At the end of this year in which election results reinserted immigration into the political conversation, remember that 2012 is the 150th anniversary of “the first comprehensive immigration law.” This is how the Homestead Act of 1862 is described by Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, Neb., one of the National Park Service’s many educational jewels that make the NPS one of just two government institutions (the other is the U.S. Marine Band) that should be exempt from any budget cuts, for all eternity.
In 1862, the grim year of Shiloh and Fredericksburg, Congress would have been forgiven for concentrating only on preventing national dismemberment. Instead, while defiantly continuing construction of the Capitol dome, Congress continued nation-building. It passed the Pacific Railway Act to provide for the movement of people and goods to and from the new lands in the West, the Morrill Act to build land-grant colleges emphasizing agriculture, and, most important, the Homestead Act, whose provisions were as simple as the problem it addressed was stark.
What today is called the Great Plains was at that time identified on maps as the Great American Desert. Under the act, $18 in fees entitled homesteaders to farm 160 acres to which they would acquire title for no further cost after five years. Or after six months, if they paid $1.25 an acre. (Union soldiers could deduct their time in uniform from the residency requirement.) The act was intended to attract immigrants from abroad — immigrants who would put down roots. For this purpose it provided all requirements for citizenship.