The Europeanization of America all started with refugees. After the initial wave of fortune-seekers who we have sometimes incorrectly labelled discoverers, the folks who came to these shores with the intention of making a home here were for the most part fleeing persecution. There were Protestants fleeing Catholics. Catholics fleeing Protestants. And Protestant sects escaping the intolerance of other Protestant sects. Once they got here, more often than not they proved not so tolerant themselves.
There is no more iconic an American image that the Statue of Liberty and its famous inscription:
“Give us your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
But over the years, many Americans have not been too anxious to see or the accept huddled masses and wretched refuse. This contradiction well represents the response to immigrants and refugees in the U.S. They have brought out the best in us, but also the worst.
There are many, many organizations in the U.S. that have tirelessly worked to raise money to support the resettlement of refugees here. Churches and synagogues, in particular, have opened their doors to the tired and poor, sheltered and fed them, found them clothes and taught them English. Whether its Central American farmworkers in New York State, or Africans in ice-cold Minnesota, there are, in every part of the country, warm-hearted American families who have welcomed the members of the formerly huddled massses into their homes and guided them into a new life.
Yet every step of the way there have been those ready to vilify and expel anyone with a different skin color, a different religion or a different language. In the 1850’s there was a national political party, the Know-Nothings, that based their appeal on anti-Catholicism. In the 2020’s there is a national party, guided by a former president, that pegs various immigrant and refugee groups as terrorists, drug dealers and rapists.
Other than the folks like the Pilgrims in the 17th Century and the Syrians in the 21st, refugees fleeing religious persecution or civil war, most of the broad waves of immigrants came to this country for economic reasons. The had no money, no food, no work. Opposition to immigrants is likewise often cast in economic terms. Are they taking jobs from Americans? Are they pushing wages down because they’ll work for less?
The nativists set their hateful gaze on Irish and German Catholics in the mid-19th century. Later in the century it was the Chinese. In the 1920’s, Jews and Italians were the boogeymen. In the latter half of the 20th century Haitians and Central Americans drew their wrath. And with 9/11, all Muslims came under attack.
Our immigration and refugee policy has also been strongly influenced by politics and ideology. In the latter quarter of the 20th century, the majority of refugees that were admitted to the U.S. were fleeing Communist countries. They were from Cuba, Vietnam, Russia or other Soviets states. On the other hand, refugees from countries with right-wing dictatorships supported by the U.S. were far less likely to be admitted. Using the statistics from 1984 as an example, 100 percent of Cubans who applied for asylum were granted such while 3 percent of the applications from Guatemalans and Salvadorans were approved.
There are two recent events that clearly demonstrate the mixed American reaction to the uprooted and unfortunate who come to our shores. One is the evacuation of Afghanistan. We were all horrified at the thought of Afghan girls and women, as well as those who worked with the U.S. during our military occupation, being left behind at the mercy of the Taliban. It was a truly bipartisan reaction that we needed to do more than we were doing to get these people out. Some of the loudest voices were the Republican critics of President Biden. But wait, does that mean they would be coming here? Some of the same people, following the lead of Trump, started urging that they be turned away, claiming, with no evidence, that there were terrorists among them.
Not long after, masses of displaced Haitian refugees showed up in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. An organization called World Central Kitchen, founded by Jose Andres, a well-known Spanish-born chef who migrated to the U.S. in 1990, set up shop there and began providing meals for these people. At the same time, we saw images of border patrol chasing them down on horseback brandishing whips.
In spite of all the vitriol that has been aimed at people coming to this country, we have historically been the world leaders in resettling refugees. Since 1975, about 3.3 million have come to our shores. For most of the past couple decades, 70,000-80,000 have arrived each year. That number was reduced during the Trump Administration and Canada passed us up as the top resettlement country. By 2020, the number was less than 12,000. Biden had talked about increasing that, but so far, it doesn’t appear to have happened.
Looking at our history, you can’t say that we’ve welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses with open arms. But Lady Liberty still has one arm aloft holding the torch.
In a series of weekly blog posts over the next couple months, I’ll be looking at how America has historically responded to the people seeking a new home here, including the German Forty-Eighters, the Chinese railroad workers, Jews fleeing Hitler, Haitians fleeing Duvalier.