There has been a lot of discussion recently about early American immigration, particularly at Ellis Island, after the current head of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, implied that there was a better way for Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem on the Statue of Liberty to be read.
Instead of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he stated that it should be “give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet.” Though many people may know something about Ellis Island, there is also a great deal of ignorance. Perhaps the greatest area of misunderstanding was the percentage of people allowed to enter.
While it is true that there was a small percentage of people who were denied entrance, the overwhelming majority of people who came, most of them from poor backgrounds, were allowed to enter the United States. The analysis of Mae Ngnai, a historian at Columbia University, shows that in many years between 1880 and World War I, over 99 percent of immigrants coming into Ellis Island were allowed to enter. We essentially had open borders. If you were able to make the journey to the United States, you could stay. It is also to be noted that most of these immigrants were from poor backgrounds.
This policy of largely open borders did not just apply to Ellis Island, but also to the Mexican-American border, which was also once essentially open. There were little to no restrictions on immigrants coming from Latin America. In fact, according to historian Patrick Ettinger, the first people to enter illegally through the Mexican American border were Chinese immigrants who had been banned by the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act. There were stories of Chinese immigrants who tried to disguise themselves as Mexicans because they would have no problem coming into the country if they were from Latin America.
There are different reasons for our history of open borders. Part of this may have been due to the difficulty in controlling the borders, but perhaps part of it was also due to something more at the heart of our national values laid out in the Declaration of Independence, even if they were never truly realized. Perhaps, it goes back to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson wrote about. Part of that liberty or freedom necessitates the right to migrate, especially if one’s family is at risk if they stay in their country of birth. As George Washington himself stated, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” Maybe a larger question is whether we can really say we believe in the ideas of freedom, which in the United States we put at the center of our national ideology, and then turn around and heartlessly prevent desperate people seeking to immigrate to improve the lives of their children.
Immigration is usually about seeking something better, which is why it is ironic that we would purposely exclude immigrants from poor and working-class backgrounds. We have already been doing this in many ways, but the new Trump policies would make this even more solidified and draconian. In the end, Trump’s policies are not only anti-immigrant; they are essentially anti-American. The U.S. was built by the hands of immigrants who came through largely open borders. Trying to rapidly close up all the walls of the country defies who we are and will hurt us in the long run. It is time for a new administration that realizes despite all the complexities and nuances of immigration policy, at its heart should be the idea that migration, especially for those in desperate situations, is a basic human right. It should not only be reserved for the most privileged amongst us. Our economy and society desperately need a strong influx of immigrants, and more importantly, the values of liberty our nation is built upon demand it.
Will McCorkle is a S.C. educator and immigration advocate.
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