The United States takes pride in the fact that we are a country with open arms to immigrants. Since Emma Lazarus’s poem was inscribed on its pedestal, the Statue of Liberty has stood for this ideal. But at times, we seem to have forgotten her words.
Our immigration policies towards people from Asia show our inconsistencies, particularly at the turn of the century, when the largest number of all immigrants, including people from Asia, were coming to America. Today, people from Asia are one of America’s largest immigrant populations. According to the U.S. Census taken in 2010, the Asian population is 14.7 million and the total American population is 308.7 million. That means that roughly 5% of the American population is Asian American. They are admired for their contributions to education, business, and government. At this point in America, we thankfully have no restrictions against people from Asia.
However, this was not always the case. What I find most hard to believe is that at the turn of the century, we were passing some of the most restrictive immigration laws. These laws especially singled out people from Asia.
Before the Civil War, Americans migrated west for jobs in the railroad, mining, logging, fishing, and construction industries. A large population of these workers came from Asia, first China (in 1870, 20% of California’s workforce was of Chinese descent), and also from India, Japan, and Korea. The California Gold Rush also enticed waves of immigrants.
The west’s expansion continued to grow until the Civil War ended. After the war, the country experienced a sharp economic downturn. Between the 1870s and 1880s, immigrants from Asia numbered 123,201. Pressure to restrict immigrants from Asia began to build because people from Asia were taking the jobs that “nativists” wanted, Anti-Chinese riots began to rage. Under this pressure, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited most immigration and naturalization of Chinese people. At the same time, Americans opposed to people from India, burned down Asian Indian settlements and campaigned against the “Turban tide.” Congress passed laws to strip land ownership from Asian Indians and from people from Japan.
In 1917, after decades of immigrant growth that had helped to fuel our industrial revolution and build our cities, Congress passed the 1917 Barred Zone Act. This prohibited most people from Asia from immigrating to America. The Supreme Court went so far as to say that while Asian Indians were Caucasian, they were not white and therefore could not come to the United States. This famous case was known as U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923).
After World War II, the United States changed its immigration policies towards people from Asia. Then these immigration laws were changed. By 1965, anti-Asia quotas were lifted and the public sentiment against people from Asia changed.
“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that immigrants were American history” (Handlin, 1951). What Handlin was suggesting is that some people in America have not been as welcoming to immigrants as they should have been. Where do we draw the line between original inhabitants and new immigrants? I cannot say that America’s efforts to write its immigration laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s were unjustified. American workers were afraid of losing their jobs. This was based on our faltering economy at the time. The controversy to me is that the Statue of Liberty is supposed to welcome immigrants, but our immigration laws have kept people out. Congress actually passed a law that used the words “barred zone” in its title. This makes me think that as a nation while we were saying one thing, we were clearly acting in a very different way.
My questions: Do we still have these inconsistencies today? How do Americans feel about current immigrants? Finally, what do the words in Emma Lazarus’s poem mean to Americans right now?