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Will America Ever Become the Mother of Exiles?

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For the last 114 years, Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet has been engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, an expression of how America imagines itself, as a beacon of hope to the "wretched refuse" of the world—which, though perhaps patriarchal to modern eyes, is at least imbued with empathy for the downcast. Written by a Jewish socialist who died of cancer a year after the statue's 1886 dedication, its words, particularly those last five lines, have become something of an American credo.

But the United States' relationship with immigrants has never been that simple—or that benevolent. Setting aside the indescribable evil of the African slave trade or even the widespread (and often forced) practice of indentured servitude that predated the formation of the union, the U.S. at its formation encouraged immigration, at least of certain people. "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger," President Washington said, "but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges."

In 1790, he signed the country's first immigration-related statute, which restricted citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person," who had been in the United States for two years. While the Naturalization Act of 1790 said nothing about nonwhite birthright citizenship, later legislation took care of that.

The nineteenth century saw several waves of immigration: more than four million Irish immigrants, many fleeing famine and abject poverty in the mid-century, who settled into East Coast cities near their points of arrival; Germans, many of whom clustered in the Midwest, in places such as Milwaukee and St. Louis, who came seeking religious liberty and land on which to farm; Asians, especially the twenty-five thousand Chinese immigrants, many escaping political and economic turmoil in China, who were lured to California by the gold rush of the early 1850s.

As has been a common refrain throughout our history, a backlash arose among the powerful WASPs who resented the newcomers who were competing for jobs. The Irish, being Catholic, and the Chinese, being Asian, were especially vilified and targeted for discrimination. The Naturalization Act of 1870, for instance, extended citizenship rights to African Americans but excluded the Chinese, under the theory that the Chinese could not properly assimilate into American society. Twelve years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from coming to America.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most American immigrants were coming from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe: more than four million Italians between 1890 and 1920; more than two million Jews from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920. They, too, were met with hostility, particularly the Jews. In 1917, the government established a literacy test for adult immigrants. In 1924, Congress prohibited immigration from Asia and established quotas that favored immigration from Western Europe.

Those quotas would stand for the next forty years. America began to broaden its immigration policies after World War II, allowing refugees from Europe and the Soviet Union and later Cuba. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced the quotas with a system that allows Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. That resulted in shifting immigration patterns—fewer immigrants from Europe, more from Asia and Latin America.

By the eighties, undocumented immigration from Mexico emerged as a source of political debate—as it obviously still is today. In 1986, President Reagan signed a relatively progressive immigration reform law that granted amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants while tightening enforcement. Four years later, President Bush signed a law expanding the number of legal immigrants admitted to the country and boosting immigration from "underrepresented" countries. A recession gave rise to anti-immigrant sentiment, and in 1996, Congress passed—and President Clinton signed—a law bolstering border enforcement and restricting immigrants' access to social programs.

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