Does the US Still Want to Be a Nation of Immigrants?

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?

Related Care2 Coverage

“It’s Time” – Jose Antonio Vargas Speaks for Himself

A Minority Majority Among Young Americans

Arizona IS America: Federal Immigration Enforcement Policies and Human Rights

1875-Thomas Nast anti-Catholic cartoon from Harper’s Weekly magazine via Wikimedia Commons.


robert d.
robert R6 years ago

We cannot afford to accommodate any more immigrants. We must reduce our numbers. ;The statue of Liberty should no longer say ":Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses". It should say "No Vacancy". Snip snip.

Hilary E.
Hilary E6 years ago

This whole immigration argument is such a pain in the ass. Money is a fake idea that the upper class uses to control everyone. I spent one of the roughest years of my life barely getting by because The Hispanic immigrants I worked with would give me rides to work. They never gave me an annoyed look or accepted a penny for gas. My fellow white counterparts couldn't be bothered, even with offering to pay for gas. The thought of having to go out of their way was just an annoyance. I have nothing but respect for Latino immigrants and I could care less if they came here "legally" or not. The law means nothing anymore...the law is simply about keeping people under the upper classes thumb and their pockets lined. If we could take care of each other the way Latino cultures do we would be much improved as a people. Those who think that illegal immigrants are just criminals who could care less about society have clearly lived posh lives. I can tell you right now no law would ever get in the way of feeding my child or helping the people I love. Walking across an invisible line is not some atrocious crime. So many people think that those of us who dare to have compassion for these people are foolish and naive but the fact it's our lack of compassion that has the whole planet and humanity in the state it's in. Selfishness and ego are our number one enemies. "Love and compassion are not luxuries, they are necessities, and without them humanity cannot exist" -Dalai Lama

Michael C.
Michael C6 years ago

Readers, My apologies, the post below should read "Small Pox", it has been a long day. I am driving north through Mexico, the roads suck, much construction and i am soooo tired.Thanks

Michael C.
Michael C6 years ago

Research, where, in later years, all those blankets from places like Boston went after the Small Sox epidemics. Simply, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army "donated" those same blankets to Reservations.

The Bureau Agents also introduced the Indians to arms, mostly junk and of course, Whiskey.

God Bless America, but only White America, Hey you, get away from my new car.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener6 years ago

If there is anything to say on this, Bill K. said it!!!

Daedra S.
Daedra Smith6 years ago

Of course our nation is a nation of immigrants; but with our increasing population comes a need for regulation. People who want to take advantage of our school systems, public health care, housing, and other privileges must exist here legally and pay taxes! Many of these immigrants work here and send all of their money back home, so it does not get spent or invested here in the U.S. And many illegals are breaking laws and causing harm to legal citizens, as mentioned by Christopher F. If you want to live in the U.S., you will live by our laws or you will be deported! End of story.

Christopher Fowler

Giovanna M; you appear to know so very little about our history.

The Pilgrims were lazy and, had it not been for the local chief, would have been exterminated within days of their arrival.
None of the pilgrims had even the slightest farming or hunting skills, required to survive. They selected the Plymouth area because the native population had died from diseases brought by prior European settlers. The only reason they survived that first year because the local chief was happy to see life return to the area. It was the local tribe that taught them to farm, hunt and repair the pre-existing houses from the tribe that died there.

The Pilgrims, like typical protestant Christians of the day, were all city people with no usable skills. Had they had any, more would have survived the first winter.

Christopher Fowler

Let's address the immigration issue directly to deflate the overblown egos of the bleeding hearts out there.

People are, by and large, not interesting in closing our borders, just closing them to those who BREAK FEDERAL IMMIGRATION LAW to get here. I say allow the ones who come here, legally, be here. DO NOT REWARD CRIMINALS.

The fact that they broke our laws to get here, shows, clearly, that they will continue to break our laws while here.
Perhaps some of you will not learn this lesson until one of them breaks into your home and steals from you or rapes and/or murders a family member.

A criminal is a criminal, whether they enter the country illegally or if they kill people for their own pleasure or to steal your money/property.

Giovanna M.
Giovanna M6 years ago

I wonder what would happen if the new immigrants decided to take measures as the Mayflower bunch and subsequent groups did.

It's easy to speak openly of welcoming immigrants when one is in that grioup, but I guess things change when you've settled long enough as to think of yourself as the rightful ingabitant of a region.

I've never understood why the USA think of themselves as the world's melting pot when so many other countries have allowed immigrants and have had them melt in their communities as well or -in some cases- much earlier.

Bertha Smith
Bertha Smith6 years ago

Beth S,
A green star to you.