Affixed to the pedestal of our Statue of Liberty, there is this: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Sadly, there have been periods in our nation’s history when we did not live by those welcoming words. Those dark times will be recounted here followed by what they might teach us about the forthcoming immigration of refugees from civil war-torn Syria.
Beginning in 1847, the US witnessed the arrival of the first substantial wave of immigrants from Ireland who left their homeland to escape a deep and lingering potato famine. By count, 37,000 of them landed in Boston where they were greeted by con men, unscrupulous landlords and many common citizens who, being first-generation Americans (i.e. “Nativists”), believed themselves to be superior to the newly arrived, who were ridiculed for their outdated apparel and rough ways. This same treatment was visited upon the 52,000 Irish-Catholics who disembarked in New York and sought refuge there.
As the number of immigrants from Ireland swelled, some citizens became gravely concerned that Catholicism would replace other Protestant religions as the dominant one in our country. Fear of the Papacy was palpable and led to deadly clashes with anti-Catholic groups pitted against Papal adherents. Readers who might want to get a sense of this history should seek out Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “The Gangs of New York”. It is instructive even as it is “dressed up” with Hollywood embellishments and ought not to be taken literally.
What finally turned history in favor of the Irish-Catholics was the Civil War and the issue of slavery. Many of the immigrants found a place for themselves in the Union Army and served with distinction. Those that survived found greater acceptance thereafter.
The migration of eastern European Jews began circa 1860 when some 200,000 of them entered the US, fleeing from anti-Semitism, particularly in Russia. From 1882 to 1914, another two million Jews came from the same region. While they scattered across the US, larger numbers of them settled in New York City where they assimilated themselves in their new home.
With the end of World War I in Europe, immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds headed for America to escape the devastation and economic hardship that the conflict had left in its wake (1). By the late 1930’s this shift had become so pronounced that our government worried that we simply could not handle such a sizable influx of newcomers. Accordingly, quotas were established and the processing and admission of these emigres slowed considerably.
Of course, as the decade of the 1930’s came to a close, western Europe witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and his lethal brand of anti-Semitism (2). The Jews who fled the continent and headed for the US ran afoul of the aforementioned quotas. Many were turned away and sent back from whence they came, only to be rounded up and herded into concentration camps where they fell victim to Nazi gas chambers.
It is not altogether fitting that this group be included in this blog. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Japanese had immigrated here, matriculated through normal processes to obtain full US citizenship and had established themselves as able businessmen and farmers. Unlike the Irish-Catholics of the 1840’s and 1940-Jews, these people had already successfully immigrated and assimilated.
But, immediately upon the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, suspicions abounded that these US citizens of Japanese ancestry would become saboteurs and spies for their native country. In February 1942, bowing to this paranoia, and with utter disregard for the constitutional rights of these individuals, our federal government systematically collected and transported 120,000 of them to “relocation” camps (3) located throughout the US. By 1945 as the war in the Pacific was drawing to a close, some of them were released. The last were freed in March 1946 and the camps closed. In a much-needed act of atonement, our Congress, in 1988, granted restitution to still-living survivors of relocation, or to their heirs.
President Obama has asserted that in the next many months, we will accept 10,000 Syrians, with as many as 100,000 more admitted in 2017. That the vast majority of these refugees are Muslims goes without saying. What is already well-established is that a majority of Americans do not want them here, fearing that our government’s vetting process will fail to screen out terrorists whose intent is to do us harm.
In the preceding paragraph, there are echoes of the discrimination against Irish-Catholics, and the dread of Japanese-Americans as fifth columnists. Yet, both these groups went on to become patriotic US citizens. Dare we learn from this history and trust that the same will be true of the incoming Syrians?
As a matter of principle, we should be welcoming. As the president has said “That is who we are”. But, the world we live in today cannot be compared to that of a century or even 75 years ago, what with the Middle East in a constant state of turmoil, a religious war between Shia and Sunnis afoot, and terrorism now a global phenomenon. Similarities notwithstanding, these are indeed different times.
What is called for is the most exacting and meticulous vetting process as can be developed and applied. If there are existing US citizens who know a newcomer and can vouch for him/her, so much the better. In any case, the step-by-step vetting regimen should be submitted to Congress for assessment, amendment and eventual approval. That may well be a recipe for gridlock and endless political obstruction. But it is unlikely that any president has the Constitutional authority to take Executive action and unilaterally make immigration law themselves.
We will have to wait and see how all this plays out, especially as those developments impact the 2016 presidential election.
1,2 This history was covered in the blog “Trump under a microscope: An epilogue” published at this site on September 3, 2015.
3. “Relocation” center is the politically correct term to use for what was most assuredly a concentration camp.