Give me your wealthy, your blond, your middle class…
By Madeleine H. Burnside
No, that’s not what the bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty says. As most people will remember, the best-known line of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “The New Colossus” reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And the new, benevolent colossus was, of course, America.
It’s hardly a surprise that Donald Trump would prefer white middle class immigrants from Norway over anyone with brown skin from a struggling, “shithole” country, but few Scandinavians are coming. Christian Christensen, an American professor of journalism at Stockholm University in neighboring Sweden, was quoted by Reuter’s as tweeting: “Of course people from #Norway would love to move to a country where people are far more likely to be shot, live in poverty, get no healthcare because they’re poor, get no paid parental leave or subsidized daycare and see fewer women in political power. #Shithole.”[i]
Trump says he would welcome more Scandinavians, forgetting that they are all raised as socialists. They expect good treatment from their government and are ready to contribute high taxes to get such things, none of which fit the Trump agenda.
Much as I love this country (I am an immigrant myself so, even as a lefty, I can say this without blushing), the reason that immigrants are showing up in fewer numbers lies in our political failures. Republican dominance, even during the Obama years, has exacerbated the struggle to make our country better, safer, or more equal for women and people of color. We remain out of step with the twenty-first century’s expectations. The healthcare we do have embodies quite a few of our social conflicts—even to the point that male nurses in this country make more money than their female colleagues.[ii]
Immigration is the major theme in the American story. The earliest white settlers found themselves less than welcome when they encroached on Native American territories and rights. To bolster their strength and their labor force, the Europeans needed more people. Unable to attract enough fellow countrymen, they imported their petty criminals and brought in African prisoners as slaves to the point that Africans in the Thirteen Colonies once outnumbered people of European descent.
From the beginning, our policies towards those immigrants who came forced or free have been based on a political rather than social agenda. Trump’s blundering comments embody the conflict between welcoming “huddled masses” and the urge to cherry-pick. Our invitation to Cubans is a good example. In 1959, when Fidel Castro decided that communism was the best way to improve the lives of his people, the U.S. government panicked because its enemy of the day was the USSR. The USSR began building missile sites in Cuba and an international crisis ensued.
After the CIA failed to overthrow Castro in 1961, the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966) provided that Cuban “dissenters” who made it to an American shore would not be turned back. It was a Cold War strategy to undermine the Castro regime from within. Unlike all other immigrants, Cubans were immediately made eligible for work permits as well as other benefits and could apply for U.S. residency after they had been in the country for a year. They were the only refugees ever given such favorable treatment and it was not until recent years, when President Obama began to normalize relations with Cuba that this policy ended. Other than that, white skin and native English have been your best qualifications for a green card or citizenship. I speak from experience.
The nineteenth century was the heyday of immigration. Immigrants had believed America to be a safe haven for dissenters of all nations since the Puritans disembarked from the Mayflower. The English came during the second half of the seventeenth century, refugees from both sides of their civil war. French Protestants fled here from the mid-1500s onwards. Norwegians, also escaping religious repression, arrived on the Restauration in 1825. Many Irish fled the Potato Famine (1845-1852). The Chinese arrived after the War of Independence but came in huge numbers to take part in the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). Many Europeans flooded in after the failed revolutions of 1848. And, by the way Mr. Trump, the Latinos were already here—Spanish ships landed in Florida in 1563.
The aspiration of freedom fed the cause of the North during our Civil War. Often, whole battalions were comprised of soldiers from just one country. The earliest monument to Civil War dead stands in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. It is dedicated to the 13 soldiers who fell at Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky, in December 1861. August Bloedner, a surviving private, carved the monument. The soldiers were all members of the 32nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, known as the 1st German Regiment. Political immigrants, they were recent arrivals who had come here looking for the very freedom we purport to cherish. Politicians may have considered states’ rights but letters from the Union rank and file during the Civil War indicate that the writers rejected slavery and were prepared to lay down their lives in the name of freedom for all[iii].
Seeking better opportunities and stability for your family is also a definition of freedom. Donald Trump’s grandfather arrived from Germany –despite the Donald’s frequent claims that he is of Swedish descent—in 1886. My great-uncle, who actually was Swedish, arrived here just before WWI. They were both part of the surge in immigration which began after the Civil War but slowed to a trickle in the 1920s. By then, the U.S. government indulged increasing fears about people’s true loyalties, race, color, and possible criminality with legislation limiting immigrants to quotas.
We are all very new in this land, no matter if our ancestors arrived on the first ship from their country, whichever it was. And we have not managed to abandon our ancient fears of each other. In the past, Protestants feared Catholics and vice versa—travel through the Midwest to find small towns founded by co-religionists avoiding fellow countrymen of differing spiritual affiliations. Go anywhere to experience the mutual suspicion of whites and people of African descent. Visit internment camp museums to discover evidence of our now suspended fears of Japanese and Italian immigrants during World War II.
The good news is that things change. We used to fear communists; now Trump courts Putin and wants to encourage people from socialist Scandinavia as immigrants. If it weren’t for Putin’s agenda, this might even pass as progress.
The bad news is that we and our elected officials always seem ready to operate out of fear. Most recently Muslim Americans or anyone who looks Middle Eastern can expect to accused of being terrorists. Twenty years into this century, we still have to affirm that, “Black lives matter.” Women of all races continue to struggle for sexual and reproductive freedom as well as equal pay.
It’s Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King had a finely considered ideal for American freedom. At the end of his “I have a Dream” speech he says:
“Let freedom ring…when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last…”[iv]
In unity, there’s true freedom.
[iii] Chandra Manning “What This Cruel War Was Over,” Random House, 2007.