If you oppose the new Central American (mostly from Honduras) “caravan” of over 7,000 migrants, it’s an “invasion;” if you support them it’s a “right” of travel and citizenship. In colonial America, similar divisions dominated the political discourse. About half the country (then of three million) welcomed the British army as legitimate protectors of their way of life. They were “Tories,” or Loyalists, and their tragic lot has been conveniently forgotten in the momentum of history. For them, America was British territory and, thus, “invasion” was an inappropriate expression.
To the other, and winning side, the Redcoats represented “tyranny,” “taxation without representation” (a slogan still invoked today on DC license tags). England’s rule was “oppressive,” and these “Patriots” fought history’s first and most important war for freedom and independence.
Perhaps the most memorable slogan from that first conflict for freedom was the cry, attributed to Paul Revere, around Boston that “The British are coming,” warning Patriots of an imminent attack by the British army.
Fast forward nearly two and a half centuries, and the country, now 330 million, faces a crisis hauntingly similar — if not in kind at least in scope — with implications still ominous for freedom and future.
Throughout its history, the United States has represented the world’s singular nation that was comprised of a public born elsewhere. These “hyphenated” Americans, who traveled, mostly from Europe, for months over turbulent waters, came to dominate what the late President Kennedy accurately called in his famous book, a “nation of immigrants.” Most Americans proudly call themselves first by their heritage and, secondly by their “adopted” country. (Curiously, there is no identification as “English-American,” the immigrants that created the country).
While still a nation of immigrants, American society increasingly kept a watchful eye on who came in and who was kept out. At first, it was akin to “open borders,” with each state responsible for its own immigration. But as the country grew, along with the Federal government, regulations on immigration began to emerge. These also responded to the growing split between the old and the new, including riots, discrimination, persecution and violence. The movie Gangs of New York demonstrated this phenomenon graphically.
By the mid-nineteenth century, millions of beleaguered emigrants, almost all from Ireland and Germany, found refuge in America’s “New World,” for reasons similar to those found in today’s caravan from Central America. They too were escaping poverty and persecution, both religious and political, and violence by home governments. Between 1847 and 1850, for example, almost two million Irish died of starvation as the ruling British government did next to nothing to alleviate the great potato famine. By any standard, there is very little — including Honduran poverty – that can approach such a tragic episode (dismissed now amidst “white privilege”).
Subsequent to the famine, about four million Irish left for America. One difference between then and now is that those newcomers obeyed the law; now, they intend to break it even before they arrive. It does not bode well if one’s very first act upon entry into another country is illegal. So much for a “nation of laws.”
By the late nineteenth century, restrictions began to curtail even legal immigration. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all further immigration of Chinese into the country. Similar legislation against the Japanese had a powerful influence in both countries and remained an important resentment right up to Pearl Harbor. In 1890, the U.S. designated Ellis Island, next to the Statue of Liberty, as a federal immigration station responsible for the vetting of newcomers. More than twelve million immigrants, under careful supervision, passed legally until its closing in 1954. Obviously, America did not consider entry a contradiction of liberty, so long as it was supervised.
But the 1924 Immigration Act, and later legislation, served as the dominant restrictive force in American history. This act created the first quota system by limiting to two percent of the total number of immigrants per country as of the 1890 census. Aimed primarily against eastern and southern Europe, it also closed the doors to entire continents and regions, including Africa, Asia and the Arab World. Immigration from Italy, as one example, fell by ninety percent. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act finally lifted the quotas but allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from home countries, resulting in a shift of locale from Europe to Mexico and Central America.
Thus, American history has expressed both tolerance and intolerance in its immigration patterns. Two concepts, however, dominated: assimilation and legality. Both of these are now under severe challenge, with the potential to decide the future of the sovereign country. Will it become “balkanized” or stay united, issues that defined both its creation (1776) and the survival (1861)?
Much is at stake with the caravan. There is a powerful “open border” lobby in the media, entertainment, and government, that wishes sovereignty away and embraces a “globalized” world, without borders. Should this force win, it may well end sovereignty as we know it. After all this time, it is the new “Tories” that will have won.
Please note that the views expressed by our faculty, research fellows, students, alumni, and guest lecturers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Institute of World Politics.