By the Numbers: U.S. Nativism and Immigration

“The refugees seeking haven in America were poor and disease-ridden. They threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They were bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. And, worst of all, these undesirables were Irish.” –

Donald Trump has made immigration a hot topic throughout his presidency, repeatedly making untrue statements about immigrants. But he’s not the first to do so. We take a look at some other fear-mongering campaigns that have been waged to keep people out of the land of the free and home of the brave.


The Colony of Virginia – an English, Protestant colony – enacted a law prohibiting Catholic settlers in the colony.


Congress passed three “Alien Acts” based mainly on fears of Irish-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment. The laws increased the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to 14, and gave the president the power to stop immigration from any country at war with the U.S. and the right to deport any immigrant, and made it harder for immigrants to vote.


The year deadly anti-immigration riots erupted in Pittsburgh. It ostensibly began when Catholic parents objected to their children having to sing Protestant hymns at school, which prompted nativists to demonstrate against Catholicism in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. The first riot began May 6 and lasted four days, with at least 14 dead. In another clash in July, as many as 20 died in rioting between nativists and state militia who were protecting a Catholic church.


The year the nativist secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was formed in New York City. Members had to be Protestant and they were opposed to immigration, particularly to the flood of Irish Catholic immigrants caused by the 1845 potato blight. Catholics, they believed, were under control of the pope in Rome, and therefore, were dangerous to their concept of Americanism. Because members were committed by oath to secrecy about the organization, their standard answer to questions was “I know nothing,” which, when the organization politicized, became its name, the Know-Nothing Party. Exploiting stereotypes of Irish, German and Catholic immigrants of any nation became the party’s hallmark.


The year the Know-Nothing Party held 43 seats in the U.S. Congress.


The year the Know-Nothings formally organized, renaming themselves the American Party. Former President Millard Fillmore (1850-53, he ascended to the presidency as vice president when President Zachary Taylor died in office) – who was known to be attracted to odd political movements (before becoming a Whig he was an Anti-Mason), ethnic hatred and conspiracy theories – was the American Party presidential candidate in 1856. He came in a distant third to Democratic winner James Buchanan and Republican John Fremont. The American Party also lost 30 seats in Congress and eventually faded into obscurity.


The year the Page Act became law, the nation’s first restrictive federal immigration law. Named after its sponsor, Republican Rep. Horace Page, who said it was needed to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women,” it was meant to end the practice of forced labor and prostitution, but it was mostly used to keep Asian women from entering the U.S.


The year immigration restriction advocates passed legislation in Congress to limit the number of Chinese arriving to 15 per ship. However, the Republican Party of the time was committed to a platform of free immigration, so Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill because it violated a treaty with China. But to have made it that far, it was still an important victory for supporters of exclusion.


The year President Hayes had diplomat James Angell negotiate a new treaty with China that allowed for immigration restrictions.


The year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by Republican President Chester Arthur. It banned all Chinese immigration for 10 years.

Later that year Arthur also signed the Immigration Act of 1882, which imposed a 50-cent head tax on immigrants (that rose to $8 per head by 1917) and barred the mentally ill, intellectually disabled, criminals and the poor (or, more specifically, those unable to care for themselves, but it has since been broadened to include the poor). The Immigration Act is credited with creating the need for an immigration bureaucracy.


The year the Scott Act was passed, which prevented re-entry into the U.S. after a visit to China, even for legal residents.


The year Congress passed the Geary Act, which renewed Chinese exclusion for another 10 years.


The year the exclusion act was expanded to include immigrants from the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Philippines.


The year the Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed, largely in the interests of boosting the morale of an ally during the war.

Source:, National Archives,

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