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Pre-World War I

A Nation of Immigrants: Surveillance of Unions, Radicals, and Immigrants

The United States is often called a nation of immigrants, but limitations on entry and eligibility for citizenship have occurred throughout the nation's history. Until the early 1950s, these limitations were often determined by race, ethnicity, and politics. Legislation established the government's power to deport or detain those already in the United States simply for their political beliefs.

Haymarket Riot
A poster from the Haymarket Riot

The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts authorized the president to detain aliens during peacetime and allowed for the wartime arrest, detention, and deportation of dissenters. In the mid-1800s, waves of Chinese immigrants were welcomed as a source of cheap labor. However, as their numbers grew and they began to compete with Americans for jobs and businesses, they became targets of restrictive policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The next wave of newcomers, from Eastern and Southern Europe, encountered similar prejudices and restrictive policies. The Haymarket Riot in Chicago highlighted the tensions between industrialists and the immigrant working class.

Politicians and interest groups exploited this anti-immigrant prejudice to gain political power. Conservatives began calling for the exclusion and deportation of foreign radicals, citing threats posed by anarchists, revolutionaries, and the Russian communist revolutions of the early 1900s.

Moments in History

1798: Under the threat of war with France, Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition law expires in 1801.

1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act suspends Chinese immigration for 10 years and bars all Chinese already in the United States from obtaining citizenship.

1886: A peaceful workers' protest in Chicago's Haymarket turns violent when a bomb explodes, killing eight policemen. Police open fire, killing 11 protesters. Foreign-born anarchists are blamed based on questionable evidence.

1892: Before immigrants are allowed to enter the United States, they're subjected to mandatory screening at Ellis Island on the East Coast and Angel Island on the West Coast.

1907-08: Gentleman's agreement between Japan and the United States limits Japanese immigration while allowing family members to join Japanese who are already U.S. residents.

1913: The Alien Land Law, passed by the State of California, effectively prohibits Asian immigrants from owning land even if they had purchased it before the law took effect.

1910: The Dillingham Report, based on bogus social science, documents the "inferiority" of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and recommends a literacy test to restrict their entry.

1917: Congress enacts laws allowing deportation of anarchists and revolutionaries requiring a literacy test for entry into the United States.

Historians’ Perspectives

Geoffrey Stone
Geoffrey Stone
The Individual is Above the Government. One of the dangers in a successful democracy ... (1:09)
Promise of the First Amendment. From 1801 until the Civil War... (1:21)
Adam Green
Adam Green
Denial of Rights. The ideal in a slave society is one of total control ... (1:27)
Ellen Schrecker
Ellen Schrecker
Collaboration between the State and the Private Sector. The employers were using all forms of repression ... (1:09)
Gary Okihiro
Gary Okihiro
Land of Immigrants. America has had this double standard in regard to its peoples ... (1:16)