A Look At The Record:

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Im-mi-grate—To enter and settle. … —The American Heritage Dictionary God sifted a whole Nation that He might send Choice Grain over into this Wilderness. —The Reverend Mr. William Stoughton of Massachusetts (1670)

This was no ordinary fishing run for the fifty small boats that entered the Florida Strait from Key West on a late April morning last year. Their course was south by southwest to Mariel, 110 miles distant on the northern coast of Cuba. Their mission: to rescue an unknown number of political refugees who had unexpectedly been granted exit visas by Fidel Castro.

In the weeks that followed, the fifty-boat squadron was joined by hundreds of other vessels of every size and condition, their passage financed by public funds and by members of the Cuban community in Miami. For more than five months the “freedom flotilla” plied the Caribbean, bearing its human cargo to the American mainland. By the end of September, when Castro barred further emigration, 125,000 exiles had reached reception centers in Florida, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania.

At the same time, another exodus had taken place from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth. Between January and late August of 1980, more than 14,000 refugees had crossed the Caribbean to Florida in open, wooden boats, many of them dangerously overloaded and underprovisioned. One small craft, carrying a hundred passengers, had drifted for two weeks in the broiling sun before it was located and towed to safety by a Coast Guard cutter. Like the Cubans, the Haitians spoke bitterly of the hardship and oppression they had left behind. America, they said, offered them freedom and opportunity unavailable elsewhere; they were willing to risk everything for the new life the nation might provide.

The admission of such refugees has been replicated over and over again through our history: in 1975 when 120,000 Vietnamese were flown here in the two weeks that followed Saigon’s fall; in the “freedom flights” which brought upward of 300,000 Cubans to Florida between 1965 and 1970; in 1956 when 21,000 Hungarians were airlifted to New Jersey in the aftermath of their abortive uprising; indeed, as long ago as 1793 when nearly 20,000 French exiles from revolution in Santo Domingo sought refuge in Pennsylvania. (The exiles were so destitute that the Pennsylvania Assembly authorized a public subscription on their behalf; Congress voted $15,000 for the cause.) As Thomas Paine had written in Common Sense , it was America’s unique destiny to “receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

That willingness to welcome the stranger, to offer sanctuary to the oppressed, is firmly based on the democratic ideology of the American Revolution, but it represents as well a pragmatic recognition of the central fact in our existence as a people: since the first Indians crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, the American population has consisted solely of immigrants and their descendants. Immigrants from some 106 distinct ethnic groups—no one of which constitutes more than one-seventh of the whole—have transformed our land, shaped our institutions, defined our principles, and formed—in the words of Charles Andrews—”a polychrome, polyglot community” without parallel in history.

FROM A TRICKLE TO A TIDAL WAVE

The migration that produced this pluralism is the largest part of a continuing mass movement that far surpasses in magnitude the legendary journeys of the ancient tribes of Israel or of the wandering Germans in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Since 1600 more than 74,000,000 emigrants have abandoned their homelands worldwide. More than two-thirds of them—some 50,000,000—have come to the United States. (Nearly a tenth—over 7,000,000— have migrated to Canada, the second-ranked “receiver” state.) Not all of them remained here; perhaps 9,000,000 or so merely passed through on their way elsewhere or, after a time, returned home. Nonetheless, our net population gain through immigration, from 1607 to the present, is upward of 40,000,000 men, women, and children who came here in hopes that this might be, as Emerson once wrote, “the country of the Future … a country of beginnings. …”

Initially their numbers were few. In the two hundred years that followed Jamestown’s settlement, immigration was a thin stream flowing out of Europe at irregular intervals. Historians estimate that well under a million immigrants—perhaps as few as 400,000—crossed the Atlantic during those two centuries, and some scholars believe that the growth of the nation’s population—3,900,000 in the first census of 1790— was largely the result of natural increase and not of a great influx of the foreign-born. But in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which had served to bar widespread emigration, the European rivulet became a river and then a flood.