Political parties

Political parties have impacted immigration in both positive and negative ways. Most American political parties have opposed unrestricted immigration and when in power have passed laws to restrict immigration and, at times, make naturalization more difficult. In contrast, membership in political parties and active participation in politics have provided one of the means by which members of some immigrant groups–particularly Irish and Germans–have been able to preserve their culture while becoming upwardly mobile in American society.

Throughout American history, the stances of political parties toward immigrants have been affected by a number of factors, including the naturalization status of the immigrants, the sizes of particular immigrant populations, and the general attitudes of the American voting constituency toward immigrants. From the late eighteenth century through the greater part of the twentieth century, parties mirrored the American distrust of foreigners, their languages, their religions, their cultures, and their physical appearances. Through that long period of time, the American population in general viewed immigrants as threats to the maintenance of their religious and cultural traditions as well as their jobs.Political partiesPolitical parties[cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Political parties[04220]

The platforms of almost all political parties have advocated restrictions on immigration and often have proposed more stringent requirements for naturalization. However, from 1850 through the last years of the twentieth century, the Democrat PartyDemocratic Party has been the one exception to this generalization. During the years surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century, as the composition of the American voting population was changing, with ever-increasing numbers of nonwhite and non-Anglo-Saxon voters, the political parties began to recognize the importance of immigrants as voters and became more aware of issues important to immigrants.

Nineteenth Century Political Parties

The nineteenth century witnessed massive immigration to the United States from Europe. Driven by famine, poor economic conditions, and political and religious persecution, immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Belgium, and central and eastern European countries. Their customs and lifestyles were different from those of native-born Americans, and most of them did not speak English. American citizens, who tended to be isolationist and distrust anything or anyone not American, reacted negatively to the influx of immigrants. Of particular concern were the large numbers of Irish immigrants;and political parties[political parties]Irish Catholic immigrants who were entering the country. The primarily Protestant Anglo-Saxon population was particularly apprehensive about Irish Catholic allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope. Limiting immigration or stopping it completely became a central issue. The political parties who had members seated in Congress called for restrictions on immigration and passed laws to that end.

Nativism, Nativism;and political parties[political parties]which advocated the perpetuation of the established Anglo-Saxon culture and the prevention of any foreign culture being established, resulted in the founding of a number of small political parties and Secret societiessecret societies who were anti-immigration and anti-immigrants. These included the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the American Party (also called the Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party]Know-Nothing Party) and the Greenback Labor PartyGreenback Labor Party. Members of these organizations were of Protestant faiths and came from the middle and working classes of society. They insisted that Roman CatholicRoman Catholics;opposition to immigrants, especially theIrish immigrants;and political parties[political parties]Irish Catholics, intended to gain elected offices and then place the country under the rule of the pope.

The other main tenent of their anti-immigrant stance was that immigrants should not be given jobs, that employers should only hire what the nativists called “true Americans.” In addition to restrictions on immigration, their campaign platform included proposals to increase the length of time immigrants had to live in the United States before becoming eligible to apply for naturalization. The American Party enjoyed considerable success in areas where large numbers of immigrants had settled. In 1854, the party gained control of the Massachusetts;nativismMassachusetts legislature. The Whig PartyWhig Party, one of the two major parties of the time, also advocated placing restrictions on immigration and looked upon immigrants as outsiders. In contrast, the other major party, the Democrats, was favorable to immigrants and recruited urban Irish and German immigrants into their party.

Irish Immigrants and the Democratic Party

The Democrat PartyDemocrat Party was already looked upon favorably by Irish immigrants;and political parties[political parties]Irish immigrants, who were for the most part laborers in factories, slaughterhouses, and steel mills in large cities such as Chicago, Boston, and New York. The party’s platform emphasized programs to provide government aid and protection to immigrants, the unemployed, and the impoverished. As the primary immigrant group targeted by the Nativism;and Irish immigrants[Irish immigrants]nativists, the Irish were well aware that they needed to have input into the political system in order to counter and prevent the type of legislation proposed. Becoming politically active was easier for the Irish than for the majority of the immigrant groups. They spoke English as well as Gaelic and were familiar with a political system that had many similarities to that of the United States. The Irish appeared to the Democratic Party as a population to be recruited because they were the largest ethnic group and their resistance to English oppression had developed a sense of unity among them. Thus the recruiting of the Irish in the United States would open the way to the winning of new
arrivals for the party as well.

