A Colony of Aliens

The history of the United States’ contested work-visa programs is the history of the United States itself.

When Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle from the Philippines in 1930 at the age of 17, he quickly found that his vision of America didn’t match up with reality. He saw firsthand the disconnect between the hard, menial labor that immigrants performed—working in fields, canneries, and hotels—and what they got in return. He and his fellow Filipinos were shut out of unions, degraded by employers, and targeted by anti-immigrant violence. “Why was America so kind and yet so cruel?” Bulosan wrote in a semiautobiographical novel published in 1943, after he’d become an author and labor activist. “Was there no way to simplifying things in this continent so that suffering would be minimized?”

The answer seems to be no. The United States has always needed new workers to contribute to its economy, but it hasn’t always wanted them to settle down, making their status fluctuate between indispensable resource and burden on the economy. From the enslavement of Africans that began in the 17th century to the recent fights between Silicon Valley companies and the US government over the H-1B work visa, which permits companies to temporarily hire foreign workers, the country has a long history of recruiting foreigners—by invitation or by force—to relocate here and contribute to its economic success. But it has rarely made those workers feel welcome once they arrive.

Almost as soon as the first British colonizers arrived in North America in the 1600s, they began to exert control over who could live in their new communities—including the indigenous people who were, of course, already there. By the mid-17th century, colonial companies were bringing indentured servants from Europe and enslaving individuals from Africa to work in the growing tobacco, rice, and sugar industries. When immigrants arrived from other parts of Europe and North America in the 18th century, state leaders tried to preserve the white British colonial population through fearmongering and taxation of newcomers. Benjamin Franklin fretted over German immigration in an essay from 1751: “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.”

After the American Revolution, the nation passed its first federal citizenship law, in 1790: it allowed “free white persons” of “good moral character” to eventually become citizens, while keeping black and indigenous Americans disenfranchised. To the chagrin of people like Franklin, the country’s “complexion” would only keep changing. By the mid-19th century, the government was seeking more (white) immigrants to fill out the ranks of the Union army and help expand the country westward. A boom in American production in the late 1800s forced manufacturers in the East and Midwest to look to Europe as a source of cheap, accessible workers, while agricultural companies in the Southwest relied on Asia and, later, Mexico for the same.


With this influx of new residents, state and federal leaders were torn between satisfying the demands of anti-immigration advocates, families of immigrants who had become voting citizens, and business leaders who opposed restrictions on their labor reserves in favor of “the golden stream which flows into the country every year through immigration,” as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie put it in 1886. It wasn’t uncommon for politicians to be openly and virulently anti-immigrant. “Persons who come to the United States reduce the rate of wages by ruinous competition, and then take their savings out of the country, are not desirable. They are mere birds of passage,” wrote Massachusetts Republican representative Henry Cabot Lodge in 1891, referring to Italian immigrants. “They form an element in the population which regards as home a foreign country, instead of that in which they live and earn money. They have no interest or stake in the country, and they never become American citizens.”

“Persons who come to the United States reduce the rate of wages by ruinous competition, and then take their savings out of the country, are not desirable. They are mere birds of passage.”

Advances in manufacturing technologies and increased union-management disputes in the late 19th century led to labor unrest, and American companies had no qualms about hiring foreign workers as scabs: they were often willing to work for less money, with no job protection. While employers attempted to prevent their new, foreign-born hires from meeting American workers and joining unions, American workers grew resentful of the immigrants themselves, accusing them of undermining the labor movement by accepting lower wages.

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This sort of resentment erupted into the country’s first outright ban on immigrants: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The effort was led by legislators from California, where Chinese laborers had been working in mines and on farms, as well as building railroads, for about 30 years. By the late 1860s, railroad companies were recruiting thousands of workers at a time from China, paying them only two-thirds of what they paid white laborers for dangerous, backbreaking work. Anti-Chinese activists argued that Chinese workers were stealing American jobs and corrupting white society with amoral behavior, religion, and sexuality. The Exclusion Act, which kept nearly all Chinese people from entering the country, wasn’t repealed until 1943.

Despite the United States’ antipathy toward them, the vast majority of immigrants who were allowed into the country found a way to stay. The number of foreign-born residents increased from less than 7 million in 1880 to around 14 million in 1920—just over 13 percent of the population. Even when quotas were imposed on immigration in the 1920s, agribusiness and manufacturing employers lobbied to have Canadians and Mexicans exempted.

Businesses in the West were particularly keen to bring workers over the southern border. By 1910, according to historian Natalia Molina, employers “insisted that, because Mexicans were an inferior race, they were well suited for hard labor” in agriculture and on the railroads. But that didn’t mean they wanted them to stay forever. The United States established the Border Patrol and ramped up deportation proceedings in the 1920s—and once the Depression hit, Mexican and Mexican American workers were among those who paid the price: in the face of mass unemployment and Dust Bowl–driven migration, an estimated 1 million people were deported to Mexico. (Many of them were even American citizens.) Even that wouldn’t last, though, and once the US entered World War II, the country went looking for Mexican workers once more.

Until the mid-20th century, foreign workers in the US had mostly been tolerated for their cheap labor and willingness to do jobs white Americans wouldn’t. But in 1965, in an attempt to improve diplomatic relationships with foreign allies and reinforce the United States’ commitment to meritocracy, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act. Among other things, the act ended quota caps on specific nations—essentially reopening immigration to non-Europeans—and prioritized family ties as a basis for immigration. Not only that, but it built on reforms from the early 1950s, courting newcomers with “exceptional skills” who could enhance the American economy. Since then, a crop of work visas aimed at specially skilled foreigners has sprouted, among them the P-1A, for elite athletes; the TN, for Canadian and Mexican “professionals” (meaning anything from veterinarians to graphic designers); and, of course, the O-1, for people of “extraordinary ability or achievement.”

But getting approval to work in the US remains confusing and expensive. Costs—including fees for applications and medical exams as well as travel expenses—can run to thousands of dollars, and the wait time for the processing of even a standard work-visa application can be months. And in an echo of the centuries-old push and pull between nativism and capitalism, the Trump administration’s April 2017 “Buy American, Hire American” executive order directly targets the H-1B visa program beloved by Silicon Valley tech companies, which often use it to bring in workers from South and East Asia. As a result, the New York Times reported recently, USCIS denied 41 percent more H-1B visa applications for skilled workers in the last three months of 2017 than it had in the previous quarter. Similarly, agricultural employers coast-to-coast have reported labor shortages due to immigration-policy red tape, raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the fact that many people are now too afraid to risk migrating to the US.

Contemporary arguments against immigration rely on the same kind of fearmongering rhetoric that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. In his first State of the Union Address this past January, President Trump said that so-called open borders “have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.” In September 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens”—which has not proven true—and this past May, White House chief of staff John Kelly addressed the arrival of undocumented immigrants with skepticism: “The vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals ... but they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” (For all the discussion of undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America, more Canadians may have overstayed their visas than people from any other country last year.)

Contemporary arguments against immigration rely on the same kind of fearmongering rhetoric that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, foreign-born residents make up roughly 13 percent of the American population—as they did in 1920. Twelve percent of Americans have at least one foreign-born parent. Whether they’re undocumented or have “extraordinary ability,” it has been long established that the United States needs foreign workers to make its cars, pick its vegetables, look after its elderly, take care of its babies, prepare its meals, star in its films, write its code, and much more. And those foreign workers need something simple in return: to be treated with respect. “What do we want?” wrote Carlos Bulosan in an essay for the Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago. “We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promises and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger. If you want to know what we are—we are marching!”

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