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Ins and outs of immigrants defined the U.S. since 1787

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By John Bartlit

The legal trails of immigration comprise many parts, to deal with persistent concerns. Since its inception, the nation has dealt with these concerns repeatedly in varying guises and combinations.

Immigration issues that recur deal with jobs in one way or other and with the nature and quantity of immigrants and new citizens. Laws change as parties change course and populations grow.

The two parts that are most distinctive are immigration and naturalization. The former refers to living and working here.

The latter is a path to U.S. citizenship. Only citizens can vote and hold elective office.

Today, becoming a citizen requires correctly answering six of 10 questions similar to these three:

• What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

• There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

• Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.

These questions are three of the 100 questions on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test. The full list is online at “civics questions for naturalization test.” Take in the stirring naturalization ceremony nearby at Bandelier held every Fourth of July.

Naturalization was an express power of Congress in the U.S. Constitution in 1787, prior to adding the Bill of Rights. The first naturalization law came in 1790.

The laws of immigration and citizenship (naturalization) have consumed stores of attention and been fiercely debated throughout our nation’s history. Between 1790 and this year, 41 pieces of major legislation or actions have taken effect.

These numbers average a major change in immigration rules every five or six years in the life of the nation.

I was surprised to read the immigration changes that have been enacted in the U.S. in 228 years. I bring samples.

These provisions convey the history that is seldom recalled in current news accounts. And is not in the least conveyed by the lady with the lamp standing in New York Harbor.

A more detailed picture emerges from a short list of key actions along the way. In 1790, a large question of the day was how long a person should live in the U.S. before they could become a citizen. The Naturalization Act of 1790 said two years was the required residency before applying for citizenship. The requirement was raised to five years in 1795. In 1798, the requirement was raised to 14 years. In 1802, the requirement was reduced back to five years.

The 1819 Steerage Act required ship captains to submit information about immigrants onboard to government officials and Congress.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigrants for 10 years and denied Chinese a path to citizenship.

Thousands of Chinese laborers had worked on the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad and were left largely unemployed when the project was completed in 1869.

The 1891 Immigration Act called for the deportation of people who entered the country illegally and denied entry for polygamists, the mentally ill, and those with contagious diseases.

The 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act barred anarchists, other political extremists, beggars, and epileptics. The words sound old, but the concerns we know well.

The 1921 Emergency Quota Law limited the number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year to 350,000 and established a nationality quota. Immigration from any country was capped at 3 percent of the population of that nationality already living here based on the 1910 census. The limits on total immigrants and the percentage caps for nationalities were both restricted further in 1924 and again in 1929.

Throughout its existence, the nation has faced each of today’s immigration concerns more than once, packaged together in various combinations. The packages vary with shifts in party politics and with more crowded lands. So, none of the concerns stays resolved long enough to spread roots.

Imagine if the party packages were broken open instead. Then each aspect of immigration could be discussed separately on its own merits. Without package deals, the chance of finding answers for some major concerns would improve.

Choose from the parts, not the package.