Although the first immigrants to American shores are tainted by their treatment of the natives they encountered, a persecution that endures into the 21st century, the causes of their migration--religious liberty, economic opportunity, escape from political turmoil and violence—remain the fundamental impetus for millions of immigrants. Those who sailed into Plymouth Bay, up the James River, who passed a welcoming copper-green statue in New York harbor and who today seek asylum along our southern border continue the journey toward freedom and opportunity and continue to assert that we are a nation of immigrants.
Yet, despite that inviting statue, New York and the rest of the United States weren’t always that accepting. Even New York’s revered Founding Father, John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States, co-author of the Federalist Papers with another New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies, said, “We should build a wall of brass around the country,” referring to “Catholic alien invaders.” Twenty-first century metallurgy has improved on Jay’s “brass” for Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” and the latter’s sentiments might be even more extreme. After all, Jay only wanted to keep Catholics out, while Trump’s got a much broader list of unwanted peoples.
But let’s not just pick on New York. “Few of their children learn English…The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages…Unless the stream of their importation could be turned, they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious,” said Benjamin Franklin about German immigration to Pennsylvania.
The Founding Fathers don’t have a monopoly on xenophobia. Famous early twentieth century novelist, playwright and poet John Dos Passos railed against U.S. immigration policy saying “The people of this country are too tolerant. There’s no other country in the world where they’d allow it…After all, we built up this country and then we allow a lot of foreigners, the scum of Europe, the offscourings of Polish ghettos to come and ruin it for us.”
As the “Red Scare” after World War I took hold in America, Congress agreed with Dos Passos during a 1920 hearing: “They are coming in such numbers…it simply amounts to unrestricted and indiscriminate dumping into this country of people of every character and description. If there were in existence a ship that could hold three million human beings, then three million Jews of Poland would board to escape to America.”
Southern Europeans didn’t fare much better. Representative Grant Hudson in 1924 said of them, “Now what do we find in all our large cities? Entire sections containing a population incapable of understanding our institutions, with no comprehension of our national ideals, and for the most part incapable of speaking English…America’s first duty is to those already within her own shores.” Sound familiar?
In Maryland, where 15% of the population is foreign-born, the fear among our immigrant neighbors persists. Undocumented immigrants, during listening sessions with religious organizations, report that they are afraid to report crimes, especially cases of domestic violence, are afraid to visit health care facilities and physicians, particularly when their children fall ill, leading to a public health crisis.