After the repealing of the DREAM Act; a number of states including Arizona and Georgia introducing anti-immigration legislation; school districts requesting documentation from parents about their children’s immigration status; talk of anchor babies and birthright; Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies — one starts to wonder if the US really wants to think of itself as a nation of immigrants, as a “melting pot” in which peoples from different countries, cultures and religions live together and have (theoretically, if not actually) the same opportunities.
For all the talk of Lady Liberty greeting the tired, poor, etc., the US has not — has indeed more often than not — held out the welcome may to those masses from other countries. On a recent visit to Ellis Island, New York Times reporter Neil Genzlinger went to look at Ellis Island museums’ displays about deportation cases.
A room called “The Closing Door” has a timeline on the wall that shows that barriers to certain immigrants were going up as early as 1875. Among those barred by various laws over the years — the language is from the actual statutes — were convicts, prostitutes, lunatics, idiots, paupers, polygamists, epileptics, professional beggars, anarchists, imbeciles and tuberculars.
Some deportation cases processed at Ellis Island are relevant in our own age, says Lenni B. Benson, a professor at New York Law School who studies immigration issues. There’s the cases of Emma Goldman, feminist and anarchist originally from Russia who was deported in 1919, and Ellen Knauff, a Czech Jew who married a naturalized American citizen in Berlin and was detained for three years on vague charges of “subversiveness.” Ignatz Mezei was from Hungary and lived for many years in Buffalo, plus
…[he] was married to an American citizen and had several children. He was also a union supporter. He had lived in the United States for more than 20 years when, in 1948, he made a trip back to Europe. When he tried to return, he was rejected at Ellis Island as a danger to the country, the word “Communist” coming into play. Again, the evidence against him was vague, he spent years detained at Ellis Island, and the Supreme Court ruled against him.
“The language of the decisions is pretty chilling,” Professor Benson said of the Mezei and Knauff cases. “But modern readers should know that the statute continues today. Basically, any alien arriving at our border can be accused of being dangerous, and the government may argue that national security warrants their immediate expulsion.”
As Genzlinger notes, the statute about deportation raises some difficult questions:
Can you toss people out of the country because their ideas make most folks uncomfortable? Can you do it with secret evidence? Who is dangerous, and who is merely different?
In a post-9/11 era, some may think the answers are obvious about “who is dangerous” versus “merely different.” But we should keep in mind that an anti-immigration mindset is as much a part of American history as all the poetry about opening our nation’s arms to the world. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major law that restricted immigration to the US. Two laws that were aimed at Irish immigrants were the Naturalization Act of 1798 , which increased the length of residency for naturalization from five to 14 years, the Alien Act of the same year which made it legal for the president to arrest, and deport, any alien who was thought to be dangerous. The Irish were not welcome due to their being Roman Catholics, as illustrated by the cartoon that illustrates this post of Catholic bishops as crocodiles attacking good American nativists by Thomas Nast.
As we celebrate the birthday of the United States of America, we should perhaps reflect on the fact that, despite this history and the current debates, we have managed to live together as “one nation” (sometimes contentiously, sometimes more harmoniously) for 235 years. Most of Americans have ancestors who came from other countries: How would we feel if Lady Liberty had slammed the door in the faces of our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents, ourselves?
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1875-Thomas Nast anti-Catholic cartoon from Harper’s Weekly magazine via Wikimedia Commons.