As the crisis on our southern border becomes more serious and the problem of how exactly to deal with unaccompanied children crossing, or attempting to cross, into the U.S. becomes more intractable with each passing day, we have begun to hear the same “but this is not who we are” argument so familiar to us all from the days following mass shootings or violent attacks on public buildings or seats of power. In the wake of the January riot at the Capitol, I wrote to you all suggesting that there is something self-serving and untrue in that argument when applied to insurrectionist violence directed against the Congress, an opinion I embraced after reading Joanne B. Freeman’s remarkable book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. (To review my comments from last January, click here.) Now, I would like to apply that line of thinking to the crisis at the border.
If there was one theme running faithfully through my own public school education, it was that America was a nation of immigrants, that we all came from somewhere, that even the native Indians, incorrectly taken as aborigines by the European settlers who came here in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were themselves descended from people who crossed the then-extant Bering Land Bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska during the Ice Age and so were also reasonably to be considered some version of immigrants to North America. (For more on the Bering Land Bridge, click here.) For most of us, that settled the matter: we were all either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Even the Indians! And the fact that a significant number of children in my elementary school had parents who had somehow survived the war in Europe and come here after the Second War only made that thought even more satisfying. I believe the first poem I was obliged to memorize during my days at P.S. 196 was Emma Lazarus’s “The Great Colossus,” written in the year of my grandmother’s birth specifically to raise money to construct the pedestal atop which the Status of Liberty stands to this day and eventually cast onto a bronze plaque attached to that same pedestal.
Boy-me was beyond impressed. The poet’s description of the statue as “a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning and whose name the Mother of Exiles” was more than resonant with me. My people, after all, too came here fleeing persecution in Belarus and Poland—a fact my father mentioned regularly throughout my childhood—and that was without knowing the fate that would have awaited them had they failed to get out when they could and did. The rest of the poem spoke equally directly to the young me. When I read that “from her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome,” I imagined my grandparents passing through Ellis Island and wondering what fate awaited them here. And when the poet imagined Lady Liberty herself addressing the decaying lands of the Old World and imploring them to send to us “your tired, your poor,” your homeless and tempest-tost, and that they would be welcomed by Lady Liberty herself, on duty 24/7 holding aloft her “lamp beside the golden door” to welcome them, I knew what made America great—inclusivity, tolerance, hospitality, empathy, and kindness.
It was a very moving set of ideas to boy-me. It still is. But how true is it exactly? That I only found out later when I began to read on my own.
The United States was founded exclusively by immigrants from Europe or by the native-born descendants of earlier immigrants, but their sense of what they wanted future immigration to yield was not quite as expansive as Emma Lazarus’s poem suggests it ought to have been: the Naturalization Act of 1790, for example, dealt with the way individuals coming to the independent United States could become citizens and was quite specific: the ability to become an American citizen was formally to be limited to “free white persons…of good character.” There was, therefore, no path to citizenship at all for slaves, free black people, Asians, or, most bizarrely of all, actual native Americans. And that was how things were for quite some time. (It is true that some few states before the Civil War allowed Black people to be considered citizens, but only of that specific state and not of the country. Today, of course, there is no such thing as being a citizen of one of the states but not of the nation.) Indeed, the first instance in which a serious number of residents without the priorly requisite European pedigree became entitled to American citizenship was the passing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1831, which created a path to citizenship specifically (and only) for Choctaw Indians who agreed to remain in Mississippi. (In exchange, the Choctaws agreed to abandon their claim to about 15 million acres of land in what is now Oklahoma.) I am quite certain that the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was not part of our curriculum in eleventh grade.
Things moved ahead, but only very slowly. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offered citizenship to all people born within the boundaries of the United States, including Black people, but specifically excluding Indians residing on reservations. Two years later, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1870 that created, and for the first time, a possibility for Black people to immigrate to the United States and become citizens…but that same law not only denied the possibility of immigrants coming here from China but actually revoked the citizenship of Americans of Chinese descent who were already here.
The Page Act of 1875 had as its specific point, to quote its sponsor Representative Horace Page (R-California), “to end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women” by making it illegal for Chinese women to immigrate to the United States. And then, seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it illegal for any Chinese laborers, male or female, to enter the United States.
And then we get to the twentieth century. The Immigration Act of 1917 went a step further still, barring all immigration from Pacific Island nations and from the Far East, but also imposing for the first time literacy tests on would-be immigrants as well as creating for the first time categories of people to whom immigration was to be denied unrelated to national origin. The sanitized expressions “mentally defective individuals” and “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority” were used to deny openly gay people the possibility of entry, along with undesirable “illiterates, imbeciles, insane persons, and paupers.” But it was the Immigration Act of 1924, framed in its day as a mere extension of the earlier act, that for the first time established immigration quotas. Formally, the idea was to restrict immigration to a number equivalent to 2% of the number of Americans who claimed that nation as their ancestral home in the 1890 census. But the real purpose was to keep out Italians, Greeks, Poles, and (I can’t help thinking especially) Eastern European Jews. (I hardly have to pause to note what happened to those Jews who would have come here to start new lives but who were instead condemned to be present when the Nazis occupied their homelands.)
And that is how things stood for a very long time. Of course, no one in those days would have dreamt of using President Trump’s vulgar expression to describe the countries from which the President was keen to see no immigration at all. Or at least not in public. But the sentiment behind the Immigration Act of 1924 was exactly the same, only the identity of the specific nations so qualified was different.
The situation at the southern border is dire. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, himself a Cuban refugee, is doing his best to deal with an impossible situation. And, indeed, it turns out that expressing horror at the policies of the previous administration with respect to the separation of families and the caging of children is distinctly easier than figuring out what exactly to do with large number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border possessed solely of whatever they are carrying with them. There are a thousand good reasons to shove them back over the border and let them fend for themselves. They aren’t playing by the rules. We have no idea who their parents are. They mostly don’t speak English at all, let alone well. Like children everywhere, they have no way to sustain themselves by going to work and legally earning a living. All the above are excellent and fully cogent reasons for giving these kids a hot meal and shipping them back where they came from.
But what of the lady in the harbor and her torch, still burning in the night, still calling out to the tempest-tost, to the homeless, to the destitute, to the exhausted? The question isn’t really what President Trump would have done or what President Biden can or will do. The question is what the Mother of Exiles would say if she could turn to the south and consider the border with Mexico. Would she set down her lamp, shut the golden door, and tell these freeloaders to go to hell? Or would she come down from her pedestal, tie up her skirts, and make her way south to use her “imprisoned lightning” to illuminate the nighttime sky while she gathers the children in unto her and offers them shelter in this, the greatest and most powerful of all nations? It strikes me that it is to Lady Liberty that we should be looking for counsel in the matter of the current crisis, not to even the most well-meaning of politicians.