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.

What Life was like for American Immigrants in the Nineteenth Century

Thousands of immigrants came to American cities like New York in the 1880s. The growth of industry created a need for labor; however, the laborers, including children, were rarely treated well. Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives to expose the living and working conditions in New York slums. The middle class was stunned into action to improve the city and reforms resulted from Riis’ writings.

In his book, Riis points out that immigrants who were established and had become successful in America were treating the new immigrants poorly. For example, an Italian family paid an Irish landlord more than twice what their three rooms were worth. The head of the family asked the landlord to lower the rent, but he threatened to throw the family out in the street if they did not pay what he asked. Riis wrote, “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.” Since immigrants like the Irish who were in America longer were treated poorly when they arrived, they treated new immigrants badly as well.

Although today working from home is often considered a luxury, this was not true for immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Factories hired immigrants to work from home because there were no laws that governed how long an immigrant could work outside the factory. Inside the factory there were rules, like required lunch breaks, and children could not start working until they were in their teens. In the tenements, however, “the child works unchallenged from the day he is old enough to pull a thread. There is no such thing as a dinner hour…and the “day” is lengthened at both ends far into the night.”

Working and living conditions in the tenements became even more unbearable in the summer. Families were so crowded together that diseases spread easily and many people, especially children, did not live through August. Fire escapes and trucks became bedrooms so that people could by chance get some fresher air than the stifling heat from cooking and working indoors provided.

Sadly, there was little chance that a young immigrant could improve his condition. Riis wrote, “The old question, what to do with the boy, assumes a new and serious phase in the tenements…in nine cases out of ten he would make an excellent mechanic, if trained early to work at a trade, for he is neither dull nor slow, but the short-sighted despotism of the trades unions has practically closed that avenue to him.” Once a child was born into a poor immigrant family, other Americans, including former immigrants, refused to help him make a decent living. Without the chance to earn money honestly, many immigrant children took to the streets and became thieves.