‘Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor’: Historical Perspectives on Immigration

Attitudes towards immigrants have vacillated in the past between unrestricted welcome and xenophobic opposition.

On Aug. 12, 2019, the Trump administration announced a new regulation (set to go into effect in October) that would make it much more difficult for people who came to this country legally and who have utilized various  government-assistance programs (such as food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program) to qualify for permanent residency in the United States (a step towards citizenship). Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, defended the new rule as a means of preventing immigrants from becoming “public charges”—that is, dependent on government aid. One reporter, Rachel Martin of National Public Radio, asked how such a policy that discriminates against low-income immigrants could be reconciled with the sentiments expressed in the iconic poem, “The New Colossus,” inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem, written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish woman, depicts America as a haven for the “tired and poor” of other lands, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Cuccinelli offered his own adaptation of the poem: : “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” (italics added).[fn]NPR, “Morning Edition,” Aug. 13, 2019.[/fn]

The new regulation is among the most recent in a series of policies reflecting the Trump administration’s harsh stance on illegal immigration and its efforts to limit legal immigration to this country. In the first days of his presidency, on Jan. 27, 2017, Donald Trump imposed a ban on immigrants from five mostly Muslim countries that was revised and upheld, in modified form, by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018. In September 2017, the administration sharply lowered the annual refugee admission cap from 110,000 to 45,000, and it has been further reduced to 30,000 for fiscal year 2018.[fn]Data from the National Immigration Law Center website (March 8, 2019).[/fn] In January 2018, Trump told some U.S. senators that prospective immigrants from countries like Norway were welcome, while those from several African countries, Haiti and El Salvador (which he described in profane terms) were not.[fn]Eli Watkins and Abby Phillip, “Trump Decries Immigrants from ‘Shithole Countries’ Coming to U.S.,” CNN, Jan. 12, 2018.[/fn] He has referred to the influx of refugees from Central America as “an invasion” that threatens the security of our country, and his administration’s “zero tolerance policy” cruelly separated more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents (the policy has now ended, but some families still remain separated.)[fn]Data from the ACLU website.[/fn] In the past few months, we learned of horrific conditions in a number of detention centers (including some housing children) along the southern border. On July 15, 2019, new rules for asylum seekers were introduced, requiring them to apply for asylum in the first country that they pass through en route to the United States. On Aug. 7, 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials rounded up 680 suspected undocumented immigrants who were working in food-processing plants in Mississippi. And on Aug. 21, 2019, the Trump administration declared itself no longer bound by the 1997 Flores Settlement (that imposed limits on how long the government could hold migrant children in custody and set standards for their care). Many of these new rules and executive orders have been challenged in the courts.

In response to these developments, many people have protested vocally against anti-immigrant rhetoric and the inhumane treatment of those who seek refuge here. They maintain that the United States has always been a beacon of hope to those aspiring to a better life, and is a nation of immigrants who have worked together to build this country. Others argue that banning those they deem to be undesirable will protect their vision of America. Tragically, two individuals motivated by anti-immigrant hatred (and, in the Pittsburgh case, antisemitism), perpetrated horrific violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.  

Today’s debate over immigration echoes similar debates in previous periods of American history. Some Americans in earlier generations insisted that free immigration was fundamental to shaping the American character, while others claimed that it threatened that character. At times, immigration was unlimited and even encouraged; at other times, restrictive laws barred hopeful millions from entering the country. John Higham, a leading historian of American immigration and nativism, described the two poles of thought on this issue:

Clearly, [immigration] has enhanced the variety of American culture. Its diversifying influence is imprinted in the American ideal of nationality, in the American religious pattern, and in the sheer presence of so many different human types. On the other hand, the diversities have given way time and again to pressures for uniformity…In American life these contrary impulses mingle, their tensions unresolved, their implications still unfolding.[fn] John Higham, Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America (New York: Atheneum, 1975), p. 28.[/fn]

Until the late 1880s, immigrants were generally welcomed to this country because of what they could contribute to political, economic and social life. A low-paid work force was needed to settle and farm Western lands, build railroads, labor in the mines, and produce ready-made clothing and other goods in factories. In the middle decades of the 19th century, most immigrants to the United States hailed from Ireland and the Germanic states (including some 150,000 Central European Jews), and they settled in cities and towns in the Northeast and Midwest. Though there was opposition to the newcomers, mostly expressed by members of the so-called “Know Nothing” party (that was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic), nativism declined after mid-century.

