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.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

At 4:45pm on Saturday March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of a factory in New York City. Workers had finished their work on shirtwaists–the women’s blouses produced in the Triangle Factory–and were ready to collect their paychecks. They were interrupted by shouts of “Fire!” Samuel Bernstein, one of the managers, tried to throw buckets of water on the fire, but the material used to make shirtwaists was highly flammable.

Bernstein got nowhere with the water buckets. When he attempted to turn on a fire hose, no water came out. He and the women working on the eighth floor realized they had to escape the flames. They pushed each other toward one of the exits, but the door was locked. Finally, someone came with a key and opened it. One of the girls used the telephone to warn the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, on the tenth floor.

Escape Attempts

Horse-drawn fire engines raced to the scene. Unfortunately, their hoses could not reach the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch building where the factory was located. Some people from the eighth floor managed to get down from the stairwells to safety. Workers on the tenth floor tried to escape the flames by climbing up on the roof. The quick thinking of a professor teaching a class in the building next door saved them. When he saw the flames, the professor and his students set up ladders so that employees could climb from the factory roof to the roof of the school.

Trapped Workers

Not everyone could find an escape route. Some tried climbing onto the fire escape, but it collapsed under the weight of so many people. With the flames trapping them inside, many workers decided to jump out the factory windows. Firefighters held nets below in an attempt to catch the jumpers. The nets weren’t strong enough. No one who jumped survived. After half an hour, the firemen managed to stifle the flames by taking their hoses inside the building. By that time, 146 people were dead.

At ten feet tall, the building was one of New York’s skyscrapers. Hundreds of people worked long hours at the sewing machines, sitting elbow-to-elbow and receiving little pay. Most of the workers were female Italian and Russian immigrants, though some men worked there, too.

Call for Fire Safety in Factories

After the tragedy, many people called for better safety standards for factories as well as better working conditions. Survivor Pauline Cuoio Pepe said, “We [the survivors] didn’t sleep right, always afraid. We were also angry. ‘What did they close the door for? What did they think we were going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?’”

Owners Harris and Blanck were criticized for not following fire safety procedures. They kept doors locked while workers were inside, the fire hoses didn’t work, stairways were too narrow, and the fire escape didn’t reach the ground. New York State government officials set up a commission to study factory safety. Among other improvements, the commission required tall buildings to have sprinkler systems. Many laws passed to increase the safety of workers in factories as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As committee member Frances Perkins stated years later “they [the Triangle Factory workers] did not die in vain and we will never forget them.”