Posted on September 29, 2014


The first immigrants to North America were the ancestors of the American Indians.
They wandered across the Beringean land bridge between Alaska and Siberia during one of the Ice Ages, hunting and gathering, slowly making their way down into North, Central, and South America.

The second wave of immigrants were your ancestors and mine–conquistadors, English merchant-adventurers, gold hunters of all stripes, dissenters (Puritans for example), French priests, ministers, government bureaucrats (they have always been around)—all who arrived, much to the astonishment of the Indians, on their lands beginning in the sixteenth century.

No one had passports or green cards. They weren’t invented yet.

No one asked the Indians if they could be there. They just showed up.

Some early settlers, like the Dutch in New Amsterdam (later New York) did actually purchase Manhattan island from some locals for about the equivalent of $24, which was a pretty good bargain. Later on it turned out that the Indians who sold them the land were actually from Long Island, so land swindling got started early in our part of the New World.

Relations between Native Americans and the newly arrived Europeans, often starving after their first winter sponging off the Indians, deteriorated over the next century. The old adage about immigration among modern Indians is that if you want to know the perils of open borders, just look at what happened to us.

A large proportion of new immigrants were indentured servants, free English or Scots Irish people who signed a contract to work for six or seven years in the colonies for the price of the passage to the New World. I always caution over zealous Georgians or Virginians who claim their ancestry as far back as the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries to be very careful; more than likely their ancestors were indentured servants, jailbirds, prostitutes, the lowest of the low in English society. There were very few Sirs and Lords among them.

In fact, much of early Georgia in the 1730s was populated by emptying the jails of England.
By the nineteenth century, the population of the original thirteen colonies, now the United States, began to swell from two major factors: the push factor and the pull factor.

The push factors were demographic pressures and political conditions in other parts of the world. The population explosion across Europe led to increased pressure to immigrate to the United States. Many simply wanted to escape the old static world of Europe and start anew; some, like Jews, wanted to escape pogroms and persecution in places like Russia.

The pull factor was the United States itself, a land where it was said anyone with energy and desire could make a new, free and prosperous life among the growing industries, wide open spaces and lands beckoning with new opportunities. Think the Statue of Liberty which was inaugurated in the early 1880s.

Largely unregulated immigration ended in the late nineteenth century. Various immigration laws were passed barring unchecked Chinese and Asian immigration, responding to a wave of anti-Asian sentiments termed the yellow peril. In the early twentieth century waves of immigrants, especially from Central and Southern Europe, rose to over a million a year, and various immigration acts followed to restrict the flow and regulate it in some fashion that reflected U. S. values.

For those who espouse and/or think that open borders is truly American, you might consider who the Immigration Act of 1917 barred: “homosexuals, idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, epileptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars, all persons mentally or physically defective, polygamists, anarchists and all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate.”

In the 1920s the quota system was inaugurated. It limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890. Chinese, Japanese, Arabs and Indians were prohibited specifically.

It was only in the 1960s that the national origins quota system was abolished, opening immigration to much of the world.

The issue of immigration is an immense tangle of interests that no politician seems able to resolve. We can’t even agree on an overarching idea to write the bill with the specifics.

Let me suggest that there does exist an overarching idea that has worked in this country for more than four hundred years. Immigrants have made this country what it is. Is there anyone reading this who is not descended from immigrants?

The job of the federal government is to revise the framework of law governing immigration into our country. And it must ensure that it is consistent with our concepts of law and order, preserving the integrity and security of our world, but not cutting off the lifeblood of what and who we are.

Published in my column The Port Rail as An Historical Look at Our Nation’s Lifeblood in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday September 28, 2014.

Posted in: History, immigration