10 Misconceptions About U.S. Immigration

Until Now, the U.S. Has Always Been Very Welcoming to Immigrants
A view of the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago, ca. 1915. The Maxwell Street neighborhood in Chicago was a haven for new arrivals from the mid-1800s. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many Americans believe the U.S. has always welcomed immigrants with open arms until the last decade or so. They'll point to the masses of immigrants flooding into the country at the turn of the 20th century, and assume that alone meant everyone was being happily greeted. Not so. It seems every new ethnic group entering the U.S. was greeted with some level of xenophobia and suspicion. But things were the worst in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1882, for example, all Chinese people were banned from entering via the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1907-08, under the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan, the Japanese agreed to deny passports to its laborers wishing to head to the U.S., where hostility against Japanese immigrants was growing. Congress also voted to restrict access to those who were mentally ill, criminals, contract workers, alcoholics and anarchists. The government also raised taxes on immigrants and instituted a literacy test in 1917 [source: U.S. History].

Then, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 (aka the Johnson-Reed Act), capping immigration. Specifically, only 2 percent of the total number of people from each nationality — who were in the U.S. as of the 1890 census — could now enter. This act favored ethnic groups already in the country, and effectively excluded all Asians [sources: Foner and Garraty, U.S. Department of State].

The hostility wasn't just in the corridors of power either. In the 19th century, many native-born Americans were fearful that large numbers of Irish and Italian immigrants would bring crime and disease. Even back in 1751, Benjamin Franklin denounced the large numbers of Germans flooding in to Pennsylvania [source: Schrag].