In addition to wanting to offset the attacks of the Nativism;and political parties[political parties]nativists, the Irish immigrants;and political parties[political parties]Irish laborers were seeking to improve their economic situation and their lifestyle by acquiring better jobs. Membership in the Democrat Party was on way to achieving this goal. The Party offered jobs in city government and services to its loyal party workers. Helping to get out the vote and win the election meant better jobs and upward social mobility. So many Irish joined the Democratic Party that they actually came to dominate it and maintained that dominance from 1860 through the 1920’s. Although the patronage system of so-called Machine politics“machine politics” has been severely criticized for its cronyism and nepotism and for awarding of offices in return for political support rather than on the basis of merit, it did much to disperse the Irish throughout the various economic classes and to assimilate them into the general population of the United States.

German Immigrants<index-term><primary>German immigrants;and political parties[political parties]</primary></index-term> and the Republican Party

Between 1840 and 1920, a strong wave of anti-German feeling swept the United States. This was due in great part to the fact that the Germans, while assimilating in many ways, insisted upon maintaining their social culture and their language. They established German immigrants;schoolsGerman language elementary schools in their communities and taught their children in their native language. Taking the traditional Republican PartyRepublican Party position regarding immigrants as outsiders, Republicans in Illinois and Wisconsin attempted to pass laws in 1890 that would close the German language elementary schools. The laws did not pass, however, and German voters helped bring about the defeat of many Republican candidates in 1890. As active participants in the labor movement, the German immigrants were the major founders of the Socialist PartySocialist Party of America in 1901. Thus the German immigrants, like the Irish immigrants;and political parties[political parties]Irish immigrants, did not remain a “foreign” population outside the American political process. Instead, they became American citizens involved in American
political parties and the political life of the country.

Asian<index-term><primary>Asian immigrants;and political parties[political parties]</primary></index-term> Immigrants

From the mid-nineteenth century until after World War II during the 1940’s, Asian immigrants were excluded from the political life of the United States by a variety of laws restricting their rights and even excluding them from citizenship. During and after World War II, these laws were repealed and other laws favoring Asian immigrants were passed. By 1962, Asian immigrants were playing an active role in American politics as members of both major parties and increasing numbers of them were elected to public offices.

Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-first Century Trends

The twentieth century was a time of significant change in both the attitudes of Americans and the role of the United States in world affairs. The isolationism that had been popular in the United States since its founding was no longer a sustainable position for the country after two world wars. International cooperation became important and changed attitudes toward immigrants. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s also helped to change public attitudes. The concept of an exclusively white Anglo-Saxon electorate was challenged and began to be replaced by one that included individuals of other racial and ethnic ancestries.

Political parties began to recognize and target the African Americans;and political parties[political parties]African American population of voters and potential voters. Issues important to these voters became part of the platforms of the major political parties. At first, the major political parties focused more on African Americans;and political parties[political parties]African Americans than on immigrant populations, although many of the latter had ancestors who had immigrated from Europe and had already become members of political parties.

Due in large part to changes in U.S. immigration laws during the second half of the twentieth century, the composition of the population of the United States has changed significantly. During the early years of the twenty-first century, one out of every five adults living in the United States had been born in a foreign country. Approximately one-third of the population was of nonwhite and non-European descent. The largest of these groups was the Mexican American community, which was by then becoming recognized by both major political parties as a significant and important sector of the voting population. Presidential electionsIn the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, the Democrat PartyDemocratic Party and the Republican PartyRepublican Party targeted and made special efforts to attract the Mexican American voters.Political parties

Further Reading

  • Aldrich, John H. Why Parties: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Good, comprehensive look at political parties, why they were formed, and how they have changed.
  • Gerring, John. Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Excellent for information on the political parties and the changes they underwent during various historical periods. Discusses how party ideologies have affected attitudes toward immigrants.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Pattern of American Nativism, 1860 to 1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Excellent for understanding the anti-immigrant thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the formation of political parties based on nativism.
  • Junn, Jane, and Kerry L. Haynie, eds. New Race Politics in America: Understanding Minority and Immigrant Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Excellent coverage of how the American electorate has changed, with chapters on political party efforts to incorporate immigrants, and Asian and Mexican Americans, their political activities, and party attitudes toward them.
  • McLaughlin, John. Irish Chicago. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2003. Good look at the Irish immigrant population in Chicago and their political activity, from mayors to ward politicians.
  • Magaña, Lisa. Mexican Americans and the Politics of Diversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005. Excellent for understanding how political issues affect Mexican Americans. How Mexican Americans impact political parties and reasons for interest of major political parties in this ethnic community.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. New York: Humanity Books, 2000. Thorough study of the German immigrants in the United States, with sections on politics and nativism, German rural and urban communities, and German-speaking communities.

Congress, U.S.

Immigration waves

Irish immigrants

Know-Nothing Party

Machine politics


Presidential elections

Tammany Hall