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Joe Puccio

U.S. History Midterm Paper

As since its construction in 1886, the statue of liberty in the public’s eye is a symbol of the hope and opportunity in the United States of America. Towering over Upper New York Bay on Liberty Island, the statue has greeted many millions of immigrants as they approach their destination: Ellis Island. While the excerpt, engraved on the statue, of the beautiful sonnet by Emma Lazarus states that America is open to receive “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, America’s attitude toward immigration has and continues to be mercurial.

Antebellum, the country was primarily populated by people of Northern European descent, such as the German, Scottish, Irish, and English. This changed with the war’s conclusion. It must be noted that technology played a major role in immigration to the United States after the end of the Civil War. By the 1840s, the average voyage length for ships from the British Isles was five to six weeks, with those from Europe taking approximately a week longer. Over the course of the 1850s, steamships became to represent a larger percentage of all the transport between Europe and the United States. After Civil War, the majority of immigrants arrived on steamships whose transport time was only around two weeks and became increasingly ephemeral as time approached the twentieth century. Therefore, in an analysis of the amenability of America for immigration, one must consider the ease of transport in addition to the conditions faced upon arrival. Both of these factors play an important role in immigration rates.

With the great advantages of this newly accessible technology, the years following 1870 brought a wave of immigration, including as many as 25 million Europeans primarily consisting of Poles, Greeks, Hungarians, and Italians. This and many other large influxes after the civil war prompted states to begin to pass their own immigration laws. Consequently, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in 1875 that immigration was a federal responsibly. Prior to this time, there had been no passed federal immigration laws in the united states, and it seemed as though America’s attitude toward immigration did Emma Lazarus’ sonnet no injustice. However, with the Page Act of 1875 (also known as the Asian Exclusion Act), Congress passed an immigration law that prohibited the entry to the country of immigrants deemed to be “undesirable”. Although the law specific that the “undesirable” were those who were coming from Asia to be a contract laborer or a prostitute, and all people, regardless of origin, who were considered convicts in their own country, this law signifies a point of change in America’s attitude toward immigration.

Only seven years later, in 1882, Congress passed what is known to be the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in the history of the united states. This Act stated that there was a limited number of immigrants of Chinese descent who could be admitted into the United States for 10 years. This law, renewed in 1892, and 1902, essentially made static the Chinese community in the United States. Another effect of this law was that it limited the ability for Chinese inhabitants of the United States to assimilate into the community as their people were not being treated as being equal to the European immigrants. Born from this time was the term “New Immigration”, which referred to the immigrants from areas previously untapped. As a result of this “new immigration”, changing political atmospheres, economic crises, and the personal bias of those whom currently inhabited America, many feared that America should no longer retain the descriptor of a “melting pot” but rather be considered a place of disposal for unwanted individuals from other countries.

As can be seen by the stringent immigration laws and intolerant attitudes from those all across American in the latter half of the 19th century, the notion that America was unconditionally open to accepting onto its shores the “tired”, the “poor”, and “huddled masses” suffered greatly. It was America’s distrust of these “new” immigrants, those people who they themselves resembled not more than a century earlier, that led to the languishing of the idea that America was a place of freedom and opportunity for all.