Fear of the unknown: Immigrants have long faced challenges in the United States


BATAVIA — “Racially fueled assumptions can prove dangerous.”

Orleans County Historian Matt Ballard gave a presentation Wednesday at Genesee Community College titled “Fear of the Unknown: Illegal Immigration.”

Looking at the colonial interactions between the Native Americans and European settlers — along with how power and authority impacts the ideologies and ways people think — Ballard said the interactions between Native Americans and the colonists explains the mentality of native-born Americans during the 19th century and how they perceived immigrants from Europe.

“What sparked me to present on this topic is (what) I hear today most frequently about illegal immigration in particular is the following statement: ‘My family came to this country legally, so everyone else should have to do the same,’” he said. “This is a really extreme oversimplification of the idea of immigrant history.”

Due to that oversimplification, he suggested that people discredit the plight of immigrants trying become citizens today and romanticize the image of the 19th century immigrant.

Immigrants during that time left Europe to escape the tyranny of oppressive governments and economic conditions — coming to the United States, seeing the freedoms associated with democracy and welcomed by Lady Liberty as they entered New York Harbor, as the popular image maintains.

But their experience was the exact opposite — restrictions on voting, relegation to the pits of social hierarchy and religious persecution. The only true part of the romanticized narrative is that the immigrants would have seen the Statue of Liberty.

“In the most simplified way possible, for those of us who had immigrants arrive before 1924, it is really difficult to say your ancestors came here legally as opposed to illegally because there would have to be laws in place to restrict it and therefore make it illegal,” Ballard said. “While the social and economic conditions remain similar, immigrants today face an uphill battle in relation to the financial and legal restraints that make legal immigration possible.”


Immigrants of the 19th century were guilty of a crime and one crime only — the crime of difference, Ballard said.

That crime is codified by terms such as “disabled, dumb, deaf, vagrant, deviant, self governance and public charge.”

Codified laws based on those concepts punished immigrants for practicing different religions, speaking different languages, practicing different cultural traditions and looking different.

“The historiography of this topic and how it’s developed over the years reveals manipulation of racial constructs to fit the needs of political ideology associated with different legislation,” Ballard said. “These restrictive laws were driven by a fear of native-born Americans perceived as different, unknown or uncertain.”

The use of the term ‘black and white’, Ballard said, used throughout history to describe visual differences between groups of humans and race, has become a foundational approach to differentiae between groups throughout history.

These biological differences throughout history have been used to force Africans into slavery and build a system to continue that institution, restricting the right to vote to white landholding men and restrict immigration to the United States, he said.

A racial dichotomy is developed and is first seen with the interactions of the Native Americans, whose social, cultural and religious practices were drastically different from European settlers.

“Unlike the Africans, the Native Americans fit outside the white versus black dichotomy, so there were questions about whether Native Americans were considered white or if they were considered black,” Ballard said. “To be black at this time was considered savage, uneducated and difficult. To be white was to be civilized.

“In the earliest contact, Native Americans were considered ‘savable’ upon their conversion to Christianity,” he continued. “This is demonstrated through praying schools and Christian schools.”

For whites, immigration was relatively unrestricted in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

By 1775, the census suggested that the population of North America was 2.4 to 3 million people with 85 percent of them tracing their lineage back to the British isles. About 9 percent were German and 3.5 percent were Dutch.

After the revolution, a path to citizenship needed to be established, leading to the Naturalization Act of 1790. Citizenship was restricted to any white free white person who had been in the United States for two years, leaving out a path of citizenship for Africans, Asians and Native Americans, as well as anyone else who may fall outside the category of “white.”

At this time, early immigration is seen as a strengthening of the genetic pool of the United States.


In 1816 — often associated with the start of organized immigration to the United States — 6,000 immigrants come from Ireland, the number doubling in two years.

A famine in Germany pushed an estimated 20,000 Germans to immigrate to the United States. As a result, the arrival of unskilled farmers from Europe meant these men in many cases were pushed into factory jobs, work on railroads, and in New York state, work on the Erie Canal.

The common laborers were more exploited, worse off financially and socially fragmented.

Immigrant groups were almost always fell into those categories were exploitation was commonplace, Ballard said. They were more susceptible to developing a community or culture that helped feed into their alienation.

“Immigrants, or Irish in this particular case, tend to rely on violence as an expression of their agency in society that has stripped them off all their power,” he said. “In turn, that projection feeds into the social perception of how the Irish immigrants tends to behave — so heavy drinker and tends to be violent.”

Among the immigrant groups, the use of alcohol by employers became an use of exploitation of labor.

Immigrants were also used to influence the political system, which led to the creation of the American Party or “Know Nothing” Party.

The “Know Nothings” feared Catholic influence on American politics, and were the driving force of a party which was already anti-Irish. According to the Know Nothing Party, because of a perceived allegiance of Catholics to the Vatican, they could never be loyal to the U.S. government.


