"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips. '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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"
As we have seen, there have been Presidents who have acted in the spirit of this sentiment and there have been those who have turned their backs on it when it was not politically expedient or popular. From the formation of the thirteen colonies into the United States, there was a general consensus that immigration was something that could be of benefit to the nation, provided that certain preconditions were met. Many of the original Americans were either recent immigrants themselves or not far removed from immigration. They recognized that it was a large land and many hands were needed to make it habitable. George Washington was open to the nation receiving immigrants, including what he termed "the poor the needy and oppressed of the Earth". He expressed two reservations, firstly that those arriving make a contribution to their new home and not be a burden, and secondly that, as he put it, they "get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people."
Early Presidents did not limit the immigrants that they welcomed to those from English speaking nations. A considerable amount of immigrants from Germany were present, as were lesser numbers from France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Nor was immigration restricted to Christians. Early immigrants included many Jews and even a small number of Muslims.
The nation's history will be forever scarred by its complicity in forcing a large number of immigrants to come to the United States against their will, separated from home and family by force, namely the ancestors of African-Americans who were forced into slavery. That it took so long, and demanded a war for the nation to end this "peculiar institution" and that even after the war, many failed to see the moral repugnance of slavery and of racial discrimination, leaves a sad and ugly legacy.
Deportation of immigrants is not a recent concept. John Adams faced the issue when he was faced with the threat of war with France. Many subsequent presidents have struggled with this issue in times of war. Wartime has also raised the issue of how America treats immigrants from the nation it is at war with. In retrospect, the notion of internment and forced segregation of American citizens and pending citizens from an erstwhile enemy nation is looked upon as draconian and offensive, but in the fog of war, when the potential for danger is high, the issue is not so clear or obvious. Cooler heads do not always prevail in times of fear, especially when the flames of those fears are fanned by those whose self-interest is served by doing so, whether it be a news media seeking to increase circulation by creating a crisis, as the Hearst media chain was prone to do, or by populist politicians courting the support of a frightened public.
If the history of immigration to the United States has demonstrated anything, it is that it is first and foremost driven by economic factors. Prejudice is also a factor, especially when it wraps itself in populism and appeals to those seeking election or re-election as a method of vote getting. While it is noble to imagine that immigrants have been welcomed with open arms when in need of refuge from oppressive regimes in their homeland, this has not really been the case. The strongest examples of this can be found in the actions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's State Department's obstruction of the acceptance of Jews seeking to escape Hitler's persecution, and in today's reluctance to accept Syrian refugees. In both cases, the argument made against the acceptance of refugees has been that opening the doors for these immigrants is also opening the doors to spies and terrorists.
History has shown that it has been economic need that has spawned increased immigration. When the nation has been in need of laborers to clear its land, or to work in its farms and in its factories, or when added wage earners were seen as a means of expanding the tax base and feeding the economy, immigration has been encouraged and welcomed. Conversely, in recessionary times, a constant cry has been that immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens and the cry has gone up for more deportations, a cause that many populist politicians have been willing to champion.
Today we have come full circle. As America slowly recovers from the 2008 financial crisis, and faces another economic crisis in the wake of a pandemic; as income disparity continues to rise and as manufacturing jobs move to countries with cheaper labor costs, tighter immigration policies continue to be called for, just as was the case following the Great Depression and in the aftermath of many other "panics" in American history. Once again, at a time America is at war with terrorist organizations, a large segment of the population calls for a blanket rejection of immigrants from the nations believed to be spawning those terrorists, much like when FDR concluded that all Japanese, whether or not they were now American citizens, posed a danger that needed to be controlled. Once again, refugees are refused because of the fear of letting in those who would harm America, much like FDR's State Department did with the Jews seeking to escape the death camps. Today a new ideological conflict arises between those who support welcoming those fleeing repressive regimes in Afghanistan and in the middle east and those who warn that opening the doors to refugees also opens the doors to the risk of terrorist attacks at home, much like France experienced in November of 2015.
Now as then, history repeats itself, and the same difficult questions are confronted. Some argue that the wrong people are being kept out, not terrorists, but victims of terrorism, the "oppressed of the Earth" that George Washington spoke of. This side argues that by forcing America to reverse its former benevolent position on giving aid to refugees, the terrorists have achieved their goal of fundamentally altering a core principle of the nation. Those on the other side of the argument note that, after France increased the number of Syrian refugees it accepted, it also saw an increase in the number of terrorist attacks on its soil. No one wants to be responsible for failing to prevent another 911. Those who supported President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13769 genuinely see this as a life-saving measure. Others believe that America bears a moral responsibility to come to the aid of those left unprotected after President Joe Biden's abrupt withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
It is valuable to understand that both sides in this debate are taking positions that are rooted in history, and that seek to learn from the lessons of history. It is unhelpful for each side in this debate to label the other side's argument as insignificant or totally lacking in merit. Both points of view should be considered in arriving at a safe and morally responsible position on this issue.
Consider the following ugly hypothetical, and imagine that you have to choose between one of two options. You are the "decider" who must set your nation's policy. You can either (a) adopt a generous and benevolent policy of accepting large numbers of refugees, knowing that by doing so, you may be condemning innocent people in your country to becoming victims in the same manner as those persons in Nice, Paris and other locations in France; or (b) refuse to accept immigrants from certain areas of the world, knowing that many of them may die in their homeland at the hands of oppressive regimes. You must make this decision without the benefit of hindsight.
It's not an easy choice, is it?