A Brief History of American Nativism

It’s been, I now realize, three months since I last wrote something here. I wish I could say that trend is definitely going to reverse itself, but between school and family (including a soon-to-arrive baby girl), the reality is that posts are going to be infrequent at best for a while. Still, I plan on keeping this around for whenever I have something to say.

Boston Potato Famine Memorial – Photo from Boston Discovery Guide

Today, that something is historical context on the debate surrounding Syrian refugees and ISIS in the wake of the attacks in Mali, France, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt in recent weeks. ISIS – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – has demonstrated both its intent and capability to strike at international targets. These attacks (especially the one in Paris, which has garnered the most media attention) have come at a moment when the United States is debating whether to accept Syrian refugees fleeing the violence created by the Assad regime and by ISIS itself. President Obama has pledged to take up to 100,000 over the next two years, including 10,000 this year. However, several state governors from both parties have announced they will attempt to close their states off from refugees, while Presidential candidates – in this case solely from the Republican Party – have announced various and generally restrictive approaches. In the face of this criticism, we’ve heard the Obama administration and others rightfully castigate these xenophobic responses. However, when those favoring refugee resettlement say that refusing them is un-American, or goes against our inclusive traditions, I must disagree: the United States has a long and troubling history of turning a blind eye to refugees and immigrants in need, and virtually no history of welcoming them.

Grave of Plymouth Colony Governor Josiah Winslow

Of course, this is ironic for a nation founded in part by refugees. When the Separatists washed ashore in modern-day Plymouth (at the time a smallpox-ravaged Wampanouag village known as Patuxet) they did so to try to create a new colony where they would be free to practice their own brand of Calvinism far from the chaos of Reformation England, where conflicts between Catholics, Anglicans and other Protestants was about to erupt into the English Civil War. That war sent wave upon wave of new Puritan settlers onto American soil over the next 50 years, reshaping the demographic face of New England and ending in the cataclysmic King Philip’s War, which entrenched those refugees – now conquerors – and ended the possibility of Native American power in the region. This tension between refugee roots and exclusionary realities set a tone for future generations.

Grave of Millard Fillmore, Know-Nothing Presidential Candidate and former US President, Buffalo, NY

From French immigrants targeted due to hostile relations with the US to African Americans fleeing slavery only to be met with increasingly restrictive northern law to an entire political party (The American Party, or Know-Nothings) being created to fight against Irish refugees of the Potato Famine, the first century of American history certainly had its share of restrictive law. Yet it is really since the Civil War that we’ve seen genuine nativist reaction become law, each time eroding our ability to maintain the mantle of a Golden Door that Emma Lazarus – herself an immigrant – placed upon us in the 1880s. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 allowed the country to turn its back on immigrants who had helped create the transcontinental railroad, a primary engine of American wealth and industry. The restrictive 1924 Immigration Act targeted ‘dangerous’ Southern and East European immigrants at a time when they were associated with political radicalism.

Holocaust Memorial, Boston, MA

The same is true of the shameful rejection of the MS St. Louis in 1939, a ship which carried Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust. The same fears of Bolshevism and Socialism pushed our people and our government to send these refugees right back into the danger that had tried to escape. Only two years later, we rounded up Japanese immigrants and their children – a generation of nisei (first generation Japanese Americans) – and placed them in internment camps due to misplaced and misguided fears that they were in collaboration with Emperor Hirohito. This action, backed by the United States Supreme Court in 1944, was later addressed though reparations to survivors. In both cases, the impetus for the action vanished, but the stain of it remained. Since then, we’ve seen the pattern repeat itself – Cuban emigres, Haitian and Dominican refugees, Mexican migrants, and now Syrians. If we wish to continue to call ourselves a nation for immigrants – a nation of liberty that welcomes those huddled masses yearning to breathe free – we must address this fatal flaw in our history and our collective soul.


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