people in the north did indeed own, sell, trade, and abuse slaves. Slaves in the north were auctioned on the town square of the Market House of Philadelphia, in front of the churches in Rhode Island, in taverns and warehouses in Boston, and often in the Merchant’s Coffee House in New York. “Such Northern heroes of the American Revolution as John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin bought, sold, and owned black people. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s anti-slavery Secretary of State during the Civil War, born in 1801, grew up in Orange County, New York, in a slave-owning family and amid neighbors who owned slaves if they could afford them” (Durand, 2007, p.1). It is very difficult for us now, in this generation, to understand how early American’s could have treated a human being with such disregard. But we also have to look at how long and hard won African Americans have fought for their civil rights in this country, even up until the present day. But what one must remember is that not only were Africans slaves, there were many immigrants from overseas who would come to America and become indentured servants, the only way possible to escape their situations in their home countries, and those folks were not treated much better than African slaves, but at least they came to America of their own free will, hoping to work until they paid off their indenture and could be free to make a life of their own. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a beginning of labor market institutions created in response to the opportunities in America and the need for cheap labor. While many early immigrants came on their own to America, a vast majority came as indentured servants, and were of the white lower class population from overseas. One of the reasons that people chose indentured servitude was because of the high cost of passage from overseas. The cost of ship passage would most likely exceed as much as a half a year’s income for a typical citizen, not only those from Britain, but from Ireland, Germany, and the other surrounding countries. Most of those Europeans simply could not afford to stay where they were, but could not afford the fare for the passage to America. As a result, many Europeans decided to receive their passage fare by signing contracts, or as they were called at the time, indentures, binding themselves to work for a fixed number of years into the future with British companies who then “sold” them and their contracts to colonists. Others borrowed money for their fare and then committed to repay this money by selling themselves as servants, however there was an increased risk with this venture because they never knew what terms they would receive from their owners, and could not know the terms of their servitude ahead of time, but the benefit was that they could most likely choose their own master and where they would obtain employment. All in all, both prospects were risky, as they really never knew if their indentured contract would be honored, and many times it was not.
As we have always been taught in history classes, America has always been known as a “melting pot” and is a country that many people around the world wish to call home, and many, many, lucky ones do. As immigrants came into New York harbor in the earliest days, they would see the Statue of Liberty as a sign that they were finally free to live a life of their choice, and have a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children. The famous inscription has been memorized by many of those coming on ships from their own motherland, “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-tost to me, I life my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lazarus, 1883). What hope they must have had to read those words! However, once on shore in America they realized that no, the streets were not paved with gold, work was much harder to come by than they had previously thought, and had no idea of the discrimination they would face from every direction. As such, most immigrants were very disillusioned with what they found in America. Most work to be found was in dangerous conditions with very low pay, and housing was crowded and unsanitary. Most immigrants gravitated to their own communities and ethnic groups, the Chinese in the Chinese area, the Irish in the Irish area, and so on, which prevented full integration into society as it existed, and these immigrants found their circumstances to not be that much better than the homeland they had escaped from. But at least in these communities they could speak to people in their native language, practice their religions from their homeland, and enjoy their cultural celebrations from the home country. “An old Italian saying summed up the disillusionment felt by many: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and thirds, I was expected to pave them” (Kraut, 1982, p. 2). But in spite of all the adversity they faced, there were very, very, few who gave up and returned to their homeland.
After the 1890s, immigration suddenly moved from an all time low to an all time high of over nine million in the new century, but after 1914 immigration began to ebb again due to war and because of immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s. Now new immigrants were beginning to flee to America, but for different reason than those who came before them. The Industrial Revolution created even more jobs that the owners wanted cheap labor for and they advertised overseas to fill those jobs, such as the railroad, textile mills, and sewing shops. Now, “those immigrants who could not afford first or second class passage came through the processing center at the newly created in 1892 at Ellis Island, New York, and they handled twelve million European immigrants” (Kraut, 1982, p.1). The government was becoming much more strict on who was allowed in to America. The inspectors asked in depth questions to qualify these people such as, did they have money, relatives in the states, were they polygamists, or anarchist, and doctors examined them thoroughly to make sure they had no disease or handicapped. Many were released after several hours, but those who did not qualify, those that were thought to be criminals, anarchists, or carriers of disease were sent back to their homeland at the cost of the shipping lines.
Today, in current day America, the policy on immigration has become more difficult unless you complete the requirements of the government. New immigrants must live in America continuously for five years before becoming a permanent resident before they can apply for citizenship, and then they must complete the stringent requirements for naturalization, which could take up to another year. But America is still definitely a “melting pot,” and those that put in the time and effort the United States is still the “beacon of hope and symbol of freedom the world over and becomes even more attractive as succeeding waves of immigrants and their cultures continue to be folded into the durable fabric of U.S. society” (McClatchy-Tribune News, n.d.)
But now the United States is facing a dilemma it has never before had to deal with in such enormous numbers and that is the out of control flood of illegal immigrants, largely from Guatemala, Mexico, and other parts of South America. These immigrants, as the earliest immigrants, are fleeing drug wars, poverty, and persecution. They flee to the United States for hope of a better future for their families. But the majority of these immigrants do not follow the guidelines for obtaining citizenship, and as such, they can create dangerous conditions in America. This author has worked in the court system for many years and has seen firsthand the problems that illegal immigrants can cause. Many of these families have brought children to this country when they are just babies and obtain fraudulent social security numbers so that they can attend school. This is detrimental to these children because as they grow they cannot find legal work or obtain legal driver’s licenses, so they end up perpetuating the illegal process and drive without a license. If they have a wreck and someone is seriously hurt, that person is out of luck because the illegal immigrant has no insurance. Some very bright children cannot go on to college because they do not have the paperwork to attend. Their parents meant well in bringing them here, but their lives are still lived on the outside because they are illegal. They live in constant fear of being deported and sent back to a country that they do not even remember. The United States now faces the task and cost of deporting these people that are caught here illegally, and of trying to figure out how to be fair to those children who are now eighteen and nineteen years old and graduating from high school and do not know of any kind of life except in America. American citizens views of immigration is at an all time low due to the fact that illegal immigrants are obtaining jobs that the American economy is deeply in need of, and the anger that they obtain welfare, food stamps, and medical services that American citizens end up paying for. The government’s policies on immigration and how to deal with the flood of illegal immigrants is constantly changing as they try to figure out to stop this influx of immigrants. Yes, the United States is still a melting pot, and welcomes every race, creed, and color, but they insist that the procedures be followed to become an American citizen. With the way the economy is in America right now, there have to be restrictions in place to protect U.S. citizens and those that are working on becoming U.S. citizens. We still want those that are tired and poor, masses yearning to breathe free, and the persecuted from other countries, but those that wish to have these rights but obey the laws set forth by the United States.
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