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The Immigration Imbroglio: A Historical Perspective

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“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” goes the first line of poetry etched on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The poem was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus (d. 1887) but wasn’t placed there until 1903. The statue itself, a gift from France (but financed by American monies), originally had a confused meaning, being hailed both as a symbol of slave emancipation (the French design) and the open arms of the American people as the “land of the free.”

According to the poet’s biographer, Esther Shore, Lazarus “was the first American to make any sense of this statue” (2011). The notion that the statue symbolized a welcome to all comers who could make the voyage, in any case, has been the lasting importance of the image. In some sense, however, the confusion persists even today, as witnessed recently in the public argument between a CNN reporter (Acosta) and a Trump official (Miller) on the statue’s lasting meaning.​

Part of the meaning is accurate, ie. “land of the free,” but part is also propaganda, masking the reality of a highly restrictive historic welcome both for and against outsiders.

The factual basis of a “nation of immigrants” (to use John Kennedy’s famous book title) will reveal an open coast and borders for some outsiders and severely restrictive ones for others. Until the late nineteenth century, America was truly an “open” society, wherein immigrants, almost all from northern Europe, were allowed entrance with few or no restrictions. The arrival of English “pilgrims” in 1620 heralded the first influx of Europeans to arrive against a variety of oppressions in the “mother” country. In the mid-nineteenth century, over ten million newcomers from Germany and Ireland traveled to find homes in the Eastern and Midwestern cities, many of these impressed as “indentured servants,” as soldiers in the Union Army, or facing a variety of restrictions forced by “nativist” and labor elements in the country. The American Party (“Know Nothings”) had a brief but strong influence against immigration in the 1850s.

Until the late nineteenth century, immigration controls were administered by state and local officials. The hostility against these newcomers, however, led to a series of controls forced by the intervention of the Federal Government into the issue. The first restrictions in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, was forced by Californians and banned all further emigration of Chinese laborers into the country. Similar legislation against the Japanese in California had a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy and was an important resentment in Japan before Pearl Harbor. In 1890, the U.S. designated Ellis Island, near the Statue of Liberty, as a federal immigration station. More than twelve million immigrants, under careful control, passed through until its closing in 1954.

But the Immigration Act of 1924, and subsequent legislation, served as the definitive restrictive force in American history. This act created the first quota system by limiting to two percent of the total number of people from every nationality as of the 1890 census. Aimed primarily against eastern and southern Europe, it also severely closed off entire continents, all of Asia, the Arab world, and Africa. According to the State Department Office of the Historian, the 1924 law was passed “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” Immigration from Italy, for example, fell by ninety percent. After 1924, more Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Jews, Chinese and Japanese left the U.S. than entered. Between 1930 and 1950, America’s foreign-born population fell from eleven to seven percent. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act finally removed the quotas and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. As a result, a shift in immigration patterns went to Mexico and Central America, an issue that dominated the 2016 election and still controls policy debate to this day.

From this brief sketch, it is apparent that the purpose of immigration to the United States, contrary to the Statue of Liberty, was not primarily to serve as the world’s welfare state, but constructively to improve the home society. The key word has always been “assimilation,” and if that verb cannot work, then the experiment fails. Enclaves of foreign-born populations who refuse the values of their host nations, as Europe will testify, can represent an authentic threat to the integrity and existence of any people. It is no accident that the issue of immigration has become dominant today.

In judging history, perspective is essential, an intellectual quality in scant supply within contemporary American culture.