The history of open immigration in this country makes a favorable case for poor and uneducated immigrants. It might just be the huddled masses we need most.
From the end of the Mexican War, in 1848, until the 1920s, the only obstacle to travel across the southern border was terrain. Usually poor and uneducated, people crossed and traded across this line without restriction, and helped to settle the American West. Hispanic Americans today are known for their strong work ethic and commitment to family, religion, and community.
Late 19th-century Americans feared cheap labor from Asia,and the strange ways and different morals of an exotic people. Americans of Asian descent are now the most educated, entrepreneurial, and law-abiding ethnic group in our society.
The Irish, too, were hated and despised. Tens of thousands came to the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century – dirty, starving, poor, and uneducated. Nativists claimed Irish Catholics could only be loyal to Rome and would “pollute the stock.” How completely mistaken.
The Scots who emigrated were typically ignorant peasants. In his social history The Scotch-Irish, author James Leyburn observed that at the beginning of the 17th century Scotland “was one of the poorest and most backward of European countries.” Even in the 18th century it was “still lingering in the Middle Ages,” and few Scots had any respect for property rights. What American today isn’t proud of his Scottish heritage?
Throughout our history, newcomers have joined the melting pot, adding to the energy, innovation, and dynamism of our society, and contributing to the well-being of all. As each group came, those who were here “first” howled about the danger posed by interlopers.
President Trump recently cited Norway as an example of a country from which we should draw immigrants, rather than “shitholes” like Haiti or Somalia. The problem with Trump’s understanding of immigration is that few Norwegians have much incentive to come here. Like residents of the United States, they enjoy a high standard of living, political freedom, and the rule of law. Those on the top rung of the ladder have little incentive to pack up and move to a new land. On the bottom, however, there are plenty of people who literally have nothing to lose. And lots of untapped ambition.
Less sympathetic Americans say immigrants should fix their own countries rather than come here. Unfortunately it’s the very lack of ability to change their station at home that has them casting a hopeful gaze elsewhere. Whether it’s abject poverty, civil war, or political, religious or ethnic persecution, life has become unbearable. They want a chance to start anew, in a place where their low social status, lack of education, and penury can be overcome – just like those from Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, China, Germany, and Eastern Europe before them.
Americans should remember, when pointing at the “rabble” – the poor, unskilled, and uneducated – that our own ancestors fled “shithole” countries. Captured in Ezra Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, they came here to build a better life, and transformed an untamed continent into the richest country in the history of the world. Thank goodness virtually no immigration laws stood in their way.