American Way

An old wood engraving of immigrants huddled on a ship with the Statue of Liberty in the distance

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espite the encouraging wording on the Statue of Liberty plaque, many Americans have harbored less than welcome feelings over the years for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as they immigrated to the U.S., ethnic wave by ethnic wave.

“In case you’ve missed it the last few years, immigration has been a rather hot subject around our nation and the world,” said Kevin Jennings, the former president of New York City’s Tenement Museum and a guest lecturer at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University this fall. His comment elicited soft chuckles from his audience.

In fact, controversy over immigration is as old as some of our founding fathers, said Jennings, who wrote an article for the New York Daily News in April titled, “Excluding Newcomers is a Tradition as Old as the Republic.” His lecture, illustrated by political cartoons and other graphics, put a face on the history of immigration to the U.S.

Although George Washington believed the “bosom of America was open to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations,” fellow statesman Ben Franklin apparently did not agree, and Jennings shared this 1751 Franklin quote about German immigrants to demonstrate.

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“Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation… they come in droves, and … they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious…Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

Jennings said the quote is reminiscent of some of the anti-immigrant sentiments uttered by modern-day politicians and government officials.

The Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard St. was created in 1988 from an abandoned tenement that once housed immigrant families from the mid-1800s, including families with the surnames Moore, Wong and Baldizzi. Their pictures and artifacts make their New York experience come alive for visitors. “To leave behind everyone and everything you’ve ever known and to gamble that you would be able to create a better life for yourself and your family in a country where most likely you don’t speak the language and maybe know no one — that’s pretty extraordinary!” Jennings noted.

German Protestant immigrants were the first to arrive in New York in the 1700s, followed by the Irish and German Catholics and Chinese in the mid-1800s, and eventually Italians and Jews by the 1880s. Regarding the Germans, Jennings said it turns out that Franklin’s fears were unfounded.

“The Germans did force us to eat their German food — like hotdogs, hamburgers and apple pie — and drink their beers — like Budweiser and Schlitz — but we survived,” he deadpanned. At Quinnipiac, students curious about immigration can take a course called The Immigrant Experience, taught by Grace Yukich, associate professor of sociology.

“In this country, we have always been both welcoming and sort of xenophobic,” she said. “Because we have welcomed immigrants, we have had a lot of them, and they have shaped us in ways that we can’t easily measure or articulate because they have been such an integral part of the development of our nation.”

The class studies how immigration has affected the American economy and culture, and many students choose to research their family’s migration history for their required course project. “They are asked to place their family in the wide context of the history of migration and find out what the policies were when their ancestors came over, and whether it was easier or more difficult compared to today,” Yukich said.

Jennings noted that 44 percent of Americans have at least one immigrant grandparent, and that — except for Native Americans — all U.S. citizens are descendants of peoples who migrated to North America from other places.

He found it fascinating that the English considered people of German and Irish ethnicity to be an entirely different race.

The ale-quaffing English looked down upon the Germans for drinking lager and the Irish, who preferred whiskey. The English looked upon both types of liquor as evil substances meant to corrupt and introduce bad habits to the “clean-living English,” he said. Both groups faced hostility in the workforce as well.

The Chinese came along in the 1850s to look for gold in California and stayed to help build railroads. When the U.S. government suggested they return to China upon completion of the rails, they refused, saying they had put down roots. This led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, who presumably would “steal our jobs,” Jennings said, noting the same stereotype about immigrants persists to this day.

“And the thing that drives me craziest is when people state, ‘My great-grandparents came here legally.’ They did because there were no immigration laws … until 1882!” he said.

That Chinese Exclusion Act led to family separations when laborers already here could not bring their wives and children over. And then, the bottom fell out with the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which established the National Origins Formula, setting quotas on the number of Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians and other non-Northwestern European ethnic groups who could enter the U.S. “Immigration essentially stopped,” Jennings said.

Kevin Jennings, president of the Tenement Museum in New York City, chats with Jennifer Brown and Ryan Mahoney at the Ireland's Great Hunger Museum

Exchanging ideas

Kevin Jennings, center, president of the Tenement Museum in New York City, chats with Jennifer Brown, interim executive vice president and provost, and Ryan Mahoney, executive director of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

He told the story of the Baldizzi family. Adolpho Baldicci came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1923 to find a job, set up an apartment, and then send for his wife, Rosaria, and their children. However, the Immigration Act of 1924 made the reunion illegal. Rosaria ended up getting a forged passport and lived as an undocumented person for 19 years, finally getting legal status in 1944.

Jennings pointed to this as an example of chain migration — family members would emigrate one at a time because it was too costly to do otherwise. The Irish favored sending the oldest daughter in a family first. Jobs for domestics were plentiful in New York City, and they would work and send money home to fund ship passage for their younger siblings.

President Harry S. Truman was not a fan of the National Origins Formula, which severely limited the capacity of the U.S. to take in Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust during World War II. He tried to make things right with the war-displaced Jewish refugees and signed an executive order in 1945 prioritizing their resettlement in the U.S.

Twenty years later, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It abolished the National Origins Formula and Asian exclusion and opened America to immigration for the first time in 100 years. “The thing that is saddest for me is that there was a time, not so long ago, when immigration was not a political issue,” said Jennings, who left the museum recently to become CEO of Lambda Legal.

Jennings played a video of a speech President Ronald Reagan delivered in which he quoted a citizen as saying: “Anyone from any corner of the earth can come to live in America and become an American. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we are a nation forever young … and always on the cutting edge and leading the world to the next frontier. …. If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world …would soon be lost.”

The secret sauce of this nation, Jennings said, has always been its ability to attract ambitious, hard-working, determined people from around the world “who believe in the dream of America.”

Of course, the “dream of America” means different things to different people. Yukich postulates that those attached to the prevailing culture “may not be super excited about immigrants coming in with different cultural practices and those who speak different languages.” She said that while she sees exposure to different cultures and traditions as a way to learn and grow, some people see it as something negative to fear.

While the influx of immigrant groups has remained constant, what has changed over the years is the particular group that has been “othered and used as scapegoats for the problems of the time,” she said. She cited the example of the Irish, who initially were considered undesirable. Fears persisted that they would be unwilling to assimilate, that they would listen to the pope instead of the president, and that they could never be true Americans. “JFK [elected in 1960] was the first and only Irish-Catholic president, and these attitudes were even expressed during his candidacy,” she noted.

Mexicans, Latin Americans and Asians make up the majority of legal immigrants today. “I have my students think about the parallels between the attitudes about the Irish and the idea that Islam is incompatible with being American — that one of the newest immigrants — Muslims — must be listening to leaders ‘over there’ and can never be Americans,” she added.

History illustrates that not everyone has welcomed immigrants with open arms, and Yukich said these practices continue today. For instance, during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump drew on negative stereotypes of immigrants to gain support for more restrictionist immigration policies.

“Talking about Mexicans as rapists and murderers is targeting the fears people may already have and making them more salient so people will be afraid and vote on that fear,” she said.

Televised images of separated families and miserable children crying in border camps may tug at the heartstrings but doesn’t necessarily change whether citizens are willing to support the existence of those camps, she said.

The presidential debates have treated immigration as a campaign issue. Yukich’s sense is that it becomes more or less of an issue based on how secure people are feeling economically. “When Americans are feeling more nervous about their socioeconomic status and economic opportunities, immigrants are often one of the first scapegoats.”