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An Immigrant Nation

by Matthew Devlin about a month ago in history

The New Colossus and American Immigration

An Immigrant Nation
Photo by Yüksel Göz on Unsplash

To the impoverished immigrant, America must have seemed like a poor man's utopia, and The Statue of Liberty - completed in 1884 - was a potent symbol of their hopes and dreams. Inscribed in the base of this distinguished landmark is The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus, herself the child of Portuguese immigrants. In this poem, she refers to the statue, and indeed the entire nation, as the “Mother of Exiles.” This imagery is appropriate, because the first Americans were, in large part, political and religious exiles.

Because it was a distant colony of the British Empire, the “new world” was far enough away from the relative bondage of monarchial rule that settlers could worship freely, and determine the course of their own lives. British interference, however, would eventually lead to massive insurrection, and the creation of an unprecedented democratic nation. As America passed from infancy into adolescence, the nation became a successful player on the world stage, and the freedoms that many of her citizens enjoyed, became the envy of people the world over.

America soon became a place of mythical promise. For the price of passage across the Atlantic, one could open the door to a land of milk and honey. The poor and impoverished are sometimes blessed with a bleary-eyed optimism and an often foolish notion that tomorrow will bring with it success or the promise of success. This may be what America represented to the downtrodden immigrant.

Unfortunately, the real America was a vastly different place than many immigrants may have imagined. There was a wealth of opportunity to be found in this fairly young nation, but there were also many obstacles standing in the way of success. America in the late 19th century was a nation where human rights were often abridged, and many immigrants suffered greater abuses in the United States than they may have in their native countries. For good or bad, the immigrant experience is etched into American memory, and the diversity of immigrants has come to define America as a socially progressive nation.

Most American schoolchildren can recite the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. While the word pilgrim is often used to describe a particular group of American settlers, it is more commonly used to describe anyone on a religious journey, and the first settlers of the new world were indeed on such a journey. When Emma Lazarus called Bartholdi’s statue the “Mother of Exiles” she may have been referring to the countless British exiles that had left England in search of religious and political freedom. The “Pilgrims,” for example, were Separatists from the Church of England, and they were soon joined by other religious dissidents in search of similar liberties. That freedom, however, had limits. The colonies were under British control, and British rule was often brutal.

In her hands, the Statue of Liberty holds a tablet and a torch. According to The New Colossus, the flame of the torch is imprisoned lightning. This phrase describes a certain level of volatility. While the United States is symbolically a burning flame to guide the rest of the world, it is also a lightning bolt, a force of nature that cannot be contained, and as such will not be subjugated or controlled. This unwillingness to bow to foreign rule was established very early on when the American colonists announced their separation from the British Empire.

The Declaration of Independence was written in answer to and objection to the “abuses and usurpations” of the British monarchy. Not only were the colonists overtaxed, but they also lacked representation in Parliament, giving them no recourse against taxation. The British exerted control in a land where their control was limited, and thus the American colonists grew weary of imperial rule. Following the Declaration of Independence, the American colonies entered into a massive power struggle with the most powerful empire in the world and eventually won their freedom.

The Declaration of Independence briefly outlines the certain “inalienable” rights of all Americans; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, as history has shown, although these rights may seem to be morally and philosophically inalienable, they are actually socially and politically gray. The definitions of each can be easily manipulated to fit any social and/or political agenda. This was never more apparent than during the period of American slavery.

By British Library on Unsplash

While they did not arrive in North America through their own volition, African slaves represented a massive ingress, and therefore should not be excluded in discussions of American immigration. The 19th century saw a monumental increase in the number of slaves living in the United States. The slave population grew from nearly nine hundred thousand at the beginning of the 19th century to nearly 4 million by the era of emancipation.

The fact that slavery no longer endures as an institution says much for the progress of the nation. In her poem, Emma Lazarus, for the purpose of contrast, alludes to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world. The giant statue was said to have straddled the sea walls of the man-made harbor at Rhodes, a bustling port city of the Roman Empire. Slavery in Roman society was legally justified by defining slaves as property, so the practice was allowed to flourish. Rhodes likely traded in slaves, making Lazarus’ contrast of the Statue of Liberty with the Colossus all the more appropriate.

By the time the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor, the United States had seen an end to legal slave trading and a permanent end to the institution of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Because slavery had been an institution for so long, observed by so many countries, the abolition of slavery in America represented a massive social leap forward. But just because slavery was abolished and blacks were given their freedom, that did not mean life improved for the descendants of African slaves. As a matter of fact, they would continue to struggle for equal rights well into the 20th century. The nation of exiles had created exiles of its own, and in time would create many more.

In the mid- to late 19th century, the United States saw an increase in European immigration. European immigrants were mostly members of the lower classes. While some immigrants were fleeing religious and political persecution, others were merely searching for a better life, a way to pull themselves and their families out of destitution. In The New Colossus, the Statue of Liberty pleads for the impoverished, the exhausted, “the wretched refuse … the homeless, [and] the tempest-tost” to leave Europe for the providence of the United States. Of course, this passage also speaks to the political struggle that Emma Lazarus had engaged in prior to the completion of the statue. A Sephardic Jew and the child of immigrants, Emma Lazarus became an advocate for Jewish refugees. Through her various works, she brought attention to the trend of European anti-Semitism and gained the necessary social and political backing to support European Jews fleeing their homelands. The arrival of these countless Jewish immigrants was but a small fraction of the total number of immigrant arrivals in the 1800s.