The Immigration Act of 1882 gave the federal government more authority over immigration, but left its administration to the states (In 1891, the federal government took over completely.)[fn]The 1882 Immigration Act introduced a “public charge” provision barring a “convict, lunatic, idiot or person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” “Public charge” clauses were incorporated into several later immigration laws. In 1930, in response to the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover asked foreign consuls to enforce the “public charge” provision very strictly, making it much more difficult for those seeking to flee the Reich and Nazi dominated Europe.[/fn] The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 10 years. Nevertheless, more than 20 million immigrants arrived in this country between 1880 and 1924—most of them from Southern and Eastern Europe. About 10 percent of these immigrants (some 2.5 million) were Jews from Eastern Europe—mainly from czarist Russia, but also from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Rumania. (Some 20,000 Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Greece, Syria, the Balkan countries and other areas also arrived during these years.) These immigrants had generally experienced famines and economic dislocation in their home countries, and sought economic opportunity in the United States, encouraged by lower steamship rates and widely publicized tales of “streets paved with gold.” East European Jews were driven to emigrate by economic necessity as well, but also by severe religious persecution and violence (three waves of pogroms in 1881-82, 1903-05 and 1917-21), and discriminatory governmental legislation (e.g., the “May Laws” of 1882) that made it almost impossible for them to acquire an education or make a living.

As immigrants poured into the United States, sentiment grew in some circles for greater restrictions on immigration. In 1894, Prescott Hall and his followers (several of them recent graduates of Harvard University) established the Immigration Restriction League that aimed to preserve America’s Anglo-Saxon heritage and “launched a whirlwind campaign to alert the country to the social and economic dangers of the new immigration.[fn]Leonard Dinnerstein, Anti-Semitism in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 44; Higham, Send These to Me, p. 41.[/fn] The Congressional Dillingham Commission conducted a four-year investigation of immigration, presenting its report in 1911, which paved the way for later restrictions. In 1917, after several previous failed attempts, opponents of free immigration succeeded in passing—over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto—an Immigration Law that imposed a literacy test on all immigrants (that is, they had to be literate in their native language); the law also excluded people from countries within an “Asiatic barred zone.” By the 1920s, the restrictionists scored major legislative victories: Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the National Origins (Johnson-Reed) Immigration Act of 1924. These laws established, for the first time, country quotas for immigrants, discriminating against those coming from various Asian countries, and from Southern and Eastern Europe.[fn]The 1921 law established quotas based on 3 percent of the members of that nationality present in the United States. In 1910, while the 1924 law based its figures on 2 percent of the members of that group in the United States in 1890. [/fn] The Johnson-Reed Act had a powerful impact on the American Jewish community; the number of East European Jews permitted to enter the United States was reduced from 119,036 in 1921 to 10,292 in 1925.[fn]L. Hirsch, “Jewish Migrations During the Last Hundred Years,” The Jewish People Past and Present, reprinted in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz eds. The Jew in the Modern World, third edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 883.[/fn]

The new legislation reflected public opinion in the 1920s, which had grown increasingly unfavorable to immigrants, in reaction to the large immigrant influx of previous decades; the isolationist mood following World War I; anti-radical attitudes; and the rise of racist ideology. Journalists and other writers railed against the large numbers of impoverished immigrants crowding East Coast cities whom they associated with political radicalism, crime and disease. Works like Madison Grant’s notorious The Passing of the Great Race (1916) championed race theory, positing that the Nordic peoples of northern Europe were inherently superior to those of southern and eastern Europe. Many argued that the new immigrants posed a threat to the American way of life—attitudes that fueled Prohibition and the Eugenics movement as well. Meanwhile, little was done to ameliorate living and working conditions for the urban poor. Factory-inspection regulations, child-labor laws and tenement-house reform were a long time in coming. Unionization efforts proceeded slowly and were often violently resisted by powerful employers. Even sympathetic charity workers and Progressive reformers, who sought better conditions for residents of immigrant neighborhoods, often went about their work in an insensitive manner, seeking to Americanize the newcomers and failing to honor cultural differences.

Within the American Jewish community, Jewish leaders—most of Central European origin who had been in this country since the mid-19th century or earlier—provided for their East European coreligionists. Some of the so-called “uptowners” viewed their fellow Jews with contempt; others had greater empathy for the immigrants’ situation. Motivated by compassion, a sense of communal obligation and fears of intensified antisemitism directed against all Jews, many did assume responsibility for the newcomers. As the editors of The American Hebrew (an Anglo-Jewish publication) explained in 1887, “All of us should be sensible of what we owe not only to these … coreligionists, but to ourselves, who will be looked upon by our gentile neighbors as the natural sponsors for these, our brethren.”[fn]The American Hebrew, Nov. 18, 1887. Quoted in Moses Rischin, The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962; 1977), p. 98.[/fn] The “uptowners” established  immigrant aid organizations, charitable societies, hospitals, employment bureaus, vocational schools, reformatories, visiting nurse services, orphanages, settlement houses and other institutions to support needy immigrants.

Jewish philanthropists’ efforts to assist their fellow Jews, though often well-intentioned, could be quite heavy-handed at times. In 1901, Jewish communal leaders associated with the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society established the Industrial Removal Office, designed to disperse Jewish immigrants throughout the country, so as to render them less visible in crowded Northeastern and Midwestern cities, and speed their assimilation. With similar goals in mind, Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff funded the “Galveston Plan” in 1907 which, by 1914, had brought some 10,000 Jewish immigrants through the port of Galveston, Texas; the Industrial Removal Office then settled them in cities and towns west of the Mississippi River.[fn] The Jewish Territorial Organization in London and the German Hilfsverein organization located Jewish immigrants in Russia and funded their journey to the Galveston port.  Gerald Sorin points out that Jacob Schiff and other “uptown” leaders viewed the Galveston plan and other dispersion efforts as a necessary response to the growing clamor for immigration restriction. Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 65f.[/fn] Some Jewish orphanages permitted immigrant parents only infrequent visits to their children housed in those institutions (most of whom were not full orphans). Middle-class Jewish women organized Sisterhoods of Personal Service through their various congregations that provided  educational programs for immigrant women and children, and also instructed immigrant women in American housekeeping methods. The women of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Immigrant Aid Bureau closely supervised the young girls they placed in boarding houses like the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls.    

