Getting in before they closed the door
When did restrictions on immigration into the U.S. begin? The first comprehensive legislation to control immigration was enacted in the 1920s. But, as this excerpt from American Immigration by Maldwyn Allen Jones explains, the movement to restrict immigration began decades earlier:
The dedication ceremonies for the Statue of Liberty in October 1886 took place, ironically enough, at precisely the time that Americans were beginning seriously to doubt the wisdom of unrestricted immigration. In the prevailing atmosphere, Emma Lazarus’ poetic welcome to the Old World’s “huddled masses” struck an almost discordant note. Already the first barriers had been erected against the entry of undesirables. In response to public pressure Congress had suspended Chinese immigration and had taken the first tentative steps to regulate the European influx. Organized nativism, moreover, was just reviving after a lapse of a quarter of a century and would shortly be demanding restrictions of a more drastic and general nature. This renewed agitation was no passing phase. It marked, on the contrary, the opening of a prolonged debate which was not to culminate until the 1920’s, when the enactment of a restrictive code brought the era of mass immigration to a close.
Of all this there was barely a hint in the twenty years that followed Appomattox. Know-Nothingism had finally expired in the atmosphere of ethnic unity produced by the Civil War, and the mood of postwar America was such as to militate against a nativist revival. An appearance of social stability precluded any tendency to think of immigrants as a threat to the status quo, and a preoccupation with material growth led Americans rather to emphasize the economic value of immigration. Thus the 1860’s and 1870’s produced a flood of efforts to encourage immigration rather than to restrict it. Dislike and distrust of immigrants persisted, but remained in most places beneath the surface.
American Immigration is one of the classic texts in the Chicago History of American Civilization series.