Besides descendants of the original Native American inhabitants of this land, there is hardly an American alive today who does not trace his or her origin to another continent. And yet throughout the history of this great country, some established residents have despised immigrants and blamed the newcomers for all the societal ills of the day.
Even the venerable Benjamin Franklin did not take lightly to the Germans coming in the 1700s. In 1775 he wrote, “A Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
In the 1850s, the “Know-Nothing” Party was founded to fight against the influx of even more Germans and this time also, the Irish. The party won six governorships and gained control of various state legislatures. It finally fell apart because its leadership was split over slavery.
About 30 years later, Chinese immigrants became a worry for some. For years, the Chinese had provided cheap labor for construction projects as the nation expanded westward. Due to the Depression of 1882-85, jobs became scarce. Soon the Chinese immigrants were blamed for everything. Congress even passed a law – the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This stopped Chinese immigration and prevented those already here from gaining American citizenship. This law was finally repealed in 1943.
The 1880s were a busy time for immigrants. Soon it was the turn of Italians and other southeastern Europeans. They became additional fodder for the Klu Klux Khan (KKK). Congress also passed a law to stem that tide – the Immigration Act of 1924 limited entry from Southern and Eastern Europe and placed an outright ban on immigration from Asia. These restrictions were lifted in 1965.
As Fascism and Nazism rolled around in Europe in the 1930s, Jews from Europe were no luckier, especially those from Eastern Europe and Russia. Those who made it were hunted by the KKK.
During the Great Depression, 2 million Mexican-Americans were sent packing to Mexico and after Pearl Harbor, 100,000 Japanese were rounded up and locked up in concentration camps, these were referred to as internment camps for political reasons.
In all those years, blacks have continually been the victims of the most inhumane treatment possible, they too just did not fit in even if they had been brought here forcibly.
So do not delude yourself into thinking the anti-immigrant fervor of today is something new. It isn’t. Even though historically immigrants have made up only about 12-15% of the US population, they still elicit very negative feelings among some citizens because of myths and untruths that have been perpetuated through the years. They still are used as pawns by politicians to get votes and gain power.
Interestingly, history also shows that, sooner or later, this anti-immigrant obsession against the immigrant-wave-of-the-day subsides as the new entrants assimilate and become quite productive members of American society. Then, unlike what some think, America changes us, immigrants. Yes, America does. We buy into the American dream and learn to appreciate all this land has to offer – from the people to apple pies to the Rockies.
America changes us. Sure, we hold on to our cultures and languages but when it matters, one notices how Americanized we have become and that is not a bad thing at all.
Even as this nation changes us, we also infuse society with some of our cultures, thus enriching it.
In a few months or years, this present anti-immigrant fervor will subside, even pass. Those immigrants who make it in will assimilate. We’ll look back and wonder how we allowed other humans to be treated so badly. Then soon, the cycle will kick in again.
As terrible as it might sound, anti-immigrant views do serve a civic purpose. They remind those in power of the sovereignty of a country and its uniqueness and the wish and need to protect it somewhat. And thus, there will always be those who will hate immigration and immigrants because they fear a loss of identity.
As an immigrant, these are disconcerting times. However, this is America after all. So, through all the hateful rhetoric and unfriendly policy positions, there are voices of reason, love, and sanity that push for better treatment of immigrants. There are churches that lend a helping hand, politicians who fight for better laws and neighbors and colleagues who understand.
Even as these times expose the unkind sentiments and views some citizens carry in their hearts towards those who are different, there are also many who offer support because they appreciate humanity. And with that, the good that is in the country grows and stays alive.
Thus I pray that even as this nation strives to keep its identity, it will also find it in her heart to welcome “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
I am sure even the Pilgrims would relate and understand, then once upon a time, they were immigrants too, tired, poor and yearning to breathe free.
Dr. Nana Dadzie Ghansah is an anesthesiologist who practices in Lexington, Kentucky
Feature Photo: An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887.
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM
Naturalization Ceremony Photo- Courtesy of The Department of Homeland Security