Are You Aware of our TRUE U.S. Immigration History?
If you’ve gotten a copy of The Girl From Saint Petersburg, you’ve seen I included Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, The New Colossus, in the beginning. I’ve always been intrigued by the poem. It’s welcoming, yet imposing nature. Just like the Statue itself. It’s also struck me how early the country’s split personality nature began when it comes to our acceptance of immigrants on our shores.
As a nation- most of us think of the poem’s famous lines when we think of U.S. immigration history. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We’re the Melting Pot nation, right? We had open shores and accepted everyone. Not exactly.
Our nation’s complicated welcoming/exclusionary stances go far further back than many of us realize. Immigration exclusionary proclamations began as far back as 1790. That is when Congress passed the first law dictating that only free white people of “good character” living in the U.S. for two years or longer could apply for citizenship.
The years following kept immigration in the forefront as Europeans continued to arrive. By 1849, America’s first anti-immigrant political party was formed. They drummed up support for the states to pass their own anti-immigration laws. But the Supreme Court overturned them in 1875, declaring that only the federal government could make and enforce immigration laws.
In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. This was the first in U.S. immigration history to place broad restrictions on a certain group. It was far from the last. By 1891, it was expanded to exclude polygamists, people convicted of certain crimes, and the sick and diseased. This was also when the Federal Office of Immigration was created along with a corps of immigration inspectors stationed at all ports of entry.
Xenophobia reached new heights at the start of the World Wars. The Immigration Act of 1917 established a literacy requirement for all immigrants and halted almost all immigration from Asian countries completely.
By May of 1924, the U.S. established a new nationality quota system. The law heavily favored Northern and Western European countries with immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland and Germany accounting for 70% of the issued visas. This was also when U.S. Border Patrol was established to crack down on illegal immigrants crossing the borders from Mexico and Canada.
The quota system remained in place until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson overturned it with a new seven-category preference system. He called the old quota system “unAmerican,” and said the new bill would correct a “cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
My last installment of Ruth’s story will take place during the time of this quota system. As I’ve begun research for it, my stomach has turned at the horrors we allowed in refusing refugees from Holocaust concentration camps etc.
I’m appreciative of Johnson’s apology, but I find myself still wondering at the complexities of our system. Are we embracing the Statue’s message? Will we ever have an immigration system that is truly equitable and fair? And most importantly, will we ever have an agreed upon definition of what it means to be an American?