The U.S. Tradition Of Welcoming Immigrants

In these days of walls and deportations that wrench blameless young people out of the only homes they recall to send them to a country where they were born, we might pause to recall what the founders thought about immigration and immigrants.

The United States has been called a nation of immigrants. With the exception of the indigenous inhabitants who were already here when Europeans began arriving in the 16th century, everyone today living in the United States is either an immigrant or descended from them. Over the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the nation has gone through anti-immigrant periods. Nativist vigilantes in the early nineteenth century violently attacked the first Catholic immigrants, especially those from Ireland. In the late nineteenth centuries, fears focused on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were often Catholics or Jews, and on Asians, especially those from China.

For over a century after the founding, exclusion of immigrants was never settled policy. Very briefly at the end of the first Adams’ administration (1798-99) the Alien and Sedition Act tried to block immigration from France; highly unpopular, the act helped cement Adams’ status as a one-term President, voted out of office to be replaced by pro-French Thomas Jefferson. For most of the nineteenth century, immigrants poured into the U.S. By the end of the century, officials vetted them for communicable diseases, but otherwise the government did not block immigration. The first major exception came in 1882, when most Chinese immigration was barred; the laws against Chinese immigrants lasted until the 1940s, when the first in a series of laws overturned the policy. Meanwhile between the early 20th century and this shift in the 1940s, the government began to bar immigration from specific regions. The resulting policies infamously prevented many Jews escaping Hitler’s Europe from finding safe haven in the United States. Today, despite a drop in immigration from Spanish-speaking countries elsewhere in the Americas, we fear immigrants from these places. Some fantasize that a great wall will keep them away. Muslims too are greeted with hostility, even refugees fleeing the wars in a region we helped destabilize. That their foes are also ours makes little difference to some fearful Americans.

It was not always thus. The founders loved immigrants and wanted more of them. Although most of the more famous leaders in revolutionary America were born in one of the British mainland colonies (including Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington), some people prominent during the revolution had been born elsewhere. Tom Paine, author of the significant early pamphlet urging revolution, Common Sense, had recently arrived from England when he penned that brilliant tract castigating monarchy. The current popular culture icon Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indian island of Antigua. Many men who fought for American independence had been born elsewhere—including Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. After the war, numerous additional migrants flooded into the new United States. They were welcomed and accommodated. Save for a brief two-year period of the highly unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, American policy reflected the general agreement that immigrants contributed to the strength and vitality of the young nation. No such thing as illegal immigration existed because all immigrants were by definition legal. Early proponents of open borders then used many of the same arguments that immigration advocates employ today.

Indeed, the Declaration of Independence cited George III’s anti-immigration policies as one reason to revolt. The Declaration complained “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners [and] refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Jefferson and his compatriots wanted more immigrants—they wanted to populate the United States including with new arrivals—and they wanted them to have access to western lands, beyond the Appalachian Mountains, which the king was also blocking. In their view, George III’s restrictive policies aimed to weaken and limit the colonies in order to keep them subordinate. The founders wanted none of it: they revolted and welcomed immigrants.

They were confident that those who came to the United States would fit into that burgeoning, diverse, democratic society. They were optimistic and welcoming, two admirable traits we appear ready to abandon. The founders did not want to build walls, but to tear them down.

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