Immigration Law in the 1880s, ’90s, and Before

A consideration of the laws in place surrounding immigration and naturalization at the time the Westerlins came to the US requires a quick historical overview.

Obviously, there were a variety of social and political responses to immigration, or particular types of immigration, to America at various times, dating back to before the US existed (and without getting into the various responses to Europeans coming here at all).  There’s the oft-cited Benjamin Franklin on, yes, Germans (I’ll not get into the “complexion” stuff that follows):

23.  …And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion f ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion

(I didn’t know this when I first ran into this paragraph, but like many Americans I had plenty of German ancestry, ancestors who came to America in the 1700s, largely into Pennsylvania.  That’s who he’s talking about.)

There’s, of course, the even better known Know Nothings, as well as the American Protective Association in the late 1880s and 1890s, and the Immigration Restriction League founded in 1894.

But whatever the feelings about immigration at various times and places, the law (until quite late) was simple: it was permitted, at least if you were white.  So I always find it interesting when people with backgrounds like mine — ancestors coming to America over the whole time period from the 1600s through the 1890s in my case — say that their ancestors came legally. Well, sure.  Especially if we ignore whatever restrictions may have existed in the country they left, they didn’t really have much choice.  It was all legal. (Note: this is not intended as a comment on what the immigration laws should be now, as I don’t happen to think “no restrictions” is feasible OR want to talk about that topic here.  It’s just a complaint about “they didn’t break any laws” as a rhetorical device when there were no laws to break and who knows what they might have done under other circumstances.)

The earliest partisan disagreement after the US came into existence wasn’t about whether immigration should be limited or not, but simply how much time immigrants should have to live here before becoming naturalized.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790 required “free white persons” of “good character” to prove it by living in the US for 2 years, and at least one in the state where the naturalization occurred.
  • The Naturalization Act of 1795 changed “good character” to “good moral character” and made it a two-step process — after 2 years you could declare an intent to be naturalized, and then after 3 more (so a total of 5 as a minimum), you could be naturalized.
  • The Naturalization Act of 1798 changed the naturalization process from 5 to 14 years.
  • The Naturalization Law of 1802 repealed that Act, returning to the 1795 Act and 5 years.
  • In 1824, the 3 year wait after declaration of an intent to be naturalized was reduced to 2 years, although the 5 year total residency was not changed.

Nothing more happened until after the Civil War and the 14th Amendment. The Naturalization Act of 1870 then extended the naturalization process to those of African descent, as well as persons born in Africa (still not all persons, however, as Asian immigration was starting to become a political issue). The process did not otherwise change.

The next laws were intended to limit immigration, but were focused primarily on either Asian, or specifically Chinese, immigrants:

  • The Page Act of 1875 prohibited entrance of persons coming to the US for “immoral” purposes (such as prostitution), against their will, or who were convicts in their native country.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (full text here) excluded Chinese laborers (skilled and unskilled and those employed in mining), and also made it quite difficult to show you were not a “laborer.”  It was extended in 1892 and again in 1902 (see here).
  • The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 made it illegal to bring in/aid in the immigration of aliens for the purpose of employing them for labor or service (with some exceptions).
  • The 1891 Immigration Act added some additional categories of aliens to be excluded: persons likely to become public charges or suffering from certain contagious disease, persons who had been convicted of crimes, and polygamists.

Finally, two more laws that might have been relevant to the Westerlins:

The latter change is actually helpful to people doing family history research, as it makes the records easier to find today.

One last wrinkle that affects my Westerlin research:  in the case of a family, normally only the husband would have to be naturalized, and at that time his wife and minor children would automatically become citizens too.

So based on all this, at the time August came over in 1889 and Hedda and the children came over in 1891, the time for naturalization was 5 years, with one year in the state of residence, and at least 2 years after a declaration of intent (which could be filed after 2 years).  Thus, August could have been naturalized as early as 1894 (and could have filed a declaration as early as 1891 or 1891).  Based on the census records, I think it’s more likely that he was naturalized in 1900 or after, but before 1910 (and probably before 1906).


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