Does America Really Love its Immigrants?

The recent immigration ban issued by the new administration has brought an outpour of protests and outcries against it. And rightfully so… The prohibition to issue visas to people of predominantly Muslin countries is seen as discriminatory by, apparently, a vast sector of America’s population. However, we must not forget that, Mr. Trump’s ban follows its promise to do so during the election process. That promise enticed many voters to cast their votes for him.

Most Americans are proud of their immigration heritage. They will say “we are all daughters and sons of immigrants” and many will – as a proof that America has always welcomed people from far and near lands – recite the words from Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus” engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which says:

… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

However, this poem and that altruistic attitude haven’t always been prevalent among the population and the government of the United States. As early of 1798 Congress passed several bills aimed mostly against foreigners (the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Sedition Act and the Alien Enemies Act). They were enacted under the excuse of strengthening “national security”. However, their real purpose was an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist Party, in power at that time. When Thomas Jefferson and its Democratic-Republican Party won the elections in 1800, the first three laws were allowed to expire. However, the Alien Enemies Act stayed in the books and was used as a basis for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A modified version of the Act is still in force today.

By the middle of the 19th century, America saw a great influx of immigrants coming from Europe. Crop failures in Germany and famine in Ireland forced thousands to emigrate. America’s vast extension opened opportunities to farmers who had lost their own land in their countries. Others would become workers in the industrialized cities. And in the West, the call of recent discovered gold would be answered by thousands of immigrant Chinese. These were not always welcomed and not long after they started to arrive in California, they were forced by law to stop prospecting for gold.

About the same time, the first anti-immigration movement was born: the Know Nothing or American Party, whose membership was restricted to men of the Protestant faith. Their aim was to “purify” society and politics, as well as to increase restrictions on immigrants.  The members of the movement feared competition for jobs from immigrants. So, they used fear tactics, saying that the country was being overrun by German and Irish Catholics, who were controlled by the Pope and whose goal was to take over the United States, and place the country under the rule of the Papacy.

In some places, the Know Nothings accused Catholics of swamping the polls with non-citizens and there were many acts of violence against foreigners. However, the movement fizzled in the eve of the Civil War, although the anti-immigrant sentiment never really died.

Thanks to the rapid industrialization of the United States at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, immigrants were welcomed, with the exception of Asians, who were barred from entering the US by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 – only repealed in 1943 – and those who had arrived earlier were ineligible for citizenship and could not hold property. But for Europeans jobs were plentiful, especially because the new arrivals could be paid very low wages. By then the old Irish and German immigrants had been assimilated, and there were few arrivals from those countries. Thus, the new wave consisted of mostly Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans.

However, anxiety towards immigration and refuges never really abated. Accordingly, Presidents and Congress have acted upon those fears and sanctioned “punitive immigration quotas after the Bolshevik Revolution through the 1920 and ‘30s (a period of ‘America first’), and with refuges from the communist bloc in the early 1950s”, as John Meacham points out in an article in the last issue of Time Magazine,

And let’s not forget the undocumented aliens that have poured from the South in the last seventy years or so. It all started with an immigration program implemented during the WW II and designed to alleviate the agricultural labor crisis in the southwest. In 1942 the government created the Bracero Program, aimed at importing Mexican laborers and giving American farmers the opportunity to hire low paying aliens to do hard farm work under substandard living conditions.

Still, for the vast majority of Mexicans who came (many illegally), the possibility of work in the U.S. was seen as an opportunity to escape their economic deprivation at home, and many stayed after the program was ended. Thus, although opposed by most southwestern growers, – who were seeing their pool of cheap labor being emptied – the government implemented Operation Wetback,* an all-out campaign to close the American-Mexican border to illegal immigration 1954. That year the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) captured and deported more than one million illegal aliens. By 1957 the INS declared that, “the so-called wetback problem no longer exists. The border has been secured”.

The Mexican border did not stay secure for long. Social and economic conditions in Mexico in the 1960’s had worsened and from the 1970’s on the push North became almost unstoppable. In the last two decades of the 20th Century, again prejudice and bigotry were rampant and illegal aliens were accused of all sorts of evil. According to those complaints, “They stole jobs, lowered wages, steeped crime rates, smuggled drugs, imported diseases, and drained social services. They gobbled up food stamps, cashed in on unemployment insurance and welfare, crowded hospitals and schools.”

America, through its history, has not been always as open and welcoming as we would like to think, and Mr. Trump’s measures and plans have not been made in a total vacuum. However, the demonstrations and protests in support of immigrants and refugees that have been affected by the new administration measures should give us hope. As Mr. Meacham says, at the end of his article: “one of the great things about America is that redemption is always possible. At least thus far.”




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