An account by Maurice Hindus of his interaction with an “exquisitely dressed” librarian at the Educational Alliance, a Jewish settlement house on East Broadway in New York, illustrates the complex dynamic between immigrant Jews and their Jewish benefactors. The Educational Alliance offered a wide range of services for immigrant Jews, including English and citizenship classes, sports activities, various clubs and lectures. Yet what some immigrant Jews remembered was the patronizing tone of some of the institution’s staff members. Hindus describes how the librarian severely scolded him for his posture, ordering him to sit up straight while he was excitedly leafing through his books, and concluded:

Was I tearing up the books? No. Was I breaking or scratching up the table? No. Was I calling her names? No. Why then did she demand that I sit in a position which I disliked? Incensed with her arbitrariness, I shoved the books off the table to the floor and dashed out of the room. Now I knew that the things I had heard about people uptown were true. Haughty and domineering, they didn’t like the poor people downtown, and their attendant in a library reading room wouldn’t even permit an immigrant boy to sit in comfort…I never went back to that reading room, and I decided that uptown was not real America anyway.[fn]Maurice Hindus, Green Worlds (1938), excerpted in Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo, How We Lived: A Documentary History of Immigrant Jews in America, 1880-1930 (New York: Smithmark Publishing, 1979), pp. 56f. In his biography of Louis Marshall, M.M. Silver commented on the two sides of the Educational Alliance story: “Projects such as the Educational Alliance were fraught with patronizing, even colonialist, expectations and procedures, but nonetheless served extremely useful temporary purposes in the provision of requisite skills to needful immigrants … ” M.M. Silver, Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013), p. 58.[/fn]

While some “uptowners” were certainly insensitive to the needs and cultural preferences of their “downtown” clients, others appreciated those differences, as well as what the newcomers could contribute to Jewish life in America. They often became advocates for the new immigrants. Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” was raised in a Sephardic family that had arrived in America in the 18th century. She was very moved by the plight of the Russian Jews of her time, which led her to view Jewish settlement in Palestine as a solution to Jewish homelessness.[fn]See Lazarus’s “An Epistle to the Hebrews” (1882-83).[/fn] And the great lawyer and Jewish communal leader Louis Marshall, having grown up as the child of poor German Jewish immigrants, was prepared for “unprecedented success as a mediator between wealthy Jewish philanthropists … and East European immigrants;” he became a forceful opponent of immigration restrictions.[fn]Silver, Louis Marshall, p. 3.[/fn]

In fact, a number of leading American Jews not only viewed Jewish immigrants sympathetically, but spoke out on behalf of all immigrants to the United States. They envisioned an America that was open to people of all races, creeds and cultural backgrounds, whose diversity would enrich this country. They advocated for cultural pluralism at a time when many other Americans promoted what was termed “100 percent Americanism.” Among these proponents of cultural pluralism and diversity were Reform rabbi and Jewish communal leader Judah Magnes, social philosopher Horace Kallen and public-health pioneer Lillian Wald. Franz Boas, a German Jewish immigrant to the United States who taught at Columbia University from 1899-1942 and was known as the “father of modern anthropology,” boldly challenged the race theory of his time, as well as immigration restriction. (A new book by Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air, explores the legacy of Boas and the young anthropologists mentored by him at Columbia.)[fn]Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (New York: Doubleday, 2019).[/fn]

Here is what Lillian Wald, founder of the Visiting Nurse Service and the Henry Street Settlement, had to say about immigrants and immigration restriction in her memoir, The House on Henry Street (published in 1915):

In discussions throughout the country of the problems of immigration it is significant that few, if any, of the men and women who have had extended opportunity for social contact with the foreigner favor a further restriction of immigration…

The government’s policy regarding the immigrant has been negative, concerned with exclusion and deportation … Only within recent years has a hearing been given to those who have asked that our government assume an affirmative policy of protection, distribution, and assimilation…

The planting of roots in the new soil can best be accomplished through an intercourse with the immigrant in which the dignity of the individual and of the family is recognized…

Great is our loss when a shallow Americanism is accepted by the newly arrived immigrant, more particularly by the children, and their national traditions and heroes are ruthlessly pushed aside…

We risk destruction of the spirit—that element of life that makes it human—when we disregard our neighbor’s personality…

“The immigrant brings in a steady stream of new life and new blood to the nation.”[fn] Lillian D. Wald, The House on Henry Street (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991), pp. 290-92; 303-04; 306. (originally published by Henry Holt and Company, 1915).[/fn]

An important message for our own time.

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