Census estimates of the 19th century show that German immigration had exceeded five and a half million by the end of the century, and Irish immigration rose to around four and a half million. The number of Irish immigrants greatly increased in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine, which had claimed more than a million lives. New York, home to the great majority of German immigrants, also saw a large-scale ingress of French and Russian immigrants in the decade between 1850 and 1860. While Italians demonstrated similar immigration numbers, their great ingress did not occur until the latter part of the 19th century.

Whether it was the fear of persecution in their homelands, the hope of religious freedom, or the promise of wealth and success, millions of Europeans arrived on American shores and soon became a part of American society. But not every immigrant found their niche. The Irish, for example, were seen as being lazy and prone to alcoholism, and because of this many new arrivals suffered intense discrimination. Because of Nativism, a coordinated resistance to immigration, many Irish likely found themselves in a worse state than when they left Ireland. Nativism took on many forms and was the driving force behind a number of anti-immigration movements, the most significant of these movements being the anti-Catholic movement and the anti-Chinese movement.

While many Irish suffered intense discrimination because of their Catholic backgrounds, they did not endure the same level of exclusion as the Chinese. The New Colossus silently begged for the deliverance of the poor and the downtrodden with no regard for ethnic origin, but the reality of Chinese immigration was much different. In 1882, two years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, the Chinese Exclusion Act officially placed a moratorium on Chinese immigration, and it would be sixty years before Chinese immigrants could freely enter the United States. Unfortunately, the Chinese do not occupy a unique position in American history.

The issue of immigration exclusion in the United States has been raging for a great many years with little or no headway. The 1875 Immigration Act was the first piece of legislation to exclude groups from immigrating to the United States. Historically, the United States Supreme Court has upheld laws excluding the naturalization of individuals of certain racial backgrounds. In 1923, for example, The United States v. Thind determined that Indians could not become naturalized U.S. citizens because they could not be classified as “white” under a 1790 naturalization statute. Ozawa v. the United States, a similar naturalization case from 1922, came to the same conclusion in regards to the Japanese. In the past, the United States has shown racial preference on the issue of immigration, but have immigrant exclusions continued in the modern era? The question can likely be answered by addressing the issue of immigration from Mexico to America.

Mexican migrant workers represent a large percentage of the American agricultural workforce, particularly in the American southwest. Mexicans often enter this country illegally because it can be rather difficult for them to obtain permission to work or live in the United States. American lawmakers and American citizens have cited a number of reasons why Mexican immigration is the cause of great harm to the American economy. One such complaint is that because Mexicans send their earnings back to their families in Mexico, the American free market suffers from the loss of the re-circulated earnings. So, with all these earnings supposedly being sent back to Mexico, the assumption would be that the Mexican economy is on the rise. On the contrary, the loss of Mexican workers to the American job market has injured Mexico’s economy.

With the loss of workers, many industries in Mexico have suffered, and therefore Mexican citizens have come to rely on American industries for goods and services. The truth may be that the flow of money between the two nations has created a symbiotic economy. The American economy has come to depend on the Mexican economy as much as the Mexican worker has come to depend on the American job market.

Unfortunately, many of the criticisms about Mexican immigration are untrue or based on too little information. History, though, has shown that in times of great economic crisis, people will look for someone to blame, a scapegoat. Mexican immigration does indeed present a number of problems for the American way of life, but American economic issues may have more to do with domestic corruption than they do with illegal immigration.

Mexican scapegoat-ism is not a new occurrence. During the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939, many naturalized Mexican-Americans were deported to Mexico. The strategy evolved as a means to protect social programs from being exploited by Mexican nationals, a problem that is cited today as a factor for strict immigration practice.

In a passage from The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus claims that Lady Liberty’s “beacon-hand glows with world-wide welcome.” The truth, however, is that the United States is more welcoming of certain groups of people than it is others. Emma Lazarus died in 1887 at the age of 38, meaning she lived just long enough to witness the Chinese Exclusion Act entered into law. However, because she never publicly commented on the act, there is no way to determine how she felt about this miscarriage of liberty. One can, however, make a reasonable assumption about her feelings; Lazarus was, after all, a champion of exiles.

Through her literary works, Emma Lazarus advocated for Jewish Europeans suffering the emotional brutality of anti-Semitism and the physical brutality of pogroms, riotous attacks on Jewish peoples and their settlements. It is clear that she believed in human rights, and equal opportunity, but then so did the founding fathers of the United States, many of whom owned slaves. However, it is not the views of the author that matter, but the message of the writings. The New Colossus delivers a strong message, not one that reveals the truth about America, but one that reveals the vision that America and her most potent symbol, the Statue of Liberty, can invoke.

By Avi Werde on Unsplash

Matthew Devlin (he/him) is an author and historian living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.


Matthew Devlin

Because I was born with a disability, I was never able to keep up with my peers, so I spent most of my time reading and dreaming. Dreaming more than anything. From those dreams, stories emerged, and so began my love affair with writing.

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