Poet Emma Lazarus’s heartfelt words inscribed near the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . ." rather inaccurately and hypocritically portrays American attitudes toward immigrants throughout most of our history. We have welcomed foreigners to our shores only when we needed them, and grudgingly even then.
The first great foreign influx was the massive arrival of poor Irish immigrants during the late 1840s and early 1850s. They were fleeing the horrendous Irish potato famine in which over one million people died of starvation and malnutrition. Mainly from fear of inundation by Irish Catholic hordes, led by the Know Nothing Party many Americans shunned, persecuted and Ghettoized the newly-arrived immigrants.
Signs saying "Dogs and Irish not allowed" and "No Irish Need Apply" are no exaggeration. Then in the early 1860s Irishmen were suddenly welcomed at the boat dock and promptly enlisted in the Union Army to "help put down the rebellion." But as soon as the Civil War ended anti-Irish attitudes reemerged.
Although we call ourselves a nation of immigrants we have seldom welcomed foreigners for humanitarian reasons. In fact, I think that today’s Hispanic immigrants, very few of them legal, are better treated than any other immigrant group in our history, certainly in this area. Serious anti-Mexican movements have been rare. Maybe we have overcome some of our xenophobia and prejudice, at least the overt kind.
Typically, after immigrants have been assimilated, by the second or third generation they are generally accepted as Americans, albeit not always gladly. But that is not the case in many other countries, particularly in northern Europe. And this is probably the cause of much of the unrest and violence among immigrant populations there.
In France immigrants might eventually be granted all the legal rights and privileges of French citizenship, but they will never be fully accepted in society as legitimately French. And I recall a German gentleman’s reply when asked on a recent TV documentary how one might become a German. "You don’t become German," he replied. "You either are, or you are not."
That xenophobic attitude might seem a little arrogant to us, but I think it is rather typical of many Europeans. What is the difference? It’s probably our different histories. Most European nations are founded on a common blood, language and culture. Contrarily, we are a nation founded on an idea, the idea that people are inherently free and equal and have the right to govern themselves.
Europeans are particularly xenophobic where Mid-Eastern Muslim and African immigrants are concerned. But some countries there are no longer reproducing at even a replacement level and are now welcoming immigrants. They need younger workers and taxpayers.
Social scientists who study population trends tell us that about the middle of this century the Caucasian race in the U.S. will become a minority. Is this a cause for alarm? I doubt if many will really notice it. But anyway, just to be on the safe side maybe we had better start being nicer to certain people.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.