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The checkered history of immigration in the United States

Protesters assemble at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, January 28, 2017, after earlier in the day two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. On January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning all refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries for the next 90 days. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For more than 200 years, people have been immigrating to the United States from other countries. Sometimes there are many immigrants, other times there are fewer. The number depends on how open the U.S. government is to immigrants. It also depends on the mood of the country and world events.

There are many factors that affect immigration laws. The need for workers can make a difference. If there is dislike for people of a different race or religion this can also have an effect. Other factors include the availability of jobs and national safety concerns.

Alan Kraut is a historian at the American University. He says that the United States is pulled between being generous and looking at its own needs. We have the image of the Statue of Liberty welcoming all people. At the same time, we argue about who gets to be here, he says. 

President Donald Trump is making moves to build a border wall. He is also considering restricting refugees, or people fleeing from danger in their homelands, from coming to the United States. Now is a good time to look at how immigration has shaped our nation.

United States Most Welcoming For Its First 100 Years

The nation began to make immigration laws not long after the United States won independence from Britain, says a researcher named D'Vera Cohn.

One law from 1790 only allowed "free white persons" of "good moral character" who had lived in the United States for at least two years to become citizens. They required noncitizens to live in the United States for 14 years before becoming citizens. 

The United States was mostly welcoming for its first 100 years.

But it brought in slaves, too. Slaves were people who were brought to the United States against their will from parts of Africa. These people were treated as property, not citizens. In 1870, people of African origin gained citizenship rights. Still, though they were given the right to vote, many were not allowed to in southern states because of locally enforced laws.

The years from 1820 to 1870 saw many newcomers from Northern and Western Europe, mostly German and Irish. These immigrants provided much-needed labor. About one-third came from Ireland, where people wanted to leave because at the time, there was not enough food for everyone.

The gold rush and jobs on the transcontinental railroad also attracted Chinese immigrants.

Newcomers Attacked Over Race And Religion

Some people did not want these new immigrants here. They used differences of race and religion as excuses for attacking them.

Starting in 1875, the United States began to put restrictions on the types of immigrants it would allow. People with criminal records, people with diseases and people who were against the government were some of the people who were not allowed to come. Fewer immigrants were allowed to come from China. The new laws even allowed Chinese people who lived in the United States to be forced to go back to China. 

There was a need for workers, but the new immigrants were not always welcomed. 

Between 1881 and 1920, more than 23 million people came to the United States. They came mostly from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, from countries such as Italy, Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean was cheaper than ever and businesses in the United States were looking for workers.

Then came the Great Depression. Stricter laws were passed and the number of immigrants coming to the United States decreased for a long time. Limits called quotas were put in place for how many people were allowed to come in from each nation.

Fears Of Terrorism

Then, in 1965, the U.S. government put in place a new immigration law. It began to let in immigrants who already had relatives in the United States or had skills needed by employers. Since then, most immigrants have come from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe, according to Cohn.

Immigration started growing again. The immigrant population reached 43.3 million people in 2015.

The 1965 law is still the foundation of the U.S. immigration system. But there have been big changes made to deal with rising concerns about immigration without permission and terrorism. One law allowed people who had immigrated without government permission to become legal citizens. Other laws have allowed the government to turn away immigrants if the government is worried about terrorism.

And now, President Donald Trump's interest in building a wall at the U.S.-Mexican border and his consideration of a plan to suspend the U.S. program for admitting refugees show there is still plenty of tension around immigration and national safety.

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Anchor 1: What the Text Says

Read the section "United States Most Welcoming For Its First 100 Years."

Which paragraph suggests that immigrants serve a valuable function in American society?

Anchor 1: What the Text Says

Which section of the article highlights the idea that immigration can be discriminatory?


Introduction [paragraphs 1-4]


"United States Most Welcoming For Its First 100 Years"


"Newcomers Attacked Over Race And Religion"


"Fears Of Terrorism"

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

In the section "United States Most Welcoming For Its First 100 Years," immigration laws are introduced in what way?


by highlighting the importance of Britain in U.S. immigration history


by emphasizing that immigration has been an issue since the very beginning of U.S. history


by drawing the connection between immigration and independence from Britain


by explaining the necessity of good character for entering the United States

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

What is MOST likely the reason why the author included information about President Trump's ideas on immigration?


to show that his ideas are important for protecting the national security of the United States


to show that his ideas are bad for the future of immigration in the United States


to show that his ideas are completely different than anything the United States has experienced with immigration


to show that his ideas are a continuation of a long history of disagreement about immigration


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