Flashbacks April 2006

Immigration: The Perpetual Controversy

Writers dating back to the nineteenth century argue the merits and pitfalls of American immigration

On the afternoon of April 10, 2006, more than 150,000 people from all across America descended on the Washington Mall. Joining forces with Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, a D.C.-based immigrant rights group, they marched past the Washington Monument and the White House. Across the country—in Dallas, Phoenix, New York, Seattle, and Chicago—thousands of other protesters took to the streets, opposing newly proposed laws that would make it difficult for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

These events suggest that, despite the Statue of Liberty's call for the world's tired and poor, America is still struggling with the issue of immigration. Some insist that foreign workers contribute to America's prized diversity as well as its economy. Others beg to differ, painting mass immigration as a parasitic force that strains the school system and saps welfare funds. Throughout the generations, Atlantic authors have taken up both sides of this ongoing debate.

As early as 1896, Atlantic writer Francis A. Walker warned in "Restriction of Immigration" that a vast influx of southern European immigrants threatened to overwhelm American culture and institutions. Until the 1830s, he argued, America was "almost wholly a native and wholly an acclimated population." All of this changed with the arrival of what he called "large numbers of degraded peasantry." Suddenly, the United States ceased to be a classless society. The newcomers were willing to take on undesirable jobs, and already-established Americans became unwilling to work alongside "those whom they did not recognize as of their own grade and condition."

Rather than viewing the immigrants’ poverty and lack of education as a temporary problem that would vanish with future generations, he argued that their presence had forever destroyed the wholesome, hearty American way of life.

Through all our early history, Americans, from Governor Winthrop, through Jonathan Edwards, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, had done every sort of work which was required for the comfort of their families and for the upbuilding of the state, and had not been ashamed. They called nothing common or unclean which needed to be done for their own good or for the good of all…. So long as manual labor, in whatever field, was to be done by all, each in his place, there was no revolt at it; but when working on railroads and canals became the sign of a want of education and of a low social condition, our own people gave it up.

In conclusion, Walker argued that it was time for the nation to take a break and resolve its new social and economic issues before opening its borders to the world once more. "The problems which so sternly confront us to-day," he wrote, "are serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews."

A decade later, Atlantic author, John W. Foster took a different tack, defending newcomers against what he saw as blatant discrimination. In "The Chinese Boycott" (January 1906), he criticized the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1894, which put a hold on Chinese immigration, and condemned Americans for their treatment of already-present Chinese residents. He referred to United States vs. Ju Toy, a 1905 Supreme Court case that ruled that Chinese immigrants had been "deprived of due process of law for the protection of their liberty and property."

Foster cited several particularly egregious examples of this mistreatment, including an instance in which Boston police and immigration officials descended upon the Chinese quarter, seizing people without producing any warrant for their arrest. The raid was especially cruel, he noted, given that it happened "on the day and at the hour when the Chinese of Boston and its vicinity were accustomed to congregate in the quarter named for the purpose of meeting friends and enjoying themselves after a week of steady and honest toil."

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