Since its inception, America has practiced an elitist brand of immigration marked by predilection for immigrants of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.
Seeking emancipation from British rule, American colonists rejoiced that “Providence … (gave) this one connected country to … a people descended from the same ancestors speaking the same language, professing the same religion” and condemned the king for “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.”
But once the new American republic was born, anti-immigrant sentiments arose and the “close the door behind me” policy became its immigration credo.
Striving to preserve Anglo-Saxon pre-eminence, America’s Founding Fathers deterred immigration. Alexander Hamilton, champion of the Constitution and himself an immigrant, warned, “The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass.”
In his view, by allowing the wholesale admission of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, America would invite the “Trojan horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty,” as the hospitable Native Americans did with the early Europeans, oblivious of the disastrous consequences.
A pragmatic George Washington declared that immigration “except of useful mechanics and some particular … professions” should be discouraged.
Similarly, President James Madison thought it unwise “to give any encouragement to emigrants, unless … they may bring … some special addition to our stock of arts or … culture.”
Thomas Jefferson even doubted that foreigners brought with them “that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism.”
Fearing the dilution of Anglo-Saxon purity, Benjamin Franklin warned against “swarthy” German immigrants “of the most ignorant stupid sort,” swamping America.
After the Civil War, with close to 1 million Americans dead, a severe labor shortage triggered unprecedented immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Vastly different from their predecessors, these newcomers were readily cast as un-American, a menace to society.
In 1909, educator Ellwood Cubberley expressed the prevailing view: “These Southern and Eastern Europeans are … illiterate, docile, lacking self-reliance and initiative, and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conception of law, order and government, their coming has corrupted our civic life.”
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.” Wilson’s incendiary anti-immigration rhetoric paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1924, a law that established a “national origins” formula, which discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans and shaped American immigration policy until the 1960s.
In his 1916, “The Passing of a Great Race,” dubbed “The Manifesto of Scientific Racism,” American eugenicist Madison Grant zealously advocated for the preservation of the superior Anglo-Saxon “Great Race” while urging the sterilization of “undesirables… worthless race types,” to eliminate the corrupting influence of non-Nordics washing up on America’s shores.
Among those who cherished Grant’s pseudo-scientific tome was Adolf Hitler, who referred to it as “my Bible.”
While history has debunked the myth of racial superiority, a global wave of immigrant intolerance has resurged in recent times. Once again, immigrants from other lands are seen as threats to national identity and security.
Once again fear mongers exhort the building of walls to repel the “undesirables,” as their predecessors separated the “human garbage” from the “worthy part of mankind” at Ellis and Angel islands.
Yet a sober, retrospective glance should remind us that immigrants have invariably added to the strength and wealth of the nation. Currently, low fertility rates for the white European-origin population of the United States will spur further immigration in the future.
In the judicious words of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, “Under the conditions that we now confront, we should be carefully focused on the contribution which skilled people from abroad, as well as unskilled, can contribute to this country, as they have for generation after generation.”
It would be disastrous to persist with futile immigration policies that relegate immigrants to the underground economy rather than integrating them into society. Decades of political neglect toward immigrants bred Europe’s greatest postwar crisis, in which fundamentalist terrorism found fertile ground.
Denied adequate education and perennially disadvantaged in the marketplace, scores of Europe’s second-generation immigrants seek emancipation through militant nationalism. Failure to implement substantive immigration reform could bring the United States closer to the chaotic scenario currently sweeping Europe.
No wall will ever stem the tide of desperate people driven by poverty and oppression to cross borders in search of a better life. Their determination to surmount all obstacles to reach “the promised land” is a testament to the untamable power of man’s will to survive.
Building bridges of human cooperation and understanding would be an infinitely wiser investment than erecting dead-end walls.
Silvio Manno of Fresno is a retired teacher who immigrated to the United States from Italy 40 years ago. His recent book, “Charcoal and Blood: Italian Immigrants in Eureka, Nevada and the Fish Creek Massacre,” published by the University of Nevada Press, reflects his continued research into the struggle of the immigrant.