History, History Column

The Complicated History of Immigration in America

by © 2023 Sarah Becker

“My opinion with respect to emigration is, that except of useful mechanics—and some particular descriptions of men—or professions—there is no need of extra encouragement,” President George Washington wrote in 1794. In 2020 25.6% of Alexandria’s population was foreign born.

Washington advised against the “settling of emigrants in a body” arguing that “by so doing they retain the language, habits & principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.” He preferred that emigrants intermix; “get assimilated to our customs, manners and laws: in a word, soon become one people.” As of 1795, U.S. citizenship required a five year residency.

In 2015 Wallet Hub ranked Virginia 8th overall for Hispanic assimilation. Virginia’s 2020 Hispanic population: 10.2%. Alexandria’s Hispanic population 16.5% of the city’s total.

“[T]he United States has never adopted any measure to encourage or invite emigrants,” Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote in 1819. “It has never held out any incitements to induce the subjects of any other sovereign to abandon their own country.”

“They come to a life of independence, to a life of labor—and, if they cannot accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political, and physical of this country, with all its compensating balances of good and evil, they may always…return to the land of their nativity,” Adams continued.

“To one thing they must make up their minds,” Adams concluded. “They must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity [to future generations] rather than backward to their ancestors.” [Italics added]

The power “to establish a uniform rule of naturalization” rests with Congress [U.S. Constitution: Art. 1, Sec. 8]. Emigrate describes the move relative to the point of departure. Immigrate describes the move relative to the destination.

“They came here—the exile and the stranger; brave but frightened—to find a place where a man could be a man,” President Lyndon B. Johnson [D-TX] said in his 1965 Inaugural Address. “They made a covenant with this land [and] it binds us still.” Today the Department of the Interior’s BLM estimates that “93 million Americans are descended from Homesteaders.” President Lincoln [R-IL] signed the 37th Congress’ Homestead Act in 1862.

“For over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system,” Johnson said. The 1929 Act was “an overt [numerical] attempt to keep the country’s ethnic ‘composition’ to what it had been.” The number of yearly immigrants permitted in 1929: 150,000. From 1931-post WWII: 100,000.

“Under existing law the quotas for each nation are fixed on the basis of 2% of the population represented in this country by the foreign nations in the census of 1890,” The Washington Post explained in 1929. “On that basis the countries of northwest Europe are entitled to 85% of the annual immigration.” The top three: England, Germany and the Irish Free State.

Disagreements between U.S. employers who depended on Mexican labor, particularly in agri-business, prevented Congress from putting numeric limits on Mexican immigration. The Undesirable Aliens Act of 1929 counted on the employment-based Green Card instead.

According to the U.S. Census in 1920 the aggregated total of American inhabitants was 106,021,537 persons; 179,323,175 persons in 1960; 331,449,281 persons in 2020 and an estimated 334,233,854 persons as of January 1, 2023.

In 1929 President Herbert Hoover [R-CA] was dealing not only with immigration but also an economic slump; Prohibition, “legal disobedience,” and political partisanship. “Raising the present barriers against immigration would result immediately in floods of immigrants surging into the United States,” Hoover concluded.

Author James Truslow Adams first described the American dream in 1931, in his book The Epic of America.  Though the Crash of 1929 signaled the beginning of the Great Depression, Adams argued there was also a spirit of progress.  He coined the phrase then explained “that ‘American dream’ of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank….”

White heiress and Alexandria developer Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas’ Depression-era vision of colored Rosemont was built with black homeowners in mind; homes later taken by eminent domain to make way for 1960s segregated public housing. Rental units were popular with the 1960s Democratic Byrd machine. Such units offered Dems opportunity: to selectively reward and or punish a politically dependent population. “By 1970, 75% of Alexandria’s residents lived in apartments,” The Washington Post reported.

President Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 “abolishing the quota system for immigrants” on October 3rd. The Act “established a limit of 170,000 on annual immigration from countries outside the Western hemisphere and put a ceiling of 120,000 on the number who could enter from within the Hemisphere.”

The stated order of preference: “immediate relatives of those who were already U.S. citizens or alien residents; professionals or others with special talents or education, and refugees who had fled a Communist dominated country [like Cuba], or the Middle East.” Skilled or unskilled laborers, of the type who established America’s pre-eminence during the industrial revolution, have been among the last to be accepted.

