When People Flee to America’s Shores

We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Yet we always fear who is coming next.

MS St. Louis set sail from Germany in 1939 carrying 937 German J,MS St. Louis set sail from Germany in 1939 carrying 937 German Jewish refugees.
The German steamer MS St. Louis set sail from Germany in 1939 carrying 937 German Jewish refugees bound for Cuba, but they were denied entry there and were subsequently denied entry to the United States and Canada.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of State

On Monday, at the same time that Republican lawmakers and leaders urged the country to close its doors to Syrian refugees, President Obama called for compassion. People, he said during a press conference in Turkey after the G20 summit, should “remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves.”

“That’s what they’re fleeing,” he continued. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

Obama’s remarks on the refugees are in stark contrast to what’s driving the national conversation. “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are—some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?” asked real estate mogul Donald Trump, who leads the Republican race for president. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said basically the same, using more colorful phrasing. “If you bought a 5-pound bag of peanuts and you knew that in the 5-pound bag of peanuts there were about 10 peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no.”

For many liberals at least, it’s tempting to embrace the former as “American values” and dismiss the latter as all-too-typical pandering to our fears and public opinion. When 52 percent of Americans believe Syrian refugees will make the country less safe, it’s easy to demagogue against their entry. But this is self-deception, albeit a well-meaning one. If our history shows anything, it’s this: The United States is a nation that fears immigrants and refugees as much as it’s a nation of immigrants and refugees.

In 1848, Europe saw turmoil. On the continent, democratic and nationalist uprisings swept through France, Germany, and its neighbors, as reformists joined with middle- and working-class agitators to overturn monarchy and despotism. They won a few victories, but the reactionaries weren’t weak—in short order, forces led by Prussia and the Habsburgs in Vienna would crush the revolts and scatter these liberal movements to the winds. Meanwhile, in Ireland, a blight destroyed the potato crop and threatened millions with starvation, as British officials refused to help or intervene.

Both events sparked mass migrations to the United States, as hundreds of thousands of Germans and Irish left their homes to escape political persecution, conflict, and famine. They followed a decade of similar but more modest immgiration, stretching back to the 1830s, when the first major waves of German and Irish immigrants reached American shores.

The Americans who met them were conflicted. On one hand, they believed in the Christian universalism, democratic equality, and its attendent faith in assimilation—the conviction, writes late historian John Higham in Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925, “that this new land would bring unity out of diversity as a matter of course.” On the other, however, these migrants were alien, possessed of a religion—Catholicism—that seemed incompatible, if not hostile, to republican government.

More than 3 million people came to American shores in the decade after 1845—the greatest increase in our history, relative to the overall population—and they exerted an immediate impact on American life and institutions, transforming cities across the Northeast and bringing a new wave of aggressive nativism, culminating in the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” movement, which spawned a political party. Its platform? “Repeal of all naturalization laws … War to the hilt, on political Romanism … Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic … The sending back of all foreign paupers.”

The Know-Nothings burned hot—affiliated candidates swept several state legislatures in the 1854 elections—and quickly died out. By the end of the decade, sectional conflict over slavery had overcome immigration as the central issue of American politics. In the South, the Know-Nothing “American Party” dissolved in the face of Democratic dominance, and in the North, anti-slavery Know-Nothings were pulled into the nascent Republican Party.

Despite the end of the Know-Nothings, nativism persisted in national life, as part of the deep ambivalence and fear Americans have felt towards migrants, immigrants, and refugees of various stripes. You saw it in violent form, for example, during the waves of Chinese immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Chinese immigrants faced exclusion, discrimination, and outright pogroms from mobs of angry, resentful European Americans (some, no doubt, descended from Irish and German immigrants).

You saw it in the late 1930s, when Americans faced Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and had to choose: Would we take the victims of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, or reject them? On the question of refugee children, at least, Americans said no: 67 percent opposed taking in 10,000 refugee children from Germany, according to a 1939 poll from Gallup.

They were similarly unmoved by earlier groups of Jewish refugees, and their fears evoked the anxieties of their predecessors in 1848 and beyond. Americans, and their counterparts in Western Europe, feared foreign influence and dangerous ideologies like communism and anarchism. (Just a few decades earlier, in the living memory of many adults at the time, an anarchist killed an American president.)

Again and again, when faced with the question of refugees and immigrants, Americans are ambivalent and sometimes hostile. In 1975, for example, 62 percent said they feared Vietnamese refugees would take their jobs. Four years later, just as many said they didn’t want to admit “boat people” from Vietnam, who were fleeing the country’s repressive communist government. Americans said the same for Cuban refugees in the 1980s, Haitians in the 1990s, and most recently, the wave of refugee children from South America, which brought protests and fears of disease and infection.

You can even apply this dynamic to the Great Migration, the huge movement of black Americans from the South to cities and towns across the country. These Americans were internal refugees, fleeing lawlessness and racist terrorism. When they reached their destinations—cities like Detroit and Chicago—they faced deep hostility from existing residents, who blamed them for crime and economic disadvantage.

The broad point—the reason to focus on the these patterns of hostility—is to emphasize the extent to which they are part of the American tradition. In calling for acceptance of Syrian refugees, President Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others are voicing one set of American values—the ones we want to hold ourselves to. But the same goes for Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, and the other Republican governors and presidential candidates who want to reject them—those too are American values.

The question of the refugees isn’t if we’ll honor our values; it’s which ones we’ll choose. Will we embrace our heritage of inclusion or reject it for nativism? Will we be a country of actual open arms or one where our rhetoric is in recurring contrast to our actions?