All too often, we hear people misusing our history to validate and institutionalize injustice. We recently heard White House administrator Ken Cuccinelli on the radio point to the 1882 Immigration and Naturalization Act to support the current proposal to disallow citizenship to immigrants who receive government support services. It’s part of the “public charge” clause, he said; U.S. immigration law prohibited anyone who would be a charity case from entering the U.S. “That’s how we’ve always done it in America, because in America we believe in industry and rugged individualism and hard work.”
Those are ringing words that most Americans do like to hear. But there are two problems with this that are always present when people try to make our history support injustice: first, there have indeed been many times in which the U.S. did the wrong thing, and violated its mandate. Those failures should be called out as such, as deviations from our norm, not offered as proof that our norm of justice for all is somehow carried out by committing injustice.
Second, and almost inevitably, they are wrong. The 1882 “Act to regulate immigration” had three parts. First, it said that 50 cents would be collected from every immigrant who arrived in a U.S. port and the money would be used to create a fund “to be called the immigrant fund, and shall be used to defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act, and for the care of immigrants arriving in the U.S. for the relief of such as are in distress…” Contrast that with what’s happening on our southern border today, or in any city or town where immigrants are living under the threat of roundup and deportation.
Next, it said that any passengers found to be a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or other person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same… and such persons shall not be permitted to land.” Nowhere in this is a person’s ability to make a living without ever relying on charity—since government welfare did not exist at the time—mentioned. This is addressing debilitating mental illness.
Finally, the Act says that “…from time to time [issue] instructions [best] calculated to protected the U.S. and immigrants entering into the U.S. from fraud and loss…” –perhaps the fraud and loss of being refused citizenship after taking advantage of social services legally offered.
Unfortunately, few Americans know their own history well enough to recognize these types of misrepresentations. They fall prey to them, and come to doubt our mandate in an especially destructive way: they become cynical. Liberty and justice for all is only quoted to shame the U.S. as representing a mission that we have never lived up to, that we have always deliberately violated. U.S. history is presented as an unrelieved series of crimes and deliberate injustice.
Letting our history be torn apart in this way is very dangerous to our politics. If we sense today that something is wrong, we have to be able to defend and support that feeling with our own history. We have to be able to say “This is not what America is all about” and know that others will agree. We have to understand that our current pushback against injustice is backed up by generations of Americans who came before us, who pushed back against slavery and sexism and voting restrictions and school segregation and imperialism and religious intolerance. The study of American history is in part a return to the source of that feeling, that need we have to be a just nation, and to understand and validate it, whether by calling out failures or celebrating successes.