When Lady Liberty Wasn't For Immigrants
Anti-immigration policies are not new to the American political scene, and the ‘Muslim ban’ is just another policy in a long tradition of isolationist and xenophobic political practices. Critics of the ban often cite America’s strong tradition of immigration as a defense of liberal immigration policies, but the United States is not just a country with a tradition of openness–it is also a country plagued by history of rampant xenophobia and nativism. The simplistic narrative of America as a “nation of immigrants” ignores its past with religious persecution, immigration quotas, and the rejection of Jewish refugees during the holocaust. So when criticizing the travel ban for discriminating against immigrants based on religion or race, is it effective to use the narrative, or the cliché, that America has a proud history of immigration? Ignoring the history of xenophobia in the United States leads to watered-down rhetoric that denies immigrants and refugees the defense they deserve against a ban based on nationality or religion. It is imperative that Americans understand our history of nativism starting with the modern-day symbol of immigration to the United States: the Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty, which we associate with immigration to the United States, was not always a symbol of openness and acceptance. In 1865, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi conceived the idea of giving America a gift to honor 100 years of an independent United States. Bartholdi also intended for it to celebrate Lincoln and abolition, but by the time he gathered enough support to build the statue, the country was mired in the Jim Crow Era, and the statue largely lost its identity as a celebration of abolitionism1. When it finally opened, the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of Franco-American relations and freedom from tyranny, while also acting as the gatekeeper of the United States.
Nativism and xenophobia grew with the wave of German and Irish immigrants during the 1880s, and Americans became concerned about the number of people coming into the country. Historically Catholic and poor, Irish immigrants were seen as a huge threat to Protestant New Yorkers. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist from the era, illustrated many anti-Irish images which reflected the political climate of the time. His cartoons compared Catholic immigrants to nefarious crocodiles and portrayed Irish people as drunken fools. Political art at the time, like the Judge Magazine cover titled “Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site,” depicted American xenophobia rather vividly. The illustration on the front shows the Statue of Liberty holding up her skirt in disgust as immigrants land on Liberty Island around her feet. This cover highlights Americans’ opinions about immigrants taking refuge in the US. Many feared that Europe was sending its worst people to America and that immigrants would contaminate the country. The United States’ history of immigration is deeply rooted in religious discrimination. A Muslim ban hardly seems farfetched in the context of America’s history with religious persecution and immigration quotas.
The idea of controlling immigration into the United States based on nationality or ethnicity is also an essential part of American history. Historically, the US government only supported immigration that conformed to “American Ideals.” In 1882, President Charles Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, which was the first U.S. federal law that restricted immigration based on nationality. America’s approval of immigration was limited to traditional western immigration, and did not welcome Asian immigrants. This ban tore families apart and created a huge people-smuggling industry. It also shaped modern-day cities. Chinatowns resulted from violence and racism that prevented Chinese Americans from assimilating into the United States, as property laws made it extremely difficult for them to move outside Chinatowns. Later in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge expanded the ban to include most Asian countries with the National Origins Act and set quotas for the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, specifically Eastern European Jews.
In 1939, the US government infamously turned away a ship of Jewish families who fled Nazi Germany. The SS St. Louis carried more than 900 Jews who escaped on a German luxury liner, but they were sent back to Europe for not having the proper paperwork. As a result, 254 passengers died. Anti-Semitism and nativism overruled American’s compassion for refugees, and in that moment the United States of America threw away everything Bartholdi had admired and praised it for. This tradition of immigration is not a defense against a travel ban that denies refugees safety–it is one that condemns them to the mercy of a long history of racism, religious persecution, and xenophobia.
The US government did not repeal the National Origins Act until 1943, when it decided it was hypocritical to ban immigrants from US allied nations in World War II. Fascism showed the dangers of trying to create a racially-pure state, and America attempted to distance itself from racial purity. Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus” popularized the Statue of Liberty’s connection to immigration with its famous line: “Give me your tired, your poor.” In her poem, Lazarus characterized the Statue of Liberty as welcoming weary immigrants to the United States. To this day, the Statue of Liberty is immortalized an icon of welcoming people of all ethnicities and backgrounds into America.
Falling back on American tradition is not an effective way of condemning discrimination or racism. America is a nation of immigrants, and it is important to remember that. However, we are also a nation that let fear override our compassion for others with disastrous results. Refugees and immigrants trying to come to the United States deserve a better defense. Clichéd arguments do not add to the conversation about immigration, in fact, they impede the possibility of reform and progress. If liberals are going to use history as a talking point, they need to talk about the historical consequences of xenophobia. The debate has to move away from an argument about tradition and become a nuanced discussion about human rights and current policies.
1Berenson, E. (2012). Statue of Liberty. Yale University Press.