David Terry - Law ignored undocumented immigrants from 1800 to 1875

Two hundred-fourteen years ago on March 26, Congress approved the nation’s first immigration law — the initial effort to codify rules under which foreign-born persons could become U.S. citizens.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 specified that “any alien, being a free white person,” could apply for citizenship, so long as he or she lived in the United States for at least two years and in the state where the application was filed for at least one year.

That law had absolutely nothing to say about those “aliens” who chose not to become citizens. They were simply “undocumented,” not illegal.

Subsequent revisions to the Naturalization Act were passed in 1795 and 1798. The Act of 1798 also provided for registering “white immigrants” in order to establish date of initial residency. Again, the law said nothing about non-white immigrants; they were still undocumented, and the government paid them no notice.

After an interim of 72 years, the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended the naturalization process to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Other non-whites were not included in this act and remained excluded from naturalization. Those aliens were still undocumented, and no one cared.

The Page Act of 1875 was the first restrictive “immigration” law, and it prohibited the entry of immigrants considered “undesirable.” That included any individual from Asia, particularly unmarried females, or any person considered to be convicts in their own country.

Prior to 1875, any person could simply show up and be admitted. There were no quotas until after World War I except for Japanese and Chinese. It is estimated that more than half of all Americans with Irish, Dutch or German surnames are descended from immigrants who arrived before 1875.

Further, over 70 percent of those with Italian or Jewish surnames are descended from immigrants who arrived in the period between 1880 and 1924, when an average of 560,000 people immigrated each year, amounting to more than 25 million immigrants over a 44-year period. This period saw a large increase in Jewish immigration to the U.S., largely due to repressive laws enacted in Russia and Prussia. Additionally, large numbers of Italians fleeing the economic and political climate of their homeland found new homes in America.

In the 1860s, buying votes in local elections was easy when large groups of immigrants could be mobilized to march to the polls. Naturalization papers could be obtained before the election, free of charge and without too many questions asked, from friendly judges. It was general practice to advertise in the German newspapers of New York just before Election Day that all Germans wishing to become citizens should apply to the German Committee of Tammany Hall, where they would receive their citizenship papers gratis.

Similarly, Irish immigrants landing in the morning might be voters by nightfall. One judge “naturalized” more than 10,000 in two weeks.

How is it that many of those “native born” descendants of all those undocumented aliens now strongly believe that their ancestors were simply seeking freedom and opportunity and had every right to be here, but more recent arrivals are criminals seeking to circumvent the law?

David Terry has lived in McMinnville since 1999 and in Oregon for 30 years. He ran for the Oregon House of Representatives in 2006 and is serving as chairman of the Libertarian Party of Yamhill County.


Sally G

Thanks for the history lesson, David. And I appreciate your concluding paragraph.


My ancestors immigrated here and I actually have no idea whether it was legal or illegal, so I am not against anyone coming to the US for a better life. The difference for me now is that neither of my great grandfathers spoke English when they came here..but they were proud to be in America and learned to speak it rather than demanding Americans learn to speak theirs.

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