A Nation of Immigrants

Immigration is a difficult issue to sort out. It has numerous aspects and affects many people. In this episode of the Exploring History podcast, Ray Notgrass looks at the history of immigration in America and discusses some of the current difficulties we face in our country. He also tells why immigration holds special meaning for him.

She had never lived more than a few miles from the place where she was born. When she was about 13 years old, enemy planes bombed the city where she lived. For instance, on Sunday, November 24, 1940, the German Luftwaffe sent 148 bombers against her city of Bristol, England. She spent many nights in a bomb shelter. When she was 16 years old, she met an American soldier at church who was stationed in her city. They fell in love and decided to get married, but he had an important and dangerous assignment to carry out first. He was part of the huge American contingent of soldiers who crossed the English Channel in Operation Overlord, usually called the D-Day invasion in June of 1944. He crossed the channel the day after D-Day.

Finally in April of 1945, her fiance was able to return to England for them to be married; but after a brief honeymoon he had to return to his unit that was still deployed in Europe. When the war ended, he was shipped back to the United States, but she had to wait for months to join her new husband. The American government wanted to get the soldiers home first, and only then did the thousands of women in her situation have their transportation arranged. Finally, she boarded a ship and sailed for her new country thousands of miles away. After she arrived at an American port, the young bride and her husband then made the long journey by car to her new hometown.

So at the age of 18, she was an immigrant, missing her family and getting adjusted to the ways of her new country. Several years later, she became an American citizen, in a process that followed the laws that were in effect at the time. She only saw her family and her home country a few more times in her life. The soldier was my dad, Wesley Notgrass, and the woman was Joan Kathleen May Clark Notgrass, my mother. I am the son of an immigrant

Certainly my mother’s situation and the situations that today’s immigrants to America face are quite different, but the challenges of coming to a new country are still quite real. The issue of immigration is a personal one for me.

Joan and Wes Notgrass in Columbia, Tennessee (1945)

A Complex Issue

Immigration is a complex and politically charged issue. It has implications for many aspects of American life. But it is also a personal issue. Every immigrant is someone’s daughter, son, husband, wife, or other family member. Immigration is also a multigenerational issue, as it affects grandparents, parents, and children.

Every American is either an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant. Even the people we call native nations are the descendants of people who immigrated to North America thousands of years ago. Some immigrants came by choice, while others were brought against their will as enslaved persons.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Our forefathers came to these shores from many distant lands. Throughout our history, millions of immigrants have come to escape poverty and persecution or to get a new start in life. Our country has been enriched in countless ways by the cultural diversity, the hard work, and the hopes and dreams of immigrants. Immigrants have given much to our country.

People in other lands have long seen the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. There are good reasons why millions of immigrants have left everything, sometimes risking their lives, to come here. While critics will justly point out particular failings of our country, overall and in many specific ways, the United States is a shining light to people who are looking for something better.

Diverse reasons lie behind the decisions to immigrate. We often call these reasons push and pull factors. Factors in the country of origin that might push someone out include such factors as war, famine, economic hardship, political instability, and religious persecution. On the other hand, factors in the receiving country might pull people to leave their homelands and go there, factors such as economic opportunity, political and religious freedom, or the desire to be with relatives already in the receiving country.

Historical Background

The Spanish were the first European immigrants to settle in what became the United States. They did not ask the permission of the natives who were living here. French settlers moved in from what became Canada, and later Russians settled along the Pacific coast; but English and Scots-Irish settlers predominated in what became the United States, and they didn’t ask permission from anyone either. Settlers from other European countries followed.

After the United States gained independence from Great Britain, immigrants primarily from Britain and the European continent continued to move to the U.S. They didn’t ask anyone’s permission; they just came. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first law that Congress passed regarding immigrants in the new nation. It said that “free white persons” with good moral character who had lived in the U.S. for at least two years and who swore allegiance to the Constitution could be granted citizenship. The government placed no limit on who could come. The law only dealt with how immigrants could become citizens.

In 1798 Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act stated that immigrants had to live in the U.S. for 14 years before they could become citizens. The purpose of these laws was to limit the influence of immigrants, especially those from France, with which the United States had a difficult relationship at the time.

Between 1820 and 1860, a third of the immigrants who came to America were from Ireland. Most were escaping the potato famine in that country. During that period, an additional five million people from the German states moved to America, hoping that it was the land of opportunity for them. In the 1850s, many people from China came to the western part of the country to work in mines and on the railroads. While America as a nation welcomed immigrants, some elements of the American people expressed prejudice toward people from other lands, people who they thought were not “like us.”

