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September 22, 2017 : Faculty Expert Series: A brief history of Immigration in the U.S.


Faculty Expert Series: A brief history of Immigration in the U.S.


It is no surprise to hear the terms “illegal immigrant,” or “refugee” discussed in the national discourse on an almost daily basis these days. These words or acronyms, while lit up under the light of partisan politics, still refer to actual human beings. To gain a better understanding of these terms and why we’re hearing so much about them, Dr. John O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University Chilicothe, helps to dissect the history and background of how we got to this point in terms of immigration.


When the term immigrant or refugee, an image may come to mind – that of someone coming into the United States either by crossing a border illegally or through a resettlement program. Many times, these words evoke a negative connotation about the person or people being referred to. But, this “problem” of immigration and who is targeted through it, is a centuries-old issue dating back to the founding of our country.


The naturalization system known today is far different than that utilized at the beginning of American history. Today’s process involves lengthy paperwork, fees in excess of $700 and a lawyer, all of which will allow a person to become a United States citizen and become a part of the global system of documentation and surveillance, which took quite some time to emerge.


O’Keefe explained that political and immigration crises actually began in the 1790s and that things like fees and passports didn’t exist. During this timeframe, we began to see the origins of a global system of documentation take place, as well as state-sponsored surveillance.


It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that the system became successful in creating large databases of immigrant documentation. As British people immigrated, they were required to fill out extensive paperwork for the government in order to stay in the U.S.


Prior to the first World War, there was a much more fluid system of migration into the U.S., O’Keefe said. It was during this time that a rise in the fear or foreign surveillance caused there to be suspicions among those immigrating.


“We usually see this type of action with a state emergency or crisis of ethnicity or nationality,” O’Keefe explained. “If it’s a crisis of ethnicity with a nation that’s seen as predominately white, it’s often temporary. When immigrants are seen as non-white, we see a much more longstanding concern and often divisions about ‘us versus them.’”


Throughout history, our country has oftentimes taken a knee-jerk approach to immigration reform as a result of an emergency or crisis. From the rhetoric surrounding a Muslim ban to implementing a border wall or curtailing refugee resettlement, the response has been negative to those who are non-white.


Much of this debate centers around economics. While O’Keefe is not an economist, he described the thought of immigrants taking away American jobs as erroneous.


“Attitudes toward migration often involves a zero-sum assumption about jobs and the economy; that there are only so many jobs to go around and existing workers are in competition with immigrants,” he said. “Immigrants bring money to the economy by virtue of the population increase. There is more demand for housing, for financial services, manufactured goods, etc. Additionally, native workers in a particular industry where immigrants find jobs are actually pushed ‘up’ into management positions.”


Of particular concern in recent decades has been the rise of illegal immigration, which can be attributed to overstaying a visa or crossing a border without permission. As O’Keefe pointed out, the term ‘illegal’ is misleading at times.


The federal government didn’t have the power to deport anyone until 1798. Historians have noted that the rise of the “illegal immigrant” came about from the rise of Chinese hostility in the mid-to late 19th century. That’s when the U.S. government got involved in limited or barring Chinese migrants. O’Keefe explained that this is the time when selected enforcement of immigration along racial lines emerged.


“At this same time, there were no restrictions on immigration from the Western hemisphere,” O’Keefe stated. “The definitions of race and racial categories have changed.”


In O’Keefe’s research, he’s seen naturalization records indicating migrants from Caracas or Santiago de Cuba as ‘free white men.’ Who is allowed to naturalize and who is considered white has changed over time, he emphasized.


“Race comes into ideas about national definition. Implicitly, many people see the U.S. as a white nation. People who are white or African American are seen as naturally ‘American.’ When it comes to people of Asian or Latino descent, there is a construction of ‘forever foreign,’” O’Keefe said. “So even if someone is born in the U.S. and has grown up here or been here for generations, they are seen as foreigners. These thoughts are counter to defining what is ‘American,’ as our foundation is multi-lingual and multi-cultural.”


“People can be deported for a variety of reasons despite good faith compliance with immigration law,” he said.


Between efforts to attain the necessary paperwork and fees to apply, oftentimes people become victims of a flawed system. Errors on behalf of a lawyer, missed deadlines, financial burdens imposed by poverty or even the troubles contacting governments in their native country to gain the proper documents can be a hindrance.


O’Keefe underscored that people should keep in mind the choices individuals have to make in their lives as well.


“People fleeing violence in their communities, as in the case of teenage migrants from Central America, a shortage of basic life necessities in Venezuela, or other similar conditions elsewhere in the world where people are facing life-or-death choices: die or immigrate without permission from a foreign government,” he said. “People choose to live.”


While the issues of immigration and refugee resettlement will no doubt be contentious subjects in both national politics and in smaller sectors of government around the country, it’s important to have a better understanding of its origins to effect positive change.


There will not be one simple, easy answer to dramatically changing the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people or more with sweeping legislation. We can instead continue to study the multiple factors that cause the rise in illegal immigration, the need for people to flee their countries or seek out a better life in the land of the free. Understanding terminology surrounding the issue and what it means to be “American” will serve everyone more in the long run. 



Dr. John O’Keefe is an assistant professor of history at Ohio University Chillicothe. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy in American Studies from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on the issues of migrants, naturalization and early American history.