“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
These powerful and inspirational words that were written in 1883 and featured in a sonnet entitled, “The Colossus” by American poet Emma Lazarus are the words that are engraved on the pedestal of our country’s most famous icon that represents immigration in the United States…the Statue of Liberty.
At the turn of the 20th century the United States population was approximately 60 million strong. The American Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the need of cheap labor that manned factories, coal mines, railroads and mills were in high demand. Demographically, Native Americans for the most part were conquered and forced to re-locate further west and Blacks that were former slaves were left alone and left unprotected by the federal government to survive the subjection that was created / caused by southern state’s Jim Crow laws.
So…if newly freed slaves and Native Americans were not the preferred choice for employers who were in need of skilled and unskilled labor for a rapidly growing America, then where would American business owners turn to for this new labor force? The answer was Europe.
Since Europe was considered by most American business owners as being an acceptable reservoir for America’s future labor force, the next question that should be asked is, “who exactly were these Europeans and what was their socio-economic status”? Additionally, the question should be raised if particular / certain ethnicities from Europe were more routinely targeted for discrimination by pockets of Americans than other “more acceptable” Europeans.
In 1907, the United States Senate, under intense pressure from groups like the Immigration Restriction League, formed the Dillingham Commission to study the origins and consequences of immigration.
In a series of reports published in 1910 and 1911, the Dillingham Commission published a report that insinuated that a critical shift in European immigration patterns was the direct cause for a rise in social and economic problems in the United States.
Before the 1880s, according to the Commission, most immigrants to the United States had arrived from northern and western Europe. However, after the 1880s, the Commission reported that “inferior” migrants from places in southeastern Europe, such as Austria–Hungary, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Lithuania, Romania, and Greece, increasingly dominated European immigration. In the end, the Commission’s 42-volume report placed the blame for the United States festering problems on these new immigrants from southeastern Europe and recommended that the federal government use literary tests to prevent poor and uneducated immigrants from entering the country and causing further social and economic unrest. Sounds familiar? There’s an old saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”.
Mexicans and their definition of the U.S. border
Between 1900 and 1930, more than one million Mexicans came north to work in the United States. During this timeframe there were few guards and fewer records kept at the border. According to public opinion, the concern with immigration was with migrants who came by sea, not over land.
After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, the United States government set up a few more immigration restrictions, but even after American troops invaded northern Mexico in pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Francisco Villa (who had attacked a border town), Mexicans could cross the border without restriction, that is, after being washed and checked for infectious diseases.
As late as 1926, when the U.S. had virtually closed the door on immigration from Europe and Asia, the head of the Immigration Bureau told the press that Mexicans could enter the United States without difficulties. Even illegal immigrants, if caught, were only asked to pay a $18 fee and taken to the border, so that they could re-enter legally.
Mexican immigrants also viewed the border as being open. In a report generated in 1922 by the U.S. Secretary of Labor, the report indicated that the average unskilled Mexican worker who crossed into the United States from various border locations did not consider themselves an illegal alien. By 1930, Mexican immigrants could be found as far north and east as Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi. But the great majority were in the Southwest, in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
It was only natural that Mexicans felt as though parts of the southwest United States was an extension of their own homeland, after all, much of the U.S. southwest had been Mexican territory until the United States conquered it by military force in 1848.
Regardless of how the average Mexican felt, the truth was that the U.S. welcomed Mexican immigrants as temporary workers, not permanent citizens. A 1911 report to the U.S. Congress claimed that Mexicans “are not easily assimilated, [but] this is of no very great importance as long as most of them return to their native land. In the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.”
The reality of poor immigrants and U.S. economics
So….just like the turn of the 20th century when poor immigrants from southeastern Europe were forced to contend with prejudices that were based on our country’s shrinking resources, today, Mexicans are too forced to contend with similar prejudices that are based on state’s depleting economic resources.
The problem that poor Mexicans and other poor ethnic groups from south of the border are experiencing is that the United States is not currently in the middle of a new industrial revolution that permit our southern borders to be more porous, indeed we’re in the middle of a great recession that teeter totters on evolving into an economic depression.
Old prejudices are old prejudices. When bills cannot be paid and the American family standard of living decline, what was once acceptable in regard to welcoming cheap labor from south of the border is no longer viewed as being acceptable. One can argue that new laws that have been passed (Arizona) will secure our borders from drug lords and similar criminal riff raff, however, who’s to say that drug lords aren’t smuggling illegal drugs into our country from Canada? The difference in attitude is the economic difference between the poor Mexican and the more affluent Canadian.
Whether Americans want to admit it or not; poor and uneducated immigrants, be they from Mexico or Albania in lieu of today’s economic climate, are considered, “persona non grata”. You only have to read American history to understand my point.
In summary, I wonder if the words that are engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty that once drew millions of poor immigrants to New York’s Ellis Island in hope of a better life, still hold the same meaning.
As always Louisianans, the knotmove.com is interested in what you think. Have poor and uneducated immigrants always been looked down upon by Americans? Is much of the issue with undocumented workers based upon economics and an ever shrinking ability of states to sustain a growing illegal population than let’s say their race? Inquiring minds want to know. Sound off.
Until next time Louisianans, Good Day, God Bless and Good Fishing.