To enjoy American opportunities become an American citizen.
Photo credit: Stanley Service Co. / Library of Congress

We’re taught the proud history of a land built by welcomed immigrants. But the truth about their reception is more complicated.

We ran this op-ed last Fourth of July, never thinking that immigrants would face even more brutality. Given America’s history, we should not have been surprised.

My ancestors — and likely yours — came to the US from somewhere else.

My grandparents arrived in one of history’s great waves of immigration — more than 15 million (largely from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Russia) poured in between 1900 and 1915.

These were mostly people escaping persecution, violence, famine. People who believed that this country could give them a second chance — in line with the promise, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us “are created equal, … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Most of those who arrived here had little education and few skills. Yet, in 1902, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt asked religious leaders to help these newcomers.

[W]e have the duty peculiarly incumbent upon us to take care of our brethren who come each year from overseas to our shores,” Roosevelt said. “I feel that we should be peculiarly watchful over them, because of our own history, because we or our fathers came here under like conditions.”

But if the US has been a beacon to immigrants, it also has nurtured anti-immigrant hostility.

It did not take long for the backlash to begin. The older immigrants from Germany, England, and Ireland were alarmed by the waves of new people. In 1894, an Immigration Restriction League was founded, and soon had chapters in several large US cities.

The League did not want to allow anyone into the US who could not read at least 40 words in any language, considering such people “undesirable” and unable to assimilate. Congress repeatedly tried to impose such a restriction, only to be blocked by presidential veto. Lawmakers finally succeeded in passing a literacy requirement in 1917.

The Anti-Chinese Wall, cartoon

The Anti-Chinese Wall, 1882. Cartoon shows Uncle Sam using “Congressional Mortar” and building blocks carried by ethnic workers to construct a wall with the stones are labeled “Law against Race, Prejudice, Jealousy, Competition, Fear, Anti Low Wages, Non-Reciprocity, [and] Congressional Blunders”. Across a river, in the background, Chinese workers work with picks to dismantle the Great Wall, as China opens its doors to trading with the West. Photo credit: F. Graetz. / Puck / Library of Congress

Even more restrictive measures aimed at specific minority groups were already in place. Beginning in 1882, with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants faced almost insurmountable obstacles to settling in the US. If they were able to pass the legal hurdles, they were required to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Those lacking documentation were deported.

Between 1890 and 1920, there were 50 documented lynchings of Italian immigrants. They were considered alien, criminal, and suspect. The New York Times editorialized about “’sneaking and cowardly Sicilians … who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country,” calling them “a pest without mitigation” There was a widespread suspicion that most Italians belonged to criminal gangs or were terrorists.

In 1902, the same year he urged kindness to newcomers, Roosevelt’s Treasury Department ordered all immigrants with tuberculosis barred from entering the country, despite the protests of physicians who claimed that fear of the disease was greatly exaggerated, that it was only contagious under certain conditions, and that it could be treated.

By the mid-1920s, America’s “welcome” sign to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had been officially taken down.

In 1929, fearing a surge of Mexican immigrants, two members of Congress — a Republican who believed in the superiority of certain ethnic groups and a white supremacist Democrat — teamed up to author a law that made the act of “unlawfully entering the country” a crime; a misdemeanor the first time, but a felony for a second attempt. That law helped justify Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to arrest and detain immigrants at the border and separate them from their children.

new citizens, Baltimore

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Baltimore District July 4th Naturalization Ceremony, 2015. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security / Flickr

And yet immigrants still try to come to this country. If many have lost faith in the American dream, these risk-takers have not. They continue to believe that this is a nation that offers freedom and opportunity, and a safe haven in an unstable world.

immigrant, pretzel vendor, New York City

Immigrant pretzel vendor in New York City, around 1896. Photo credit: Alice Austen / Library of Congress

Chinese, immigrants, California

Chinese immigrants in California, around 1900. Photo credit: Detroit Photographic Co. / Library of Congress

Italian, immigrants

Italian immigrants selling fruit, around 1900. Photo credit: Unifruitco Magazine / Library of Congress

Jewish, immigrants

Jewish immigrants are screened by physicians at Ellis Island, around 1907. Photo credit: Underwood & Underwood / Library of Congress

Polish, immigrant

Young Polish immigrant working in the fields near Baltimore, Maryland, 1909. Photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress

German, immigrants

German immigrants farm 40 acres of beets near Ft. Collins, Colorado, 1915. Photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress

Crete, immigrant

William Dimotakis, an immigrant from Crete, on his farm in Manteca, California, around 1938. Photo credit: US Farm Security Administration / Library of Congress

Spanish, immigrant

Spanish immigrant joins the Merchant Marines, 1920. Photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress

Mexican, immigrants

Mexicans entering the US via the immigration station in El Paso, Texas, 1938. Photo credit: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

family, immigrants

Manuel Sousa and family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1912. Photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress

immigrant, boy, Massachusetts

Immigrant boy in Chicopee, Massachusetts, 1911. Photo credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress

immigrants, detention pen

Immigrants awaiting deportation are detained at Ellis Island, 1902. Photo credit: The Maltine Company / Library of Congress

naturalization class

Bureau of Labor naturalization class, around 1923. Photo credit: National Photo Company / Library of Congress

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from naturalization class (National Photo Company / Library of Congress).


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