It’s a politician’s bromide—and it also happens to be a profound truth. No war, no national crisis, has left a greater impress on the American psyche than the successive waves of new arrivals that quite literally built the country. Now that arguments against immigration are rising again, it is well to remember that every single one of them has been heard before.
The uproar over Zoë Baird has subsided by now, and readers with short memories may profit by a reminder that she was forced to withdraw as President Clinton’s first nominee tor Attorney General because she and her husband had hired two “illegal aliens” for babysitting and housekeeping chores. The episode put immigration into focus as a “live” topic for op-ed and talk-show manifestoes before it faded, only to return to the headlines when Clinton embraced the Bush administration’s policy (which he had denounced during the campaign) of turning back boatloads of Haitian refugees before they reached the Florida shore. But in June of 1993 the front pages carried the tragic story of a freighter, ironically named the Golden Venture, that ran aground just outside New York City. Its hold contained a crowd of Chinese workers being unlawfully smuggled into the United States, a crude practice supposedly long obsolete. Ten of them drowned trying to swim ashore. Later in the summer several hundred more “illegal” Chinese, California-bound, were intercepted and imprisoned aboard their ships until the U.S. government persuaded Mexico to take them in and ship them back. So it is that immigration regularly returns to the news. It always has. It always does.
The question of what our policy toward the world’s huddled masses should be is especially topical at this moment. The Statue of Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door, but in a time of economic downturn, there is no longer an assured consensus that the door should be kept open very far. Restrictionism is back in fashion. For every journalistic article like that of Business Week in July 1992, which notes that “the U.S. is reaping a bonanza of highly educated foreigners” and that low end immigrants “provide a hardworking labor force to fill the low-paid jobs that make a modern service economy run,” there is another like Peter Brimelow’s in the National Review. His title tells it all: “Time to Rethink Immigration?” The burden of his argument is that America has admitted too many immigrants of the wrong ethnic background (he himself is a new arrival from Britain), that neither our economy nor our culture can stand the strain, and that “it may be time to close the second period of American history [the first having been the era of the open frontier] with the announcement that the U.S. is no longer an ‘immigrant country.’” In short, we’re here; you foreigners stay home. Nor are journalists the only voices in the debate. Last August California’s governor Pete Wilson got media attention with a proposal to amend the Constitution so as to deny citizenship to an entire class of people born in the United States, namely, those unlucky enough to be the children of illegal immigrants.
If, as I have, you have been “doing” immigration history for many years, you’ve heard the restrictionists arguments before and expect to hear them again. And you are under the obligation to answer back, because what is at stake in the argument is nothing less than the essential nature of the United States of America. We are different. We aren’t the only country that receives immigration or that has to deal with resentment directed toward “aliens.” The popularity in France of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party and the surge of anti-foreign (and neo-Nazi) “Germany-for-Germans” violence in Germany are evidence of that. It’s also true that in a world of swift intercontinental travel and instant global communication, immigration policy cannot really be made by separate governments as if they lived in a vacuum. Such problems as there are demand multinational solutions.
Nevertheless and notwithstanding, the United States of America is different. Immigration is flesh of our flesh, and we need to be reminded of that. Some sneer at the statement that we are a nation of immigrants as a cliché; all nations, they assert, are made up of mixtures of different peoples. So they are, as new tribes and races displaced old ones by conquest or by random migration. But the United States was created by settlers who arrived from elsewhere, who deliberately and calculatedly invited and urged others to follow them, and who encouraged the process in ways that were unique. Of course, countries like Canada and Australia depended on immigration for survival and success, but only the United States made the acquisition of citizenship swift and simple; only the United States made it a matter of principle to equalize the conditions of new citizens and old; only the United States takes special pride in describing American nationality as, by definition, independent of race and blood—as something that is acquired by residence and allegiance regardless of birthplace or ancestry.
Confirmation of that statement is in the record, and the record needs to be reviewed. It is not a flawless one. Of course the people of the United States have not always extended an equal welcome to all races; of course there have been spasms of hostility like the current wave—in the 1790s, in the 1850s, in the 1920s. They are also part of the record, but on the whole the record is exceptional and ought to be known and understood before any new major changes in policy are made.
Every Passover Jews the world over sit down to the Seder table to retell the story of Exodus from Egypt in order to pass on to their children and renew in themselves their sense of who, what, and why they are. There was a time when the Fourth of July was an occasion for re-creating the days of the American Revolution, in order to serve the same purpose for Americans. (I hope that it makes a comeback, despite the assaults of a misguided “multiculturalism.”)
Now is the proper occasion for retelling the immigration story. So let us begin at the beginning, with the statement that offends the new exclusionist.