The Immigration Debate

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Yet the attitudes toward new immigrants held by those who came before have a complex history, backed by changing laws that have wavered between the extremes of qualified welcome and hostile exclusion. Mapping the federal government’s role as gatekeeper of the American Dream shows national ideals in conflict with xenophobic laws and practices. 

A satirical cartoon from 1890 attacks a proposal by William Windom, Secretary of the Treasury in the Harrison administration, which advocated for a more rigorous screening of immigrants—offshore—on Liberty Island. In Paris, Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, helped put an end to the idea by calling the proposal “monstrous” and a “desecration.”

Between 1840 and 1860, over four million people entered the United States. Many maps and graphs sought to document this influx of newcomers, including a map in a 1906 picture book of U.S. history by W.C. King. This map shows the ebb and flow of immigration to this country from several European nations during the second half of the 19th century, including the distribution and integration of these immigrants.

Reacting to perceived threats to America’s economy, national identity, or security, a long list of politicians past and present have sought to exclude those regarded as “inimical to our social and political institutions.” As the political poster from 1920 shows, a U.S. Senate race that year employed racist language and negative stereotypes to spread fear of immigration among the voting public. Senator James D. Phelan, a powerful figure in the anti-immigrant movement, lost his reelection campaign, but went on to play a role in the adoption of the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which would limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country and prevent immigration from Asia. One hundred years later, debates between those who welcome more—and those who want to further restrict—immigration remains a significant political issue both in the United States and around the world.

Victor Gillam. “The Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site.” Judge, March 22, 1890.
On loan from the Collection of PJ Mode.

William C. King. “Where the European Members of Our National Family Locate Their Homes” and “The Flow of Immigration From Europe Since 1840.” King’s Illustrated Portfolio of Our Country. Springfield, MA: W. C. King Co., 1906.
Gift of PJ Mode.

Dan Sweeney. Hold: Re-Elect James D. Phelan. Henry C. Wehr, 1920.
On loan from the Collection of PJ Mode.

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