The century following 1820 may be divided into three great periods of immigration to the United States. During the first period, from 1820 to 1850, most of the immigrants came from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. In Response to this wave of immigration the No-Nothing Party was founded in New York in 1854. Tyler Anbinder in his book titled "Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850s" writes "The Know Nothing was a political movement by the nativist American political faction of the 1850s, characterized by political xenophobia, anti-Catholic sentiment, and occasional bouts of violence against the groups the nativists targeted. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope (Pius IX) in Rome." The Know Nothing platform included, among other things severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries, restricting political office to native-born Americans, mandating a wait of 21 years before an immigrant could gain citizenship, restricting public school teachers to Protestants, and mandating daily Bible readings in public schools (from the Protestant version of the Bible, of course).
In the second period, from 1850 to 1890, Ireland and China supplied a majority of the immigrants. Encouraged by nativist political groups Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was the climax to more than thirty years of growing anti-Chinese racism. Racial tensions increased as more and more Chinese emigrated, took jobs no one else wanted, and created competition in the job market.
The final period, from 1890 to 1920 the majority of the immigrants came from Italy and Russia. From 1900 to 1914 more than a million aliens entered the U.S. every year. John J. Simon writing in Monthly Review tells us, “Manhattan… in... 1902, was, like today's city, a locus of great wealth and mean privation. The city's ruling class were the confident arrogant leaders of the emerging American colossus. Lower Manhattan was headquarters for U.S. finance and industrial monopolies, J. P. Morgan and Standard Oil. The city was a manufacturing center as well. The garment, printing, shipping, and rail industries all needed cheap labor. New York's population exploded with a flood of newcomers. Southern and eastern Europeans poured into dormitory neighborhoods, the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and East Harlem to name a few, overcrowded, noisy, and fetid with garbage....The city was a cacophony of accents and dialects. One person in four spoke almost no English.”
During World War I, in 1917, Congress passed an immigration law that imposed a literacy test and created an Asiatic Barred Zone to shut out Asians. After World War I a marked increase in racism and the growth of isolationism led to demands for further restrictive legislation. In 1921 and again in 1924 Congress created a quota system for immigrants where aliens from northern and western Europe who were considered racially superior than those from southern and eastern Europe were favored. And it was no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan experienced an explosion in membership during the 1920s. Preaching "One Hundred Percent Americanism" the Klan at its peak in 1925 had 4.5 million members or 15% of the eligible voting population.
The present wave of immigration to the United States from Latin America and the response it has engendered from the political right-wing centered mainly within the Republican Party is nothing less than a repeat of historical nativist Know-Nothingism. Despite Republican Party protestation to the contrary, historically and presently, American immigration policy has always been informed by bigotry and racism.