Through the Civil War, Americans believed that immigration was an issue for the states to regulate. For example, the state of New York operated the Castle Garden immigration facility in New York City. Then in 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that immigration oversight was properly a function of the federal government, as part of the Constitutional responsibility of Congress “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” An 1882 law forbade the entrance of anyone deemed a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or person unable to take care of himself or herself.” Another law the same year forbade further immigrants from China for ten years. This was the first of several laws that restricted immigrants from China simply out of racial antipathy.

A Chinese Woman and Children (c. 1900)
Detroit Photographic Co., Courtesy Library of Congress

Between 1880 and 1920, some 20 million immigrants came to the U.S., mostly from southern, eastern, and central Europe. This included four million Italians and two million Jews from Russia and other countries. By 1910 about three-fourths of New York City residents were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The federal Ellis Island facility opened in 1892 to replace Castle Garden. Those who arrived there were questioned and given a quick physical examination. Only about two percent of those attempting to enter the U.S. were required to return to their country of origin.

In the 1920s, Congress began passing a series of laws that limited the number of immigrants who could enter the U.S. The numbers of immigrants that were allowed were small percentages of the people from foreign countries who already lived in the United States. In addition, the U.S. did not open its arms to welcome large numbers of persecuted Jews in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. However, in late 1945 Congress passed a law that allowed the foreign-born spouses of American soldiers to enter the country as immigrants without regard for the numerical limitations that earlier laws had put in place. The law was popularly known as the War Brides Act. My mother, by the way, always hated that term. She didn’t like to see herself as merely part of a category.

In 1965 Congress did away with the quota system and began admitting foreign nationals based on their relationship to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Later laws passed in the 20th century and into the 21st dealt only with specific issues regarding immigration. The comprehensive immigration reform that politicians often talk about but can’t agree on never seems to happen.

Current Immigration Law

The current immigration policy of the United States has four stated goals:

  • the reunification of families

  • admitting immigrants who have skills needed in the U.S.

  • protecting refugees, who are people fleeing danger in another country

  • the admission of immigrants from countries underrepresented among immigrants to the U.S. in recent years

Generally when someone from another country wants to come to the U.S., he or she must obtain a visa from the U.S. government. A visa is a permission placed in that person’s passport. The most common kinds of visas are tourist or short-term visas and student visas, which allow a person to study at an American university. A third common type is a work visa, which is issued for a specific job that has already been offered. The U.S. government issues about 140,000 work visas per year. Visa applicants must provide personal information and must go through a background check. Approval for a visa can take 30 days if no questions or problems arise. More complicated situations require a longer time.

The U.S. issued over six million tourist and short-term visas in 2022. A large share of graduate students in university departments of science, computer science, and engineering hold student visas. Almost half of the workforce in Silicon Valley is foreign born.

Another kind of visa is a permanent visa, which allows a person eventually to become a permanent resident of the U.S. Current policy allows for the U.S. to issue 675,000 permanent visas per year. No more than 7% of these can be to people from one country. No limit is placed on the number of visas that can be issued for the spouses, parents, or children under 18 of American citizens. Each year the president and Congress work out the number of refugees who can be admitted that year. Refugees do not count against the total immigration count.

People who are admitted to the United States with a permanent visa can, after a period of time, apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR or green card holder). The entire process from applying for a green card to receiving one usually takes about two to three years. The U.S. government issues about one million green cards each year. Mexico is the country of origin for the largest number of those who apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status. Other countries that supply a large number of applicants for green cards are India, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba. Green card holders may enlist in the U.S. military. Undocumented immigrants generally cannot serve in the military except in exceptional cases of military need.

Three to five years after receiving a green card, a green card holder can apply for citizenship. To become an American citizen, he or she must pass English, American history, and civics tests and pay an application fee. The entire process can be frustrating because it can take several years for someone to be able to immigrate to the United States, and then several more years to become a citizen. For instance, foreign nationals who are brothers or sisters of U.S. citizens routinely wait up to ten years after making an application to enter the U.S. before the American government reviews their case.

