Promise and peril in the Trump era: The history of immigration in America

Fourth of July
The sun rises behind the Statue of Liberty a day before the United States celebrates its independence, July 3, 2016, in Jersey City, N.J. — a half-year before President Trump issued his executive order barring travel from seven primarily Muslim countries. JULIO CORTEZ / AP Photo

An enduring icon of the American immigration experience is the Statute of Liberty, the towering figure who, in our collective imagination, welcomed and embraced the arriving immigrant. “I do think that there are tears in the eyes of the statue at the moment,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, herself an immigrant, said in reaction to President Trump's executive order well before  Thursday's appeals court ruling put it on hold. Albright’s sadness highlights the disconnect between the promise that the statue represents and the new administration's efforts to have her turn her back on refugees and immigrants, singling out Muslims.

But Lady Liberty is symbolic not only of promise but peril in the history of American immigration.

Viewed sentimentally, the statue—along with the moving poem by Emma Lazarus welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breath free”—suggests enduring sympathy for the “tempest-tossed” immigrant seeking sanctuary in a land of opportunity. But during the peak years of immigration to the U.S.—from the late 19th century through the mid-1920s—Americans also viewed immigrants as “wretched refused.” Although largely lost to our collective memory, the statue, as the historian John Higham originally noted, was not intended to welcome to the “huddled masses.” Rather, this “New Colossus” represented a stern warning about the power of the state at a moment of profound social change.

Immigration to the U.S. increased exponentially in the 1880s and '90s. Northern and Western Europeans were replaced by “new” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Some fled from persecution; all were lured by the prospect of employment in a thriving industrial democracy. While welcomed by capitalists, however, many viewed the new arrivals as dirty, illiterate, poverty-stricken, and genetically inferior. They were tarred as carriers of infectious diseases like cholera, typhus, and typhoid.

In response, the country created a vast system for inspecting and quarantining immigrants. Ellis Island in New York Harbor is the most famous, but ports dotted the perimeter of the continental United States.

Philadelphia's was the Washington Avenue Immigration Station. There was another in San Francisco, and more along the Gulf Coast; stations were also on land, near the Mexican and Canadian borders.

Inspectors searched for signs of infectious diseases—and, critically, they made determinations about whether immigrants were fit for the grinding, unskilled labor that industrialism demanded. Despite the vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric that was so pervasive, the vast majority of immigrants were not turned back.

On the one hand, the gap between ugly political rhetoric and practice was wide. On the other, scrutiny of immigrants was far more intense along some borders and for some nationalities.

Along the Mexican border, immigration officials feared that inferior immigrants would try to “pass” as Mexican. Inspectors there complained that it was impossible to tell Mexicans from Syrians (yes, Syrians) or “swarthy” Southern Italians. As a result, immigrants and travelers crossing at Texas stations like Brownsville and Laredo were stripped naked for group inspection.

Along the Pacific Coast, officials focused on a different immigrant “menace.” While immigrants typically passed through inspection stations elsewhere in a matter of hours, Asians were routinely detained at San Francisco's Angel Island for days, sometimes months. In addition to humiliating nude inspections, each was tested for parasitic infections, a presumed cause of lethargy and an imagined result of low standards of hygiene.

Predictably, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants were excluded at higher rates than were other nationalities. Along the East Coast, Jewish immigrants—classified not by their countries of origin but grouped together as “Hebrews”—were kept out at similarly high rates.

This tension between an impulse to include immigrants, based on belief that labor force was essential to industrial prowess, and an impulse to exclude, grounded in unfounded racial ideas and fears, is an enduring part of the American experience. History holds out hope that, even at movements of national fear and hatred, we have the ability to overcome the most noxious rhetoric. But history also sounds a warning. As a nation, we have not consistently upheld ideals of equal treatment under the law, of justice for all. We are susceptible to propaganda regarding religious, ethnic, and racial difference.

As we make our choices about what the Statue of Liberty will symbolize in the 21st century, we should remember that our worst fears about immigrants—as carriers of deadly diseases, inferior genes, or dangerous ideas—have never been realized. In sharp contrast, our hopes about the potential of immigrants to advance the nation economically and politically have been proven many times over.


Amy L. Fairchild, a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Texas A&M University's School of Public Health, studies immigrant health inspections, disease control, and other issues in public health.


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