During the California gold rush of 1848, Chinese immigration expanded exponentially.

Within 10 years, the total number of Chinese living in the United States was estimated at over 35,000 with the majority living on the Pacific Coast.

That’s where anti-Chinese immigration policies started.

Like African Americans and Native Americans, the Chinese looked visibly different from the majority of native-born citizens. Their cultural and religious practices were likewise foreign to Americans and incited fear among those who didn’t understand them.

In 1850, California established place a foreign miner’s tax at about $20 a month clearly aimed at the Chinese population, Ballard said.

Five years later the act to further prevent the immigration of Chinese to California went forward, fining Asian immigrants $400 to $600 and imprisoning them up to 12 months just for coming to the United States.

The Page Act of 1875, based upon denying “undesirable” immigrants, was passed 20 years later and regarded as one of the first truly restrictive pieces of legislation. In this piece of particular legislation, Ballard said, according to the U.S. government the Chinese were too “disabled to live under the hospices of U.S. democracy.

“Congressional reports noted that, ‘there are not sufficient brain capacity in the Chinese for self governance,’” he continued. “Several years later, the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marks an end to Chinese labor the U.S.”


With the exploding popularity of the eugenics movement and the question of genetic superiority moving the forefront, the concern of the health of immigrants and the deformities they may carry became an issue.

It was a long-established idea, Ballard said, that Africans had qualities that required their enslavement for centuries, and in case of the Chinese, were biologically incapable of self governance.

The idea that women were biologically incapable of higher education was also a common belief.

With the influx of immigrants from Poland and Italy, who didn’t speak English and had a skin color slightly darker than other Europeans, a concern rose over the “moral behavior” of these immigrants. Were the new arrivals perverts, sexual deviants or homosexuals?

“The Bureau of Immigration began to single out immigrants who were guilty of moral turpitude, which they defined as something ‘which is so contrary to moral law as interpreted by the general moral sense of the community that the defender is brought into public disgrace, is no longer generally respected or is deprived of social recognition by good living persons,’” Ballard said.

The Immigration Act of 1882, bringing immigration under the purview of the federal government, placed restrictions on immigrants who were considered criminal or insane and the implementation of the “public charge” clause.

The public charge clause was more subjective with no evidence necessary to prove one was likely to become a public charge upon entering the United States. So if a person appeared to be something — such as poor — that was all that was needed to bar them from entry.

Women who came alone and were independent were considered as showing deviant behavior because it was the mindset at the time that they should be dependent to men. Women traveling together were considered to be proustites and exclusion was almost certain as a result.

Those ideas of degeneracy translated into ethnic and racial differences as well, Ballard said.

It was believed the lower classes, immigrants and non-whites were inclined toward perversion — a particular example was that Chinese men wore a braided ponytail which was considered feminine, not helped by the fact they came as bachelors living with other men working in places such as laundries, restaurants and as domestic servants.

Those had been jobs typically reserved for women. It was suggested they were too prone to sexual deviance, especially homosexuality.

The Immigration Act of 1924 sought to establish a system of social hierarchies based on the desirability of specific groups. Ballard said Europeans received a racial and ethnic sort of identification, creating ethnicity based on national boundaries or retaining some degree of whiteness.

Asians from China, Japan and the Philippines, as well as Mexicans, were lumped together as incapable of being assimilated into society.

The 1924 law was based on a quota system with the number of immigrants permitted to enter the U.S. was based on 1890 census figures. Each immigrant group was restricted to 2 percent of the total foreign-born individuals living in the United States from the 1890 census data, while each nationality was guaranteed a minimum of 100 individuals.

“So by using 1890 figures, the federal government effectively ignored the thousands of immigrants that came from Eastern Europe that flooded the nation after 1890 and reduced the quota numbers from the nations in that region,” Ballard said. “The law also excluded from these quotas many groups who were ineligible for citizenship. Per the language used in the 1790 Immigration Act, citizenship was restricted to whites and by forming the law in this manner, immigration was restricted in Asia to non-Chinese in China and non-Japanese from Japan with a limit of 100 from each.”

African Americans who consisted of 9 percent of the population was also excluded from these quotas, which would have reduced the number of immigrants to the U.S. from Europe.

Pseudoscience was the driving force behind those pieces of legislation, Ballard said. There were arguments that immigration was discouraging natural population growth as native-born couples stopped having children as a result of the influx of immigrants who allegedly took all the available unskilled job opportunities.

Other ideas such as mixed nationalities shall not be permitted — each nationality shall remain a distinct part that can be counted as fractions, and the mentality of the “one drop” rule that dominated the black and white dichotomy throughout history.

“Over a nearly 100 year span, the view of immigration shifted from one of positivity to one of negativity,” he said. “The immigrant went from a strengthening element in the nation to one that weakened it. It was at this point that nationality and ethnicity became intertwined, comparable to race.”

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