“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It was a beautiful ideal – an aspiration of the values America sought to stand for. But the ideal was never legislated. It was a poem, not a policy, and as a nation we have wrestled with this in every generation.
This wrestling began in the 1840s with the so-called “Irish Question.” The Great Famine (plus the English response to it) put the Irish at the brink of starvation, disease, and death. Two million Irish immigrants sought refuge in America, arriving in what were called “coffin ships,” because so many thousand died on route. Those who survived the journey arrived poor, disease-ridden and unskilled.
The Irish took the most menial, dangerous, and low-paying jobs: cutting canals, digging trenches, and laying sewer pipes and rail lines. They were despised and marginalized. It didn’t help that the majority of them were Catholic, trying to forge a life in a predominantly Protestant, and distinctly anti-Catholic, land. One newspaper in southwestern Missouri, called the Menace, ran weekly headlines screaming to readers around the nation about predatory priests, women enslaved in convents, and a dangerous Roman Catholic plot to take over America. Fear and hatred of the Irish led to legislative proposals to deport them. Their churches were regularly burned. Many were refused employment.
In the 1850s, the Chinese arrived on these shores, first to work the gold mines, then to build railroads in the West. Fourteen million Chinese migrated here. As their numbers increased, so did the intensity of anti-Chinese sentiment and the perceived threat that the Chinese brought to the U.S. economy. What became known as “The Yellow Peril” led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed by Congress to limit future immigration of the Chinese.
In the 1920s the “Red Scare” washed upon our shores as Russians fled the Bolshevik Revolution, stoking fears of communism and anarchism. A mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent – a revolution that would fundamentally change the American way of life – stoked this nationwide anti-radical hysteria.
All of this anti-immigrant sentiment led to a regrettable chapter in American history: The Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of “undesirables” coming from all over the globe. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” In other words, it was based purely on race, intended to limit the number of non-white immigrants in an effort to preseve the white American gene pool. Congressional opposition to this Act was minimal, and it remained law until The Immigration Act of 1965, which finally removed race as the decisive factor in determining who can immigrate to the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1965 was, as President Johnson said, intended to “correct a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
– From “A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion” by Mark Feldmeir – Chalice Press