One of my favorite newspaper columnists, George Will, has gone a bit off track in his recent column about the Homestead Act of 1862. Will cites a National Park Service official's characterizing this act as "the first comprehensive immigration law." As much as I like George Will, I'm afraid he misapprehends important points in his otherwise interesting column about a 19th-century law intended to draw population to America's wide open spaces out west.
The first thing to note is that the Homestead Act didn't disadvantage or deprive Americans vis-a-vis immigrants under the law's terms of acquiring property ownership. The law did mirror naturalization residency requirements. But native-born Americans could equally pay the homesteading fee and work 160 acres for five years to gain title to that land. The same terms applied to both native-born and immigrant. The principle of fairness and equal treatment of the native-born should not be overlooked or discounted. And it's borne out by a fact that Will cites: "most homesteaders came from near their homesteads — Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, etc."
Second, those immigrants who did seek farmland under the act had to have sufficient means to gain admission into the United States and not be turned back as "public charges", plus they had to come up with $18 for the required fee (equal to $415 in 2011 dollars). If they paid off the land after six months at $1.25 per acre, they had to put down today's equivalent of $4,610 (or more than $800 above a Union brigadier general's annual pay). Thus, to the extent the Homestead Act promoted immigration, it promoted the immigration of those of sufficient means and commitment to this nation.
Another thing important to note is that 19th century immigrants came not only from different nations, but spoke different languages and had different cultural backgrounds. This represented actual diversity, not "diversity" in name only, as today's immigration is comprised heavily of people from different nations, but who all speak the same language and share essentially the same cultural heritage. There was a more significant difference between German and Irish immigrants a century and a half ago than exists between Mexican and Nicaraguan or Colombian immigrants today. The earlier mix lent itself to the need of immigrants to assimilate patriotically, politically, culturally, and economically and to learn English, if they hoped to survive and advance as new stakeholders in this nation.
Further, the Homestead Act wasn't "comprehensive" in the sense that term is employed these days. Everyone understands that "comprehensive immigration reform" is a synonym for "mass amnesty". The homesteaders haling from abroad weren't immigration lawbreakers. They came to this country lawfully, and they came intending to invest themselves wholeheartedly in this nation, no turning back. Indeed, as Will notes, this law was intended to curb the deleterious effect of what amounted to foreign guestworkers: "[A]n immigration commissioner of New York later testified to Congress, large numbers of immigrants would "come regularly to this country every spring" but would take themselves and their earnings back to Europe in the autumn, not paying taxes and depressing American wages." Rather, the law sought to invite would-be landowners to work the land and make a life for themselves and their families on property they earned with sweat equity. It put them "on the land, far from the dissolving forces of urbanity", as Will phrased it in his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft.
Will concludes with a non sequitur for a closing paragraph, which ends on unsupported (and easily rebutted) assertions:
Skeptics will say that the Homestead Act, which welcomed immigrants to a sparsely populated continent, is irrelevant to today. Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America's workforce needs replenishing.
The idea behind the Homestead Act isn’t irrelevant today, when vast numbers of Americans live on the East Coast and West Coast and in a handful of Midwestern cities. "Flyover country" could stand a revival of residents, but more by internal migration from our coasts to the interior. The unhealthy conglomerations in urban megalopolises contribute to many of our national ills, including the unsustainable, dysfunctional welfare state (which mass immigration today actually fosters and, by the way, disproportionately burdens the native-born and benefits the foreign-born) and pockets of dying small towns left to the aging while younger people don't return and settle there after leaving for college.
A more considered, accurate look at the demographic facts would show that immigration today isn't "entrepreneurial," but contributing more to the problem than serving as part of the nation's solution. Constantly pouring poor immigrants into congested urban areas doesn’t promote immigrants’ self-sufficiency, American allegiance, wealth creation, or national cohesion, much less demanding their personal investment into and deep devotion to this great nation and her future. Meanwhile, it harms the most vulnerable Americans, including disproportionately blacks, young people, and those having no more than a high school diploma. Perhaps such a revelation would help instill what Will called in his 1983 book, "a special responsibility and urgency about providing and conserving a common character." That's a goal worth pursuing.