Immigration in Context

While exercising in the condo’s pool yesterday, I noticed a small brown beetle floating in the water. When I was ready to leave, I realized it was still alive. There was a toy football on the edge of the pool, so I let the beetle climb on it and placed it in the shade. It seemed relieved. Not two minutes later a four-inch lizard came out of the bushes and grabbed the beetle; it stood staring at me for quite a while with the creature in its mouth. Then it flicked a sassy tail and proudly carried it away. Relief? Pride? Is this too much anthropomorphic thinking? In any case, what a no-win situation for a desperate South Florida beetle.

I’d been watching the news before I went to the pool;  perhaps inappropriately, this little incident made me think of all the anguished parents and children struggling to stay alive in perilous conditions, coming here to the USA to be rescued and not finding a safe haven; instead they have been swallowed up in our chaotic bureaucracy.

Yes, immigration has been on our minds lately. The current humanitarian crisis is one that, for most Americans, tears at our heartstrings. Still it is useful to put this refugee crisis in some historical perspective and to understand the way our debates over this subject in the past reveal who and what we are as a nation. Two articles I came across recently give some broader context to the thousands of men, women and children streaming into the U.S. from Central America. Yesterday’s New York Times (6/23/2018, B1) looks at migrants on the rise around the world and the myths about them that are shaping our attitudes. One conclusion is that “people perceive there are more immigrants than there really are.”

The late Peter J. Duignan wrote a thoughtful survey of the complex history of immigration in America (1780-2003) for the Hoover Institution.  No matter what your perspective is on what we should do about immigration, the historical background provided in this study is invaluable.

I was also curious about attitudes towards those who hoped to escape from persecution by coming to the U.S. during the late 1930s when my mother Jane Hall worked on screenplays for Louis B. Mayer in Hollywood. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, after World War I, “America’s restricted immigration laws reflected the national climate of isolationism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and economic insecurity.” The 1924 Johnson Reed Act—in place until 1965—set quotas on the number of visas available for specific countries. “The quotas were calculated to privilege ‘desirable’ immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. They limited immigrants considered less ‘racially desirable,’ including southern and eastern European Jews. Many people born in Asia and Africa were barred from immigrating to the United States entirely on racial grounds.” And there was no formal refugee policy at all. In late November 1938, 72% of Americans responded “no” to this question: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” And, after July 1941, when “the State Department centralized all alien visa control in Washington, DC . . . emigration from Nazi occupied territory was virtually impossible.”  We know how that turned out.

These brief forays into our immigration past revealed that much of the language being used today in our heated and bitter current debates, both pro and con immigration, is language that has been used before. Those who wanted to put the most stringent limits on immigration have often stoked fear in the minds of Americans that their jobs will be taken away, or that their neighborhoods will be threatened by crime. But the opposite of anthropomorphizing is dehumanizing. In none of the bare-bones research that I did was there any reference to an American president who described families seeking freedom and safety within our borders as “animals” who want to “infest” our country.

A note added 6/25: For those of you wondering where moral leadership and the “better angels of our nature” lie in these divisive times, I highly recommend Jon Meacham”s best seller The Soul of America.