How was the World War I the beginning of the hate towards immigrants ?  

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mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While the United States had several anti-immigrant policies long before World War I began, there was a renewed emphasis on restricting immigration to our country as a result of World War I. Several anti-immigration laws were passed after World War I ended.

There had been two major waves of immigration to the United States from Europe. The first wave was from 1820-1860. Most immigrants came from North and West Europe. The second wave was from 1880-1920. These immigrants came from South and East Europe. The immigrants from South and East Europe were very different than the immigrants from North and West Europe. Their languages, cultures, and customs were very different than those of the immigrants from North and West Europe.

After World War I, there was a significant fear that the communists were trying to spread their system to the United States. This was known as the Red Scare. It was fueled by a large number of strikes that occurred after World War I ended. There was the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case in which these Italian immigrants were accused and convicted of murder. Many people believed these events were related to the growing number of immigrants coming to our country from South and East Europe.

As a result, two very restrictive immigration laws were passed. The Emergency Quota Act was passed in 1921. This law limited immigration to three percent of a country’s population in the United States in 1910. Thus, if there were 100,000 Italians living in the United States in 1910, then 3,000 Italians could come to the United States each year. In 1924, a more restrictive immigration law, the National Origins Act, limited the amount of people who could come to the United States to two percent of a country’s population and used 1890 as the base year. The goal of these laws was to restrict immigration to the United States, especially immigration from South and East Europe. This law also prevented immigration from Asia. It should be noted the National Origins Act did not restrict the immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere because we needed Hispanic workers to work in the farm fields of the southwest part of the country to harvest crops.

Thus, after World War I, the United States developed policies to restrict immigration from parts of Europe, mainly from South and East Europe. These laws were aimed at groups of people who were perceived as different from most Americans in terms of language, culture, and political viewpoints.

mimicowan | Student

This is an interesting question because it is quite clear that World War I was NOT the beginning of anti-immigrant sentiment (sometimes called "nativism") in the United States. First let me briefly address nativism before World War I and then I will address the changes to society and law around World War I that might help you answer your question.

Before the American colonies even became the United States, there is evidence that some Americans of English descent were suspicious and not entirely comfortable with immigrants of other ethnicities. For instance, even Benjamin Franklin wrote of his distrust and dislike of German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1750s in a publication titled "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind." In this publication, Franklin asked questions such as: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?" As you can see, Franklin's concerns that German immigrants would corrupt the English culture and language of Pennsylvania are not that different than modern-day concerns that Hispanic immigrants will change the culture and language of the United States today. It's worth noting that Pennsylvania remained an English-speaking colony with a decidedly English-based culture.

Another important moment of anti-immigrant sentiment occurred in the United States in the last years of the 1700s and the early years of the 1800s. Remember at this time that the United States was a new country, experimenting with the new concept of republican democracy. In short, Americans were very nervous that this new style of government - as opposed to a monarchy - would be able to transition peacefully and safely from one president to the next. This made the political parties (the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans) very suspicious of one another. At the time, the French Revolution was going on in Europe and many political leaders feared that French-sympathizing immigrants were spreading ideas from the French Revolution in the United States and they feared these ideas could spread and cause a massive revolt against the American government. Therefore, the passed a series of laws which we call "The Alien and Sedition Acts."

Among other things, the Alien and Sedition Acts made it harder for immigrants to become citizens (a process called "naturalization), made it illegal to criticize the American government, and made it possible for the president to arrest or deport non-citizens who were deemed "dangerous" to the security of the United States or who were from hostile nations. 

Part of the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed when the next president, Thomas Jefferson, came to power. However, parts of the Alien and Sedition Act remained in effect until they were revised (strengthened) in 1918 during World War I and they were also used by President Franklin Roosevelt in order to place Japanese-American and German-American residents and citizens into internment facilities during World War II.

The next important moment of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States happened in the 1850s and was characterized by the development of the political organization that came to be known as the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings, which began as a secret club, evolved into the American Party in the mid-1850s. The American Party and the Know-Nothing candidates championed laws that would make it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and that would exclude all but American-born people from being elected to government office and, in some cases, excluded all but American-born people from even being hired for civic (government) jobs. The main target of the Know-Nothings were Irish Catholic immigrants, who had been arriving in America in large numbers since the mid-1840s Irish Potato Famine. Know-Nothings were also suspicious of German immigrants, but not to the same extent that they were of Irish immigrants. Know-Nothings were typically Protestant Americans who had a deep distrust for the Catholic church and were convinced that Catholics would never be able to understand how to become "good American citizens" or be able to understand the responsibilities of living in a democracy. 

The American Party and Know-Nothings won a number of local and state political offices in the mid-1850s but the political party dissipated within a few years, as concerns about the impending crisis over slavery came to dominate national and local politics. That being said, the Know-Nothing ideology was present throughout the 19th century, especially in cities in the United States.

Another very important period of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States began in California in the mid-to-late 19th century and was aimed at attacking and excluding Asian immigrants. Asian immigrants, especially from China, began arriving on the west coast of America in large numbers when gold was discovered in the late 1840s. The need for Chinese labor was spurred even further during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. But when work slowed, the Chinese became the focal point for the hostilities of other workers of other ethnicities, with whom they competed for work. The most hostile group against the Chinese were the Irish, even though the Irish were mostly immigrants themselves. 

European-descended workers eventually pushed the Chinese into small urban enclaves in places like San Francisco, where the Chinese were forced to accept the lowest paid jobs. But this wasn't enough for their oppressors. There were increasing attacks on Chinese people and increasing attempts to restrict, or end all together, Chinese immigration to the United States and to California, specifically. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law a federal bill that prohibited the immigration of all Chinese workers to the United States. It was the first law ever passed by the U.S. that discriminated against a particular ethnicity of immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act, as it came to be known, was originally intended to be temporary, but was made permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943.

