“Your Huddled Masses, Yearning to Breathe Free”

By Dennis Reilly

By the time you read this, most of those who comment on things political for a living will have moved on from analyzing the “earthquake” that was the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th District.

All sorts of explanations for this quite unexpected result have been floated. One that seems to have some staying power – OK, this is being written only a week after the primary – is the widespread perception that Cantor was seriously considering helping to break the impasse on immigration policy that has plagued us for at least the last decade. We do know that the man who beat Cantor mentioned immigration frequently during the campaign and that the word “amnesty” surfaced in attacks on Cantor and the proposed immigration reforms that he was rumored to be considering supporting at some unspecified later date.

Whether immigration policy dealt a death blow to the Majority Leader’s re-election effort or not, the fact that he was defeated is almost certain to deal a death blow to the cause of immigration reform for the foreseeable future. It is hard to imagine any Republican office holder venturing into the territory that many believe was so poisonous that even the rumor that Cantor might go there was enough to bring him down in spite of institutional power and a seemingly infinite money machine.

But before we conclude that our inability to frame a fair, honorable, and effective immigration policy can be laid squarely at the feet of a bunch of Clint Eastwood wannabes voting their prejudices and a set of Republican politicians unwilling to stand up to them, we need to step back for a moment and take a quick look at America’s 200-year love/hate relationship with the idea of those “huddled masses” breathing free right here amongst us. We may be a nation of immigrants, but those of us already here haven’t always been all that welcoming to those who wanted to join us.

Our first brush with the question of immigration came less than a decade after George Washington was sworn in as the first President. In 1798 Washington’s successor, John Adams, and the Federalist-led Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. To shorten the story, the first of these acts gave President Adams extraordinary powers to deport non-citizens deemed to be “security risks,” while the second gave him considerable leeway in charging citizens with sedition – that is, with the effort to overthrow the government. Jefferson and Madison organized opposition in Kentucky and Virginia respectively, and we came very close to a Constitutional crisis. Jefferson won the election of 1800, the laws expired, and the convicted seditionists were all pardoned. Immigration resumed – it is pretty tough to stop it when all one had to do was board a ship in Europe and get off when it docked – and voting officials in several Western states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote providing they swore they would become citizens as soon as possible.

The 1840s and early 1850s saw another burst of anti-immigrant sentiment. We weren’t too happy with the waves of Irishmen fleeing the potato famine nor the surge in German immigration after the unrest of 1848. The aptly named Know Nothing Party railed against all immigrants – they wanted to outlaw the very practice of immigration – and even the Free Soilers, the folks who wanted to prevent the growth of slavery, were against immigration on the grounds that immigrants took “American” jobs. But the issue of slavery and ultimately the Civil War took our focus off immigration. And when we began to build the transcontinental railroad, we found a use for the Irish and the Chinese. The Irishmen started building the railroad from the east, and the Chinese who came to California built the railroad from the west. We didn’t think much of either group, but they were good enough to lay track. When they were done, the Irish were greeted by signs reading, “Help Wanted, No Irish Need Apply,” and the Chinese who were not citizens found themselves facing deportation.

The period from the end of the Civil War to the end of WWI perhaps best captures our inability to think with one mind about immigration. Between 1865 and 1900, the country doubled in population and 40 percent of the increase came from people born in some other country. In 1886 we dedicated the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from the French. But these decades saw a rising resentment toward immigrants, as well. The battle to “grant” women the right to vote – a battle over basic human equality in the eyes of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and so many other women – actually gained momentum when a coalition of white men (the ones who would decide the question since only they could vote) became convinced that if women did vote, these men could advance their causes of prohibition, restoring the influence of Protestant Christianity and reducing the flow of immigrants into the country. It turned out they were right. Until the ratification of the 19th amendment, women got the vote one state at a time… and one state at a time we got Prohibition, a greater emphasis on Christian (read: Protestant) values, and the election of candidates opposed to immigration.

That doesn’t end the story, of course, but you get the idea. We have always been of two minds about being joined by the huddled masses of the rest of the world. Come on in. Work hard. Make your way. But you are different. You speak a “foreign” language. You are a bit darker than we are. Your religion isn’t the “true” religion.

Does any of this matter now? Yes, I fear it does. It is just too easy to blame the older, whiter, more rural/small town electorate that sends conservative and virulently anti-immigration representatives to Washington for the fact that we haven’t fixed our broken immigration system. Yes, they have to take a large share of the blame. But our hands, and maybe even our hearts, are not entirely clean. We’ve got to look in the communal national mirror and accept our collective share of the blame.

Enough out of me.


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