At what point, in this great nation of immigrants, did calling someone an “immigrant” become such an insult?
Recent weeks — on the campaign trail and elsewhere — have been filled with ugly rhetoric about immigration status or other ethnic impurities, even when the target of such attacks has entered the country legally, is a naturalized American or is even an American by birth but descended from the wrong kind of parents. Witness Donald Trump’s proposal to deport first-generation Americans whose citizenship is conferred upon them, constitutionally, by birth. Witness legions of white nationalists lining up behind him, and the coded “dog-whistle politics” that other candidates are invoking to attract their own anti-immigrant coalitions.
Even presidential contenders who are themselves the children of immigrants and lucky legatees of the great American melting pot are denouncing the uncontrollable invasion of foreigners. Their appeals to nativism are often cloaked in the procedural legalese of having the right “papers,” but at heart the message isn’t really about legal status: To this crowd, anyone who doesn’t look sufficiently white or sound sufficiently Anglophonic is presumed illegal until proven otherwise.
What historically benighted days we’ve stumbled into, when we’ve begun viewing immigrants as mere impurities to be flushed from our shores. What happened to the good old days when we valued the talent, drive and eclectic perspectives that scrappy émigrés brought to America?
Alas, those good old days — like most other good old days — probably never existed.
It’s tempting to blame Trump for igniting the fires of xenophobia, betraying the great tradition of embracing immigrant strivers. But the embarrassing truth is that the United States has always been hostile to immigrants. Or at least, a strong and vocal faction has been. This nativist streak dates back even to the earliest days of the republic.
You know Ellis Island, the place textbooks portray as the welcoming ward for generations of dreamers?
“We think of Ellis Island as this great monument to immigration. It’s really the monument to border control,” says Morris Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which painstakingly reconstructs the squalor and ambition of 19th- and 20th-century immigrants. Ellis Island was, Vogel notes, “the first wall,” often used to repel undesirables.
You know Lady Liberty’s entreaty to give her “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Emma Lazarus penned that sonnet when the United States began implementing strict laws to keep the huddled masses out. A year earlier, in 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major immigration law to restrict entry of a specific ethnic group, after complaints that the Chinese were polluting American culture and appropriating American jobs.
What about the European immigrants welcomed in decades prior, when they fled poverty, persecution or potato famine?
Well, in the mid-19th century, an entire national political party — the Know Nothings — was predicated on fears that morally and racially inferior German and Irish Catholic immigrants were threatening the livelihoods and liberties of native-born Protestants.
Even earlier, some of our most venerated Founding Fathers — people who had abundant evidence of the additive properties of ethnic diversity and benefits of infusing the economy with fresh blood — exhibited frighteningly nativist tendencies. Benjamin Franklin denounced the scourge of “swarthy” German immigrants who refused to speak English, for example.
Even the West Indian-born Alexander Hamilton — arguably the immigrant who made the biggest contribution to U.S. political history — later in his career denounced lax immigration policies. In the terrific bio-musical of his life now lighting up Broadway, the word “immigrant” is often hurled at him as a winking epithet. But in real life, perhaps for reasons of political expedience, he warned of letting in and then naturalizing too many foreigners, whose inferior breeding and insufficient commitment to American values might threaten the fragile republic. “In the infancy of the country, with a boundless waste to people, it was politic to give a facility to naturalization; but our situation is now changed,” he wrote in 1802.
In hindsight we might look upon the fear-mongering nativism of eras past as foolish or confused. Really, we didn’t consider the Irish white? Really, we didn’t think our (much less populous) country had room to absorb more workers in the 19th century? We may be tempted to believe it was silly for our ancestors to fear newcomers who in retrospect added so much to this country and its economy, yet simultaneously believe it’s imprudent for us not to react the same way today. “After me, no more, please” is, unfortunately, a persistent refrain in American history.
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