The famous words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved on a bronze plaque at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, have always been more aspirational than reflective of the reality of American history. One of the few constants of our history has been the determination of every new group that reaches the shores of our country in search of a better life to slam the doors and bar them against groups lined up to come in behind them.
Anti-immigration sentiment has been a near constant among the American people. The immigrant groups such sentiment has been invoked against have changed over the years, but the hatred, prejudice, and abuse heaped upon them has not.
At the very time Lazarus was writing her poem, in 1883, the United States had just passed its first real immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law singled out Chinese (the “Yellow Peril” in the journalistic parlance of the time) as singularly unsuited to become residents and citizens of the US. Until that time, for more than 100 years of our history, immigration was essentially unlimited, and everyone had a chance to come to the US and eventually become a citizen. Not that they received a warm welcome from those already here, but there was no such thing as an “illegal immigrant” during the time period when white European immigration was at its peak.
Excepting some archaic phrasings, anti-immigrant sentiments from earlier periods of our history could just as easily have been expressed by those who oppose immigration (legal and/or illegal) today. Here are just a few illustrative examples:
“Few of their children in the country learn English. . . . The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages. . . . Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
Was this Joe Arpaio talking about Mexican immigrants to the American southwest? No, it was Benjamin Franklin talking about German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Could he perhaps have been talking about our Brethren ancestors?
“We should build a wall of brass around the country.”
Was this Donald Trump in the last election campaign? Fortunately not, as making his infamous wall out of brass would be even more expensive than it already is reported to be. No, it was John Jay, who went on to become the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, also in the 1750s. The target of his fear and ire? Catholics, seen as a dangerous threat to Protestant Christianity in the New World. I guess at least Jay didn’t try to claim he was going to make the Pope pay for the wall.
“The enormous influx of alien foreigners will in the end prove ruinous to American workingmen, by REDUCING THE WAGES OF LABOR. . . .”
Was this a Breitbart editorial from the last few years? No, it was a Philadelphia Sun editorial from 1854. The immigrant group “provoking” such fear of economic ruin? The Irish, commonly depicted at the time as lazy, violent, drunken, and perhaps worst of all . . . Catholic.
“Now, what do we find in all our large cities? Entire sections containing a population incapable of understanding our institutions, with no comprehension of our national ideals, and for the most part incapable of speaking the English language. . . . America’s first duty is to those already within her own shores.”
Was this from a speech in Congress by an America First devotee during recent attempts (and failures) to enact immigration reform? No, it was a statement by Rep. Grant Hudson in 1924. The target of his ire was not Mexicans, nor Muslims, but rather Italians and Slavs fleeing poverty, war, and oppression in their own countries.
From the beginning of immigration legislation with the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress, motivated by these powerful nativist fears and prejudices, has passed numerous additional restrictions on immigration and has made it easier to deport illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens. On a few rare occasions, the laws were liberalized, such as when purely race-based criteria for exclusion were finally dropped (while still maintaining several provisions clearly favoring white immigrants) in 1954.
Since 1996, Congress has been unable to pass any significant immigration legislation, paralyzed by a divide between nativists determined to lower the level of immigration, and reformers aiming to keep the level of immigration roughly the same while addressing weaknesses and injustices in the law.
All of the debate about immigration has occurred despite the near unanimous consensus of both historians and economists that immigration has been a tremendous advantage for the US. Immigration is largely credited with enabling our rapid expansion into a world power, and giving our economy a dynamism and creativity that is the envy of the rest of the developed world. Our country literally has been built on the sweat of generations of immigrants, each of whom faced prejudice and hatred upon their arrival.
Some things never change. Currently, Hispanic and Muslim immigrants are the targets of nativist fear-mongering, whereas in the past it was Chinese, Irish, Italians, Slavs, Catholics, Jews, and even Germans. One of the saddest ironies is that the descendants of many of those who faced discrimination on their arrival in the US are now among the loudest in demonizing immigrants today. We apparently do not know our history, or have not learned anything from it.
If Americans cannot or will not learn from our history, perhaps we Christians can learn from the Bible:
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt”
(Leviticus 19:33- 34).
Is there anything the least bit unclear about this instruction?
Brian Bachman is a former diplomat with the US State Department. A member of the Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Va., he is 2017 moderator of Mid-Atlantic District. He blogs at https://pigheadedmoderate.com