“This bill says simply that…those wishing to emigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here,” Johnson declared. “It is not a revolutionary bill.” In the last 50+ years “Far more relatives of citizens asked to be admitted than the State Department had expected.”

The accent on reuniting families…has drastically altered the immigration mix,” The Washington Post reported in 1966, “so much so, in fact, that an American-Irish Immigration Committee formed in New York City to protest the difficulty that the Irish were having getting in.”

In 1990, on President George H.W. Bush’s [R-TX] watch, Congress again approved broad immigration changes including a permanent Family Unity Plan. Approximately 1.5 million relatives benefited. The downside: by 1995-1997 the educational level of new immigrants was lower, immigration applications for Supplemental Security Income much higher. The means test relates more to family reunification, than job skills.

In 1998 Alan Reynolds, the Hudson Institute’s Director of Economic Research, argued “U.S. immigration policy serves primarily to increase the number of U.S. residents who lack even a high-school degree.”

“The assimilation of the principles, opinions, and manners of our country-men by the common education…of our youth from every quarter well deserves attention,” President Washington said in 1796. Today ACPS students “come from more than 80 different countries and speak more than 60 languages.”

Alexandria’s 2020 white population is 58.8%, down from 88.3% in 1960. According to the city, as of 2018 “white median household income ($122,401) more than doubled that of Hispanic or Latinx ($60,637) and Black or African American ($58,821) households.” The city dwells on racial divide trades based on averages then ignores the class divides within. By contrast the 2020 Census lists Alexandria’s median household income as $105,450; the per capita income as $68,640 and persons in poverty 9.6%.

Black inflows involved not only the transatlantic slave trade, but also the 1930s Great Migration from South to North: later blacks for whom education and homeownership were fundamental. In 1924 black residents were 50.88% of the city’s segregated population; 55.98% in 1947; then 21.6% in 2020. Much of Alexandria’s segregated black middle class: a market segment that included doctors and lawyers, barbers and business owners fled!—leaving “concentrations of poverty” i.e. public housing behind. Only 53% of public housing households had income from wages in 2017.

“The Immigration Act of 1965 changed the American narrative,” The Boston Globe concluded in 2008. “It transformed a nation.” So, too, did President Johnson’s 1968 Fair Housing Act, and Virginia’s 1972 Fair Housing law.

In 2020 the total number of Alexandria’s owner occupied housing units was 42.9%, up slightly from 37.6% in 1960. Less than the 64.6% of U.S. owner occupied housing units. Clearly, the city’s description of J.T. Adams American Dream has changed. Emigration itself, neither homesteading nor home ownership is the driver. Except maybe Governor Glenn Youngkin’s [R-VA] newly released Make Virginia Home Plan.

Alexandria became an Inclusion City in 2007. Federal funding flows, but still the city’s FY2024 budget remains unbalanced—an “estimated $17 million funding gap.” Last month the city began disbursing its $3 million, $500 per month, 24-month, lottery driven, 170 persons only, guaranteed median income program ARISE, a byproduct of the American Rescue Plan Act. ARISE’s cost-benefit measures are…?

“The net impact of immigration is difficult to isolate,” The Brookings Institution says. That said, how long can taxpayers; cities, states, and the federal government continue to underwrite immigration’s associated costs? Include; then continue to support—as President Hoover said in 1929, “the floods of immigrants surging into the United States.” Hoover, a Quaker whose religious Testimonies include Equality has a point.

Per the 2000, 2010 U.S. Census: Alexandria has more people per square mile than any other Virginia jurisdiction. The city’s 2020 count: 10,677 people per square mile, up 14.6% from 2010. As for households: 31.1% spoke other than English at home.

“Multiculturalism in its militant form…rejects the goals of assimilation and integration,” historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., explained. Moving forward Alexandria’s definition of one people is…? The intermixture of—English and education; knowledge and skills; employment and income; housing and neighborhoods are…?

“Three-quarters (75%) of Americans say they think the immigration system needs at least ‘major changes,’” Pew Research reports. President Joe Biden [D-DE] announced his Border Security plan on January 5, 2023. If only a bipartisan Congress had the courage to act.

About the Author: Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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