From the moment a hardy band of people crossed the Eurasian Land Bridge connecting North America to Europe, they set a trend for successive waves of immigration that continues on to the present day. By the early 1500s, the first the Spanish and French had built pioneering settlements in what would become America. In 1607 with the founding of the English settlement at Jamestown in the new Colony of Virginia, the basis for all subsequent migration was set.
While the British permanent settlement in at Jamestown eventually flourished, three groups of fresh immigrants arrived each motivated by widely different factors. The 100 pilgrims who landed in 1620 fled religious persecution in Europe and came looking for the freedom to practice their faith. Some historians estimate that as many as 20,000 Puritans as they were eventually known made the voyage to the new world between in the decade between 1630 and 1640.
As with their colony in Australia, the British transported thousands of English convicts across the Atlantic to work their sentence out as indentured servants. They were joined by thousands more white Europeans fleeing famine and poverty joined them, working their passage as indentured servants. The influx of the settlers occurred without participation of any immigration lawyers which is unthinkable in today’s environment.
As with the British convicts, the third group of early immigrants arrived against their will. These were slaves from West Africa. Around 1680, there were an estimated 7,000 African slaves laboring in the American colonies. By 1790 their numbers had swollen to some 700,000 mainly concentrated in the agrarian south. In all, it is believed some 500,00 to 650,000 Africans were brought to America to be sold into servitude.
While Congress formally outlawed the importation of slaves to the United States in 1808, the South’s economy was heavily dependent on slave labor and this eventually led to the rupture of relations with the North. After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, approximately 4 million slaves were freed. As one can imagine no immigration lawyers of any sort were involved during that part of American immigration history.
From around 1815 through to 1865, a mass influx of immigrants arrived in the U.S. mostly from Northern and Western Europe. As many as one-third of these new arrivals were escaping Ireland’s notorious famine and during the 1840 decade, almost half of America’s total immigrants were Irish with around 4.5 million Irish migrating to the U.S. between 1820 and 1930. Similarly, during the 19th century, the U.S. welcomed nearly five million German immigrants.
The mid-1800s heralded another period of contentious debate about immigration as a substantial number of Asian immigrants settled in the United States, drawn by the allure of the California gold rush. By the early 1850s, nearly 25,000 Chinese were living in close proximity to increasingly fractious native-born Americans who saw the new immigrants as competing for jobs. Adding fuel to the already combustible mix was the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiments held by a substantial portion of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population. This time was eerie forerunner of contentious feelings that bubbled to the surface in our own contemporary times.
In response to the agitation by Californians who blamed Chinese immigrants for their declining wages, the Federal Government passed their first meaningful piece of legislation that sought to regulate immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act Of 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. In 1882 the States hold over immigration policy was further eroded with the proclamation of Ellis Island as America’s Federal Immigration Station. More than 12 million immigrants were to pass through its doors until it finally closed in 1954.
With the passage of this legislation, a new area of legal practice was shepherded into existence, and the significance of immigration attorneys in America’s legal system was set to grow.
By the dawn of the 1920, previous concerns with Chinese immigration had paled into insignificance as more than 20 million fresh immigrants principally from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe made their way to the United States. Over two million Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing religious persecution jostled with four million Italian Catholics by 1920.
Helping sift through this wave of humanity the involvement of immigration lawyers reached a new peak as millions required assistance with the legislation’s documentation requirements.
The crest of the post-Civil War immigration wave peaked in 1907 when approximately 1.3 million people entered the country legally. How many more illegal immigrants made their way undetected to America, determined to start new lives is unlikely to ever be known. Immigration’s established pattern of peaks and troughs repeated itself with the outbreak of World War I when the mass mobilization of men of service age across Europe and the subsequent labor shortages in the civilian sector triggered a sharp decline in immigration.
Never the less, the involvement of immigration lawyers in the Federal system rose again with the passage of by Congress of a literacy test for all immigrants over 16 followed by the establishment of immigration quotas in the 1920s through The Immigration Act of 1924, which introduced a new quote system which effectively restricted entry to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality already resident in America as of the 1890 national census.
As the impact of the great depression of the 1930s, which started in the U.S. and quickly cascaded around the globe, gained traction, immigration numbers plummeted. The U.S. Census Bureau showed America’s foreign-born population actually decreased from 14.2 to 10.3 million between 1930 and 1950. The U.S. emerged from World War II in triumph, humanitarian concerns combined with the horrors witnessed by the fall of the Third Reich prompted Congress to pass special legislation fast-tracking refugees from Europe and the Soviet Union into the United States.
Once more, the significance of immigration attorneys came into sharp focus as thousands of refugees many without documentation were processed under the auspices of the new legislation. Similarly, America opened its arms to hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees in 1959 after the success of Cuba’s communist revolution and the failure of the Bay of Pigs abortive invasion.
Finally, with the passage in 1965, of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the antiquated quotas system was abolished and Americans were allowed to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin for the very first time, dramatically shaping immigration patterns for decades to come.
With the ushering in of the new millennium, U.S. immigration experienced yet another shift with the majority immigrants now arriving from Asia and Latin America. Family reunification emerged as a major driver of both legal and illegal immigrants
The United States dominant pattern of immigration since it earliest years may be explained as successive waves of immigration. First during the early colonial era, followed by the first half of the 19th century and then from the 1880s to 1920. The lure for most has been the prospect of creating a new life embracing economic opportunity, while some sought religious freedom. Some came willingly; some were transported against their will. In lock-step with these migration waves marched the progress of U.S. immigration legislation and the rising significance of immigration attorneys in navigating the system.