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

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.

By Amy L. Fairchild, PhD, MPH, Texas A&M University for
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