A nation may be riven by contrasting political views, social issues, religions, races, and so forth. But if citizens are not willing to accept these differences and deal with them in a civil fashion, democracy cannot work. The rants by Donald Trump and some of the other Republican presidential candidates against Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants runs counter to the America we like to think exists. It appears as if the United States no longer wants the world’s tired and poor, and no longer cares if there are people who are homeless and tempest tossed, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But is this a dramatic change in the nation’s outlook, or is this way America has been in the past, keeping these attitudes hidden.
Actually, even though America is truly a nation of immigrants, there have always been citizens who wanted to keep newcomers out, for economic reasons or because of outright prejudice. It is easy to forget that the Native Americans, the first people to occupy the North American land mass, were here prior to any European immigrants. The early settlers, mainly the English, French, and Dutch, killed off most of the Native Americans with diseases to which they lacked immunity and in wars where they were overwhelmed with modern weapons. (At the time of initial European contact, it is estimated that there were 90-100 million people living in the Americas, 10 million in the current U.S. and Canada. This was more than the total population of Europe during that period. By the time European colonization began in earnest, however, 80-90 percent of the original inhabitants of the Americas had been annihilated, mainly by European diseases, but also by war and famine).
When the colonists separated from Great Britain and formed the United States, there was a surfeit of land available for those who wanted to farm, and tradesmen and craftsmen were needed to aid the economy. But citizens wanted immigrants who were similar to them and during the 19th century were hostile to Catholics and later on to Chinese. The Know-Nothing Party developed during the 1850s as a manifestation of anti-Catholic sentiment, focusing particularly on blocking Irish immigrants but also German Catholics. The Party elected a number of mayors, state legislators, and Congressmen building on nativist fears. American Protestants were afraid that Catholics were controlled by the Pope and did not subscribe to American values.
Though Chinese immigration started with the California gold rush in the mid-19th century, and work was available building the railroads and in the mines, racial bigotry and hostility to an alien culture soon surfaced. When unemployment grew after the Civil War, the California legislature passed laws banning Chinese immigration to the state and intermittent violence against Chinese enclaves occurred. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress, superseding previous laws and blocking immigration by Chinese laborers. Subsequent legislation made immigration even more difficult and blocked re-entry after trips home to China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, during the midst of World War II, with China as one of our allies.
To restrict the immigration of Italians, Eastern Europeans (mainly Jews), and Asians, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed. This set quotas at very low levels on the number of immigrants from various countries who wanted to enter the United States, and completely prohibited the entry of Arabs and Asians. Though earlier laws had had a similar aim, the 1924 bill was much more stringent. Crime and disease in the cities was blamed on these immigrants who did not meet the vision of how Americans should look and act. Supposedly, they also depressed wages for workers who were already here.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, the Roosevelt administration refused to grant entry visas to hundreds of thousands of German Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis. The State Department was “concerned” that this action might antagonize Hitler and that the Jews might require public support since the German government had confiscated all of their assets. In reality, this was a manifestation of anti-Semitism among State Department officials. Untold numbers of deaths resulted from this policy that would not allow desperate refugees into the U.S.
During and after World War II with the American economy booming, immigration loosened up with the Bracero Program starting in 1942, recruiting migrant workers from Mexico to meet agricultural labor needs. Though granting temporary status, many of these millions of workers remained and became citizens. More Asians also migrated to the U.S. and gained citizenship, particularly after the Vietnam War when preference was given to refugees from Indochina. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the quota system and allowed a wave of immigration from non-European nations, ultimately responsible for transforming America’s demographic make-up. The flow of immigrants, both legally and illegally, mainly from Asia and Latin America, has continued over the last several decades.
America needs immigrants for jobs in the agricultural sector, hospitality and restaurant positions, which native workers tend to spurn. High-tech immigrants, with STEM degrees, many of whom have trained in the United States are also needed to further stimulate our entrepreneurial culture. These individuals form numerous start-up companies, generate patents, and are in demand in mature technology businesses.
In the past at various times, America put up barriers to new immigrants which subsequently came back to haunt us. When people are accepting and understanding of differences, diversity can work for the good of the nation. Deporting millions of immigrants is a foolish idea, as is the demonizing of all Muslims whose aid we need to fight the extremists. Securing our borders is a reasonable concept, but Americans must live and work with the new people who reside in our country. America’s strength has come from past immigration and melding of the differences among various cultures. We should not forget that.
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Political junkie, Vietnam vet, neurologist- three books on aging and dementia. Book on health care reform in 2009- Shock Therapy for the American Health Care System. Book on the need for a centrist third party- Resurrecting Democracy- A Citizen’s Call for a Centrist Third Party published in 2011. Aging Wisely, published in August 2014 by Rowman and Littlefield. Latest book- The Uninformed Voter published May 2020