Immigration History: A Cycle

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History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man. -Percy Bysshe Shelley

When we look at the history of immigration in this country there is a pattern that emerges, a pattern that helps us understand where we are today. There are many examples to choose from, but the history of Chinese immigration in the 1800’s is very telling.
With the discovery of gold in California and the Gold Rush of 1849, there was a large influx of Chinese immigrants. They were initially welcomed and proved crucial to the development of the Transcontinental Railroad, working on the Central Pacific from 1864 to 1869.

However, when the economy declined after the Civil War, Chinese were seen as a threat to native workers. They were blamed for lowering wages and unemployment and quickly became the object of widespread discrimination.

As an excellent article from the North County times of San Diego explains, immigration follows a cyclical path of welcoming immigrants in times of growth, and then kicking them out when they need an economic scapegoat:

The Chinese Exclusion Act illustrates a pattern in the nation’s immigration history: Rules are relaxed to encourage immigration during times of prosperity and tightened when the economy struggles. Prior to 1882, the United States imported Chinese laborers by the thousands to work in the mining and railroad industries. Thousands were deported after the act passed, and it was not formally repealed until 1943. The rhetoric in the 1880s against immigration echoes in the arguments made today.

A standing committee of the House and Senate on immigration was created in 1889. It delivered a report to Congress that said:
“Those who came to America in the early years were largely composed of honest, industrious people in sympathy with our form of government, proving a most desirable addition to our population,” the committee wrote. “But can this be said of a large portion of the immigrants we are now receiving? The Committee believes not. … They have proven a lawless, turbulent class. … Many are of a very low order of intelligence … and come here with no intention of becoming citizens.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was only repealed in 1943 because at that time China had become an important ally in World War II. It is also important to note the role war plays in the immigration story.

Soon after the country entered World War I, a labor shortage confronted the nation. More than 50,000 Mexican workers were allowed in as indentured servants, according to historian Constantine Panunzio. The workers were brought to fill specific jobs and were barred from seeking work elsewhere.

But…

After the Great War ended, the Great Depression brought on one of the most shameful and least studied eras in the nation’s immigration history. An estimated half million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were indiscriminately repatriated during the 1930s, according to historian Abraham Hoffman.

This country, with its drive to develop, produce, and grow has always needed immigrants to play their part in the Dream. From its infancy the United States depended upon the people that came in search of a better life and brought with them the determination and resistance that only poverty, war, and other hardships can instill in a person. This resiliency harvested, powered, built, and transformed the land.

However, as is all too evident in recent newscasts, economies suffer setbacks, crashes, downturns, and recessions. And when they do, the countries “boom” mentality of growth and abundance, becomes a fearful “bust” rhetoric of scarcity. Invariably, those who irrigated the land with their sweat are soon seen as the ultimate threat to the “natives” who alone deserve to enjoy the fruits of this land.

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