This cartoon reflects increased calls for immigration restriction, and emphasizes the economic impact of immigration by comparing it to the nation’s trade policy. The American workingman demands that Uncle Sam not only protect him with high tariffs from the competition of foreign manufacturers, but also protect him from the job competition of foreign immigrants.
Since the 1840s, immigrant workers had been used to replace American workers on strike. With a labor shortage during the Civil War, Congress passed the Act to Encourage Immigration (1864) under which transportation costs of employers importing workers were repaid by the federal government. The Contract Labor Act, as it became known, was repealed in 1868, but the practice continued of employers paying the transportation costs of foreign immigrants in return for a period of unpaid work (i.e., indentured servitude).
The Knights of Labor, the nation’s largest union in the early postwar decades, fought for restricting the immigration of Chinese workers. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from China for ten years. The law was amplified and extended for another decade by the Geary Act, which was enacted early in the presidential election year of 1892.
The Knights of Labor also lobbied for a series of federal laws against contract labor, which Congress passed in the late 1880s. Provisions barred all contract workers from entering the United States, established inspection of immigrant papers at ports of entry, fined those employing contract laborers, paid informants of contract labor situations, and allowed expulsion of contract workers from the United States.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in 1886 and soon replaced the Knights of Labor as the nation’s largest and most influential union. It was led by Samuel Gompers, an immigrant from Britain, who had previously fought competition from Chinese workers through his local San Francisco union. Gompers believed that the main duty of the AFL was to ensure better working conditions for American labor, and that the influx of immigrants undermined that goal by providing a ready source of replacement workers during strikes and by reducing wages generally through a large labor supply.
A significant shift in the pattern of American immigration began in the 1880s, and the ethnic and religious characteristics of the new arrivals increased support for the immigration restriction movement. Previously, immigrants came primarily from Northern and Western Europe, especially the British Isles and Germany, and most were Protestant; thereafter, they arrived increasingly from Southern and Eastern Europe, and many were Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish. In 1887, Henry Bowers of Iowa established the American Protective Association (APA), a secret anti-Catholic society that pushed for immigration restriction. By the early 1890s, the APA had an estimated membership of over one million, mainly in the Midwest. (The group faded in importance with the return of economic prosperity after 1896.)
In 1892, all three parties competing in the presidential election criticized unrestricted immigration in their party platforms. The Populist platform was the least specific, condemning “imported pauperized labor [that] beats down … wages” of American workers. The Republican platform succinctly endorsed “more stringent laws and regulations for the restriction of criminal, pauper, and contract immigration.” The Democratic platform was the most specific and emphatic:
We heartily approve all legitimate efforts to prevent the United States from being used as the dumping ground for the known criminals and professional paupers of Europe; and we demand the rigid enforcement of the laws against Chinese immigration and the importation of foreign workmen under contract, to degrade American labor and lessen its wages; but we condemn and denounce any and all attempts to restrict the immigration of the industrious and worthy of foreign lands.