APUSH and Politics: Anti-Immigrant Political Movements

Alice Wanamaker, Editor-in-Chief

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As soon as U.S. citizens stopped being first-generation immigrants themselves, sentiment against this slightly removed sect began. When the first huge wave of immigration began, caused by European strife and new U.S. factories seeking labor, political parties immediately began to spring up, describing these new citizens as a problem that needed solving. Today, anti-immigrant sentiment has become a central argument of the Republican Party. The ideas today’s Republicans believe in are not unprecedented, but the configuration and context in which they appear is, in my opinion, more worthy of fear than past iterations have been.

The first major wave of immigrants to the non-colonized United States occurred when the Market Revolution made factory jobs readily available in the early nineteenth century. However, political maneuvers against immigrants began as soon as United States citizens stopped being European immigrants themselves. Our second president, the Federalist John Adams, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1787. Among other things, they increased the amount of time naturalization took from five to fourteen years and made it easier to prosecute and deport immigrants as enemies of the state. These regulations were intended to stop French immigrants from voting, as their interests tended to align with those of the Democratic-Republican party. Although the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed quickly and after widespread outrage, the controversy around them had very little to do with those specific measures. The Alien and Sedition Acts set a precedent for politicians ignoring the needs of immigrants in favor of U.S. citizens.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, manufacturing and industry vastly expanded in the northern half of the United States. At the same time, civil unrest and famine was an issue in many parts of Europe. These two factors caused waves of German and Scots-Irish immigrants to enter northern coastal cities and the Old Northwest. Since immigrants were willing to work for low wages, factories soon began to hire them for the jobs that citizens did not want to take. Some natural-born citizens were enraged by this situation; the Know-Nothing party was formed protesting the high immigrant population in the country. Furthermore, during this time, many reform movements occured in the North as a result of the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival. Expanded public schools were one of these reforms, and a central mission of these public schools was to help assimilate immigrants into the country and teach them about ‘American values’. To some extent, this was a positive change, as it gave poorer people more access to education than they would previously have had. However, a central motive of these educational opportunities was a fear of immigrants having different cultural values than those a few generations removed from their immigrant roots. The bad does not outweigh the good in this situation, but it should be recognized.

In the late 1840s, gold was found in California. The gold rush it caused is one of the largest and most famous mass migrations to date. A great deal of U.S. citizens moved from coast to coast, but many people came from other parts of the world as well: many were from South America, and Chinese people made up ⅓ of the mining population. The white people looking for wealth felt like immigrants were taking what was rightfully theirs. Prohibitively high taxes for foreign miners were instated, preventing most of them from ever making a decent profit. Furthermore, white miners would often forcibly run foreigners out of bountiful areas.

The western United States was an untamed land of incredible natural resources, and white people wanted to keep it for themselves. In the 1850s, the Free-Soil Party was formed out of this goal. Slavery was the central political issue of the day, and Free-Soilers opposed allowing to expand into the new territory. However, their motivations were not out of a moral opposition to slavery; rather, they were openly trying to protect white opportunity by not forcing laborers to compete with cheaper slave labor. The Free-Soil party never won national office, but they were successful in many northern local elections. Once the Civil War started, they would join with the abolitionist Republicans to counter the South. Although they ended up on the right side of history, it was not their morals that led them to that conclusion.

Today, a significant sect of the modern Republican Party also uses anti-immigrant sentiment as a central facet of their platform. Many immigrants coming to our country today are Hispanic and Middle Eastern. They are fleeing high crime rates, a lack of educational and economic opportunities, and horrific war conditions (some of which were caused by the United States). Instead of compassion, people are greeting them with fear and hatred, and our current federal administration is at the front of this movement. President Trump’s controversial and utterly irrational plan to build a southern border wall was one of the hallmarks of his campaign. This anti-immigrant sentiment has helped to create the vast modern divide within our country, and has made it a dangerous place for people who are coming here purely to find a safer home.

My issue with all of these policies is that they act as if the opinions, interests, and livelihoods of immigrants don’t matter. They do. Immigrants coming to this country are looking for a place to establish a safe and comfortable life for themselves and their families, and our resources, stability, and democratic structures are uniquely situated to offer those things. I don’t believe we have to or should help American citizens at the expense of immigrants. It is the responsibility of our government to serve both populations, because both groups live here and deserve all the rights we have spent centuries attempting to define and secure. If our citizens face a lack of opportunity, we must stop blaming marginalized groups for it. This country is mighty enough to have compassion for others.