Naturalization Ceremony for New U.S. Citizens in Frederick, Maryland (2012)
Maryland GovPics, Flickr /  Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Illegal Immigration (Undocumented Immigrants)

When we think of the subject of immigration in our day, we probably think first of illegal immigration, especially that which occurs at the U.S.-Mexico border. The crisis of illegal immigration (also called undocumented immigrants) that we face in the United States has been building for several years. It is an extremely complicated issue, one that involves security, economics, law, and justice. Security is involved because some people have come to the United States illegally and done us harm. It is an economic issue because many illegal immigrants have come to the United States to work and as a result have had an impact on our economy. The ongoing immigration issue involves the law because, for whatever reason, the laws of our country have not been consistently enforced. Finally, immigration is a crisis of justice because people who play by the rules often have to wait for years before they are permitted to come, while some of those who break the rules come and live here with impunity.

Immigration involves governments on all levels—national, state, and local. The federal government is responsible for establishing and enforcing immigration policy and attempting to make sure that terrorists and criminals do not gain entry into our country. State governments provide services that illegal immigrants want and need. Local governments have to deal with sometimes crowded housing conditions and with law enforcement issues that arise due to the activities of some illegal immigrants. Enforcing immigration law is an overwhelming job, but ignoring the problem or failing to act only makes matters worse.

It’s hard to describe a typical day at the U.S. border with Mexico, since policies and practices change from time to time; but the following narrative is how it has been in recent years. Every day, thousands of hopeful immigrants come to border checkpoints wanting to enter the United States. Many have waited in Mexico for days to be able to enter. However, this does not mean that thousands of illegal immigrants enter the United States and disappear into the countryside every day.

Most of these would-be immigrants ask for asylum in the U.S. because of difficult or inhumane conditions in their countries of origin. Overworked U.S. Border Patrol officials must consider their claims before approving them or not approving them. The officials question them, then give most of them a date to appear before an asylum judge who will hear their case. Meanwhile, they wait for a longer time. Some stay in overcrowded detention centers for a time, while others are released into the United States. These people might not show up for their court date. Some asylum seekers do not receive a court date but are simply released. It can take as long as four years for cases to be heard. Meanwhile, the asylum seekers find work in the United States. If U.S. officials find reason to deny their claim, the would-be immigrants can face a fine for their attempt. Some are sent back to their country of origin and cannot try to enter the U.S. again for several years. Some detainees escape from the detention centers and disappear into the U.S. In 2022 an estimated 50,000 “getaways” entered the United States every month. Some aspiring immigrants attempt to enter the States several times. If they are caught, they face fines and penalties. Border officials also have to investigate claims of kinship to American citizens that would-be immigrants make. If this sounds like a chaotic situation at the border, it is.

In addition to the problems of overcrowding at the border and inconsistent enforcement of immigration law, the current immigration situation gives rise to other problems. A small percentage of immigrants are criminals, spies, terrorists, or drug dealers. Some Americans hire undocumented workers, but most American employers do not hire undocumented immigrants. The work that undocumented immigrants perform does not as a rule keep Americans from working. These problem situations are relatively rare, but even a few of these troublesome situations are too many. Immigrants spread throughout the country and do not live only along the southern border. Immigrants work in many places, such as the potato fields of Idaho, the Christmas tree farms of North Carolina, and poultry processing plants in Arkansas. Cases occasionally come to light in which underage immigrants are forced to work in dangerous or unsanitary settings.

In order to avoid people bringing the COVID-19 virus into the country, in March 2020, the Trump administration announced the implementation of Title 42, which authorized the quick return of immigrants to their country of origin without the usual legal process. Federal officials utilized this rule over three million times during 2021-2022. Title 42 expired in May of 2023.

There are many ways for someone to enter or stay in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Such a person might skip his or her asylum hearing. They might walk away from a detention center. Some people cross the border illegally away from official ports of entry. Occasionally a large group of people who have paid someone to bring them into the United States is discovered in a tractor trailer being smuggled into the country, sometimes with a tragic outcome. Some people enter the country legally with a valid visa but then stay after their visa expires.

The responsibility for the care, protection, and provision of services for immigrants falls largely on state and local governments, even though immigration policy is a federal responsibility. On a few occasions southern governors have sent busloads of immigrants to northern cities to highlight the burden that southern states carry and to share the load of immigrant care with governments in the north.


If I might digress for a moment, another kind of immigration crisis, one that occurs much more in other countries than in the United States, involves people who are refugees. Refugees are those who flee their homes as a result of war, political oppression, religious persecution, famine, or other natural disasters. These refugees sometimes move to another part of their home country, but many leave their home country to live at least temporarily in another land. 

