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"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Once that was true, but no longer. Emma Lazarus' beautiful and memorable words we've all heard many times and know well are fading into memory. If we're honest, they should be removed from "Lady Liberty" and be replaced with something like: We'll take your Anglos, especially well-off ones, and the ones we choose with needed skills; you keep the rest, especially your poor, dark-skinned and desperate. We needed 'em once for our homegrown sweatshops. No longer. We've got plenty all around the world. It now looks like we'll make an exception though for the menial or toughest low pay, no benefits, no security jobs no one else wants. We're still debating it and will let you know.
Think they'll ever affix anything like that to the Lady's pedestal? Fat chance. Whatever may emerge from the Congress, how would they ever explain the hypocrisy of our once warm welcome and now cold shoulder and callous rejection of immigrants. The fact is there are now fewer decent jobs to go around for a growing population. We thus need to curb the foreign inflow, and most wanting to come here don't have the right skills or connections and aren't the "right" color. We don't say that publicly, but honesty isn't a trait this country is noted for. Neither is honor, integrity or practicing the high principles we espouse. Strip off the mask, look hard at the cold, ugly face beneath and uncaring eyes and see a heart of stone and not a sign of a soul.
Long ago we were building a new nation, needed lots of labor and threw open our doors. Now we can be as picky as we choose and even slam the door and bolt it, except for the special skills we need or the few privileged we always welcome who can jump the queue to get in. We still need lots of help to pick strawberries and cabbages, make beds and clean commodes and so far have allowed the undocumented ones who make it here to stay for that kind of work few others want. But racist and far-right lawmakers in the Congress with a pathological desire to guard our borders like Fort Knox and close them to people with dark skins we denigrate or label potential terrorists are in a dog fight now with less extreme but hardly moderate voices there. So far we don't know who'll win or if it will be a draw to be replayed at a future time. We do know that if even the best of the current proposals now being debated becomes law, future immigrants, those wishing to come, and the undocumented already here will be the losers.
Besides well-paying construction jobs and some others, what's left here are mostly lots of low-wage service jobs. These are the unexportable kind at Walmart (the nation's largest employer), McDonald's or menial hotel or restaurant services (plus those strawberry and cabbage pickers) with few or no benefits and often little chance to organize in unions for higher pay, better benefits and worker protection. Other than those, our message now is keep your people at home. We can use 'em right where they are. No need to pay 'em much, pennies an hour will do, forget any social benefits and no need to worry about those annoying unions. None allowed in sweatshop countries like China, Bangladesh, El Salvador or Haiti. When any do spring up in places like Colombia, all you need is a corporate friendly, anti-union president willing to sell out his people to US interests, make the country friendly to giant US transnationals like big oil, and allow paramilitary hired killers free reign to have at as many socially-minded "troublemakers" as possible "eliminating" them and intimidating the rest. That way you can get all the cheap labor you want there practically for nothing. Can't beat a deal like that, so why let 'em in here. We're trying to hold down the number of "undesirables" we've now got so there aren't too many around to become restive and cause trouble. It helps when we can recruit a lot of them to go fight and die for us in our imperial wars. But we're handling the surplus by locking up as many as we can in prison cells for any reasons we can justify passing new laws to allow it. With 2.1+ million already behind bars (the largest prison population in the world - two thirds of them black and Latino) and adding about 900 more a week it seems to be working very well thank you very much. At least so far. I've written at length about this horror under the radar in my article titled "The US Gulag Prison System" - the one at home.
Unlike long ago, the land that once welcomed your tired, poor and huddled masses now has hung out a "no vacancy" sign, is hostile to the undocumented forced to come here because of our destructive trade policies impoverishing them, the many legitimate arrivals already here and contributing more than they get back, and is pretty nasty to the least advantaged who were born here, especially if they're dark-skinned. As things now stand, what's ahead is only likely to get worse.
For well over a century we were a growing nation thriving on the influx of welcomed immigrants. At Ellis Island alone (where my ancestors passed through a century ago) over 12 million of them entered the country between 1892 (when it opened) and 1954 (when it closed). This country was founded and built by immigrants - from Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in the 17th century to Ellis Island up to a half century ago. The numbers were impressive and came in three great waves:
1. About 5 million from 1815 - 1860, mainly English (on my father's side), Irish, German, Scandinavian and northwestern Europe.
2. About 10 million between 1865 (post Civil War) - 1890, again mainly from northwestern Europe.
3. About 15 million from 1890 - 1914, many from Austro-Hungary, Turkey, Lithuania (on my mother's side), Russia, Greece, Italy and Romania. Many Eastern European Jews fleeing religious persecution like my maternal ancestors came in this wave. Thankfully they did and made it. Otherwise it's likely they"d have met their fate either at the hands of Stalin or Hitler.
Many immigrants came to America to escape war, political turmoil, famine, or religious persecution. Others came against their will as chattel. Most, however, came for economic reasons seeking a better life in a land they saw as one offering better opportunity than the one they left. Some found it, others were disappointed and had to wait for their second and third generation offspring to finally reap some of what they themselves never achieved. Still they kept coming en masse as 19th century America was young and growing and needed a plentiful supply of skilled and unskilled workers. After the 1880s the need was almost entirely for the unskilled to fill the growing number of factory jobs.
RESTRICTIVE AND EXCLUSIONARY IMMIGRATION LEGISLATION
The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the rules for naturalized citizenship as required by Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Until 1882, almost anyone could move here and qualify, but thereafter the government began to impose controls. Extreme racism was always in our DNA, and it's surfaced and thrived throughout our history. It was evident in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that made immigration from China illegal. It didn't matter that it was Chinese labor (first hired in 1865) mainly that helped build the transcontinental railroad, did the most dangerous work in some of the most treacherous areas like the high Sierras, and worked for less than a dollar a day. On May 10, 1869 when the final golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah to symbolize the connection of the transcontinental system from east to west, ocean to ocean, it was mainly Chinese coolie labor that raced to build the final 10 miles of track in 12 hours to be done in time for the ceremony. We showed our gratitude by excluding them when they were no longer needed. Theodore Roosevelt, a known racist and noted imperialist and war hawk recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, treated the Japanese with equal disdain in the 1906 "Gentleman's Agreement" that allowed the US the right to exclude Japanese immigrants. The result was all Asians couldn't emigrate here until the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 that established quotas restricting Southern and Eastern European immigration as well as allowing some token numbers in from Asia and other "less preferred" countries.
Through the years the immigration issue would resurface on occasion as it has again today and generally reflected the political bias of the times over any notion of fairness to all those in other countries wishing to come here and those who'd already arrived. We've always had our favored countries and world regions with Anglo Europeans being at the head of the queue followed by Northwestern Europeans overall. People of color from Latin America, Africa and Asia have always been least preferred, except for the 300 years when we forcibly brought black Africans here against their will as chattel or allowed a few million Mexicans the privilege to come and be exploited by the agribusiness of an earlier era. But besides that disgraceful past, our racist heritage was there from the first time a settler met a native Indian. All 18 million of them or so were only "in the way" and had to be removed or first used before we did it - through mass murder, forced resettlement or neglect. Racism was also a major factor in the Mexican War in the 1840s when following our imperial "manifest destiny" we stole half the country from our southern neighbor. We didn't take it all because most of the population was in the southern half, and we didn't want all those dark-skinned people diluting our white Anglo majority.
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