A Short History of American Opposition to Immigration

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus' poem at base of Statue of Liberty

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus’ poem at base of Statue of Liberty

“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The words of Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty must have sounded ironic to many hopeful American immigrants. Even Lazarus’ poem hinted that immigrants would not be completely welcome, however. The poem’s next verse refers to them as “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Refuse is another word for garbage. Immigrants throughout America’s history have been treated like garbage—often turned away from the country they saw as their only hope for a better life.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asian and European immigrants trying to enter the U.S. faced strict immigration laws. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, suspended all Chinese immigration for ten years.

During the 1930s, Jews fleeing the Nazis received little aid from the U.S. government. In 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees, was not allowed to land in Cuba. For weeks, the ship hovered near the U.S. coast, but President Franklin Roosevelt refused to give the passengers even temporary sanctuary. The ship returned to Europe, and many passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps.

Any immigrants who managed to come to America still experienced discrimination. Ironically, other immigrants who arrived in  America somewhat earlier often mistreated newcomers. In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote in How the Other Half Lives, “the once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman, and has himself taken a hand at opposition…against these latter hordes.”

Anti-Semitism was prevalent in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. A poll from 1938 showed that Americans not only opposed Jewish immigration, but they disliked Jews more than any other minority. Even Jewish children were unwelcome. In response to a Congressional bill that would allow Jewish children to enter the country under the immigration quota, FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano, stated, “twenty-thousand charming children would all to soon turn into twenty-thousand ugly adults.”

Today many people still object to the immigration of people who are fleeing from poverty and violence in their home countries. Immigration reform is a hot-button issue in political campaigns across the U.S. Even with the background checks, fines, the requirement to learn English and having to wait in line for years behind legal immigrants under the comprehensive immigration reform bill, some Americans want to deport the eleven million immigrants who are living in the United States illegally. That number includes children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

The mindset of Americans toward immigration hasn’t changed much since the nineteenth century. The immigrants that some are seeking to keep out or deport may look different, but the desire to turn them away remains the same.

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