When refugees go to another country, they usually request political asylum. This is an official status that a person can request from a receiving country if he or she is being persecuted or fears persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion. They want and need to go somewhere; however, a large influx of needy people often leads to turmoil, unsanitary conditions, and economic hardship in the receiving country.

Some countries set up refugee camps where refugees might live for years before their appeal for asylum comes before a court. They always face the possibility of having their request for asylum denied and receiving an order to return to their country of origin.

Around the world, millions of people live as refugees in difficult conditions. Refugees create an enormous burden on host countries to provide health care, schooling, food, and other basic needs. Refugees with vastly different beliefs and lifestyles can create tensions in the social fabric of receiving nations. Receiving countries also face the possibility of terrorists being among those seeking asylum. However, some Christians have seen refugees as people who need to be served with the love of God. Christians have also found that some people living in refugee camps are open to hearing the gospel of Christ.

Ukrainian Families Fleeing to Hungary (2022)
Janossy Gergely / Shutterstock.com

Questions to Address

As we have indicated, immigration is a complicated issue. One big reason for this is that U.S. immigration law has not been enforced effectively for many years. Here are some major issues that the American government should address.

  1. How can we secure the borders so as not to add to the problems we already have? Some have proposed building a wall, and several hundred miles of walls have been constructed, but people still manage to enter the U.S. illegally.

  2. What do we do about the undocumented immigrants already in the country? The number of undocumented workers is difficult to determine, but an often repeated number is about ten million. Some have proposed rounding them up and sending them back to their countries of origin, but this seems like an impossible task. Other people have proposed providing them a pathway to citizenship, but some see this as rewarding those who have broken the law, poorly enforced as it has been. Some states have granted illegal aliens some of the rights of citizens, such as being able to obtain driver’s licenses. A few municipal governments have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities, which means that the city government has gone on record as saying they will not assist with the enforcement of federal immigration law. This seems to hearken back to South Carolina’s attempt to nullify federal law before the Civil War, but the status of sanctuary city has not been rejected by a court.

  3. What should we do about the immigration of unaccompanied children or the children of undocumented immigrants? This is an especially difficult question because children are so vulnerable in the immigration process. In 2012 the Obama administration announced a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), under which certain undocumented youth would not be deported. Children applying under the program had to be younger than 16 and meet other requirements. The program has met legal challenges in federal court, but the program continues on a limited basis. A law has been before Congress for years called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Bill, or the DREAM Bill. It has passed the House but not the Senate. Children who would be affected have been called DREAMers. Thus the status of child immigrants is still unsettled.

  4. Are birthright citizenship and chain migration good policies? The doctrine of birthright citizenship holds that any child born within the United States or who has one parent who is a United States citizen is granted citizenship at birth. The 14th Amendment governs this right. Some Americans believe that this practice makes citizenship too easy to obtain and that more restrictions are needed. It has apparently been the case that women have come to the United States for the purpose of giving birth to a child while in this country, thus granting the child American citizenship. This practice is called birth tourism. A child being an American citizen opens up many possibilities for the child and for the parents receiving benefits from the U.S. government.

    Chain migration is the practice of allowing relatives of citizens to enter the country as legal immigrants under the sponsorship of the citizen. Again, some people believe that this long-standing practice makes the granting of lawful permanent resident status and eventually citizenship too easy and distorts the numerical limits that the law places on immigration.

  5. A final question, and perhaps the most challenging one, is this: what immigration policies would you want to enforce regarding undocumented immigrants already in the country and the handling of those who want to come into our country as immigrants? It’s easy to criticize this or that federal policy, but how would you handle this complicated situation?

The United States can and should continue to provide an open door for legal immigrants. This maintains our historic policy of welcoming to our shores the needy and those willing to work. With this guiding goal, however, the United States must enforce a workable immigration policy. Finding the right balance of compassion and enforcement
of the law is a challenge. Christians believe in enforcing the law, but we also believe in helping people in need with love and compassion.

American citizens must not act on the basis of fear or prejudice, but out of a sense of compassion and justice for all. The United States can still be a beacon of hope to those from other countries, but it will not be such by disregarding the law.

God has a great love for the people of all nations. He welcomes all from any land who become followers of Jesus. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John describes the scene at the throne of God:

After these things I looked, and behold,
a great multitude which no one could count,
from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
clothed in white robes, and palm branches were
in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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