Now we are finally getting closer to World War I, but as you can see, there was plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the entire history of the United States, before World War I and I think it is thoroughly incorrect to state that World War I was the beginning of hatred of immigrants. That being said, if this was how your teacher phrased the question, let's address how anti-immigrant sentiment developed and became federal law in the years leading up to and surrounding World War I...

Throughout most of the 1800s, immigration to the U.S. was dominated by German and Irish immigrants. As we have explored, the Irish and Germans were subject to anti-immigrant sentiment. However, by the late 19th century, the Irish and Germans had been moving up the socio-economic ladder and there were many middle- and even upper-class Irish and German families in the U.S., which greatly helped their acceptance into American society, even though there were still plenty of lower class and working class Irish and German immigrants as well.

But in the last two decades of the 19th century, immigration patterns began to shift and by the turn of the century, the numbers of Irish and German immigrants paled in comparison to the numbers of Eastern and Southern European immigrants. The largest groups became Jews from Eastern Europe and Catholics from Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Poles, Slavs, and Italians. Most of these immigrants were very poor and from peasant lifestyle backgrounds and the bulk of them settled in America's urban centers and took up the some of the lowest paid, most dangerous and dirty work there was to be had in factories.

Many Americans feared this influx of poor, Eastern and Southern Europeans and what it would do to the "culture" of the United States - just as Benjamin Franklin had feared the impact of German immigrants in the 18th century. Some people were concerned that these new immigrants could not be taught how to be good citizens in a democracy - just as Know-Nothings had feared the same thing about Irish Catholics in the mid-19th century.

In 1909, the first federal bill was presented that would have limited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, however, there was not enough support in order to pass the bill. But a number of things happened in the next 20 years or so that increased support for this kind of measure.

The first substantial change to immigration policy in the 20th century was the Immigration Act of 1917, just prior to American entry into World War I. It was set the most exclusive immigration policy for the country yet.  It barred “homosexuals,” “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” "criminals," “epileptics,” “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or those who were "physically defective,” polygamists, and anarchists from immigrating to the United States. Furthermore, it barred all immigrants who were over age 16 and illiterate. But, the most restrictive part of the law continued and expanded upon the tradition of the Chinese Exclusion Act by creating  an "Asiatic Barred Zone" which designated a region that included much of Asia and the Pacific Islands from which people could not immigrate. 

Also in 1917, Russia went through the Bolshevik revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and instituted communism as the form of government. As immigration from Russia grew, many people feared that Russian immigrants were bringing with them their love for communism (which ignored the fact that these immigrants were actually fleeing communism) and would that these immigrants would start to rally support to overthrow democracy in the U.S. and make it a communist country as well.

After World War I ended in 1919, there was a recession, as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers returned to the U.S. and flooded the job market. This created conflict between the lowest paid workers - African Americans and recent immigrants - and American-born workers because African Americans and recent immigrants accepted jobs that paid lower wages that most Americans wanted to accept. Therefore, employers would often hire these lower paid workers instead of hiring Americans and paying higher wages. 

Even though logically the source of this problem was the employers, and not the lowly-paid employees, American workers took their hostilities out on the lowest paid employees, to the point that throughout American cities in the summer of 1919, American-born workers attacked African Americans and destroyed African American neighborhoods. But the fear and hatred of foreign born workers and immigrants grew as well. To make matters worse, immigration from Europe - with the largest numbers coming from Eastern and Southern Europe - grew exponentially in the first years of the 1920s.

Evidence of anti-immigrant hostility was not hard to find in the early years of the 1920s. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in these years. While the original KKK of the late 19th century was almost exclusively focused on intimidating and attacking African Americans, the KKK of the 1920s was not primarily in the rural south, as the earlier Klan had been. The KKK of the 1920s thrived in urban and rural areas of the North and, in addition to targeting African Americans, focused much of their hostility on Catholics, Jews, and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants. In fact, some KKK circles in the North almost entirely ignored African Americans to focus on "undesirable immigrants."

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 established exact numerical limits on the number of immigrants that were allowed to annual immigrate to the United States. It also set specific quotas (limits) for the numbers of immigrants from each country / area of the world that were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. each year. These limits are based on the National Origins Formula. 

The National Origins Formula was designed to be racist, as it was designed to prefer immigrants from Northern and Western Europe over all others. The purpose of this was to attempt to keep the ethnic and racial and ethnic balance that the U.S. had around the turn of the century, before the bulk of Eastern and Southern European immigrants were able to come to the United States. The National Origins Formula stated that the limit of immigrants from each nation was set at 3% of what the number of immigrants from that nation was in the U.S. in 1910. However, the act set not limit on immigrants from Latin America, and therefore ushered in a period of increased immigration from Latin America. Furthermore, immigrants from the Asiatic Barred Zone were still barred.

In 1924, immigration was further restricted by he 1924 Immigration Act. The 1924 Act changed the allowed percentage of immigrants to 2% and based the 2% on the number of immigrants from each country living in the U.S. in 1890, instead of 1910, which even further benefitted immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, and even further discriminated against all other immigrants. Again, immigrants from the Asiatic Barred Zone were still barred. Additionally, Arabs and Africans were completely barred from immigrating. The 1924 Immigration Act is also called the Johnson-Reed Act. With very few alterations, the Johnson-Reed Act remained in force until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed.

This is, of course, not the end of immigration restriction or hostility to immigrants in the United States. While the most stringent and racist policies against certain immigrants were developed in the years surrounding World War I, I hope this answer makes it quite clear that suspicion and hatred of immigrants was present long before World War I.



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