The United States has long been recognized as a country built largely from immigration. Although this has created a fairly diverse country, it also has fueled ethnic and other tensions between older immigrants and newer arrivals or potential immigrants. Although the home countries of many immigrants arriving to the United States have changed over the centuries, many immigrants today have opted to immigrate for similar reasons as those who came to the United States over a century ago. Also fairly enduring are some of the arguments for restricting immigration and opposing tighter restrictions to immigration.
Early 20th century advocates for tighter immigration restrictions offered several arguments against immigrants, or at least certain “less desirable” immigrant groups. Multiple authors that were in favor of restricting immigration did so on grounds of ethnic inferiority. Prescott F. Hall touts the accomplishments and superiority of the “Teutonic-stock which peopled this country down to 1880” and asserts that allowing poor immigrants from countries that did not traditionally provide immigrants to the country is “clearly at the expense of national character.” Robert De C. Ward was more blunt, comparing the “sound sturdy stock; akin to the pioneer breed which first peopled this country” and the possible result if the “material fed into the melting pot is a polyglot assortment of nationalities physically, mentally and morally below par, then there can be no hope of producing anything but an inferior race.”
Advocates for greater restrictions also contended that new immigrants and the children of new immigrants were less intelligent and had a higher rate of illiteracy than their U.S.-born counterparts. Another point that proponents of tighter immigration restrictions over a century ago made was that immigrants were proportionately more likely than U.S.-born citizens to partake in criminal activity and be guilty of pauperism.
Finally, most of the individuals writing in favor of stricter restrictions against immigration bring up the view that the influx of immigrants is responsible for increased unemployment and lower wages. Robert De C. Ward says that the presence of huge numbers of immigrants drove down wages and the best course of action for the U.S. was to slow immigration and industrial development to encourage ingenuity. Fairly, however, he blames unpatriotic American corporations that seek out cheap immigrant labor and pointed out, in regards to low-wage jobs, that it was only when “unskilled aliens began to come in considerable numbersthat these jobs began to be considered beneath the dignity of self-respecting Americans.”
Opponents of increased immigration restrictions refute all of the points made by the opposing side and additionally offer a moral argument about the American tradition of immigration.
In response to the arguments that immigrants and their children have lower literacy rates than the rest of the population, W.F. Willcox uses census figures to assert that the children of immigrants are proportionately more literate than “native white stock” and attributes this largely to the greater abundance of both immigrants ands schools in the North. Willcox additionally points out that a majority of immigrants in almshouses “have been in the United States longer than ten years,” so recent immigrants are not directly responsible for pauperism in the way advocates for tighter immigration say.
Finally, Willcox answers the allegation that immigrants contribute disproportionately to crime and prison populations, saying that, when taking into account major offenses, “the proportion of foreign-born whites committed to prison is almost exactly the same as the proportion of native whites of the same age.”
Jane Addams and other pro-immigration contributors assert that races are not inferior or superior, but certain groups receive a label of “inferiority” as a result of isolation and lack of opportunity. Addams also, rather than blame the immigrants for low wages and other poor work conditions, calls for a national system of labor exchanges and determines that “until industrial conditions in America are faced, the immigrant will continue to be blamed for conditions for which the community is responsible” and places some of the blame with average citizens that have negative attitudes towards immigrants and thus fail to act on behalf of immigrants.
In general, I think that the arguments made by the opponents of immigration restrictions are better because they are more valid and morally reasonable than the individuals or groups that wanted to slow or stop immigration and allow only the most desirable immigrants or immigrant groups to enter the United States. It is far too difficult to ignore the hypocrisy that advocates for immigration restrictions—both a century ago and at the present time—are guilty of when they argue that new immigrants should not be welcomed to the U.S. when they themselves are usually the descendent of many one-time immigrants. Additionally, in retrospect we can now see all of the flaws in arguments that suggest racial inferiority or superiority exists, thanks to science that has proven that this is not the case.
Robert De C. Ward, however, made a particularly resounding point when he accused large mining, railroad and other interests of being unpatriotic for taking advantage of cheap immigrant labor just for increased profit and also places some blame on native-born Americans for being unwilling to do certain disagreeable and degrading jobs and instead hiring cheap labor for these tasks.
Addams, Jane. “Pen and Books as Tests of Character.” Selected Articles on Immigration. Ed. Mary Katherine Reely. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1915. 219-220.
Hall, Prescott F. Journal of Social Science 44(1906):78-91.
Ward, Robert De. C. “Some Thoughts on Immigration Restriction.” The Scientific Monthly 15.4(1922):313-319.
Willcox, W.F. “Popular Delusions about Immigration.” Independent 72(1912):304-7.