Immigrants have always been scary-looking, but that’s never stopped us before

Posted on January 22, 2016. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

A while back we showed some photos from the wonderful Washington Post feature “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island”. It’s a collection of  photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

Here’s what we said at the time:

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants.

And then we showed some of the photos. At the time, we were just enjoying the window onto the past they provided. But with all the (usual) scaremongering talk about immigrants that was generated by the Syrian refugees, we suddenly thought of them in a new way.

Look at this woman from “Ruthenia” (today’s Belarus and Ukraine):

Ruthenian-woman

Would this woman pass the very, very difficult screening process we have in place for refugees and be allowed into the U.S. today? It doesn’t seem likely. Headscarf, ethnic clothing… looks like a terrorist.

In fact, all the women wore headscarves:

Slovak-woman-and-child

 

 

Three-Dutch-women

If headscarves are a red flag, these Slovakian and Dutch women would be held up for quite a while if they were screened today.

And what about these women?

They wear headscarves and have strange looks in their eyes; the one on the left seems pretty angry. Both of them were likely deeply committed to a religion that most native-born white Americans rejected as foreign and dangerous to the U.S. government and American Way. Yes, they were Italian Catholics who whisked into this country without anyone checking to see if they were terrorists. This at a time when the U.S. government was actually suspicious of Catholics as agents of the Pope. Yes, the Immigration Act of 1924 would limit the number of southeast European Catholics (and Jews) who could enter the country, but they were never banned altogether.

This Algerian man would likely not get into the U.S. today dressed like this. Yet he successfully entered the country a century ago, and likely lived a quiet life. His descendants are probably living quietly in the U.S. today.

Algerian-man

What about this guy?

A-German-stowaway

No way, right? But this German man successfully entered the country, likely with no more screening than the usual six-second physical at Ellis Island.

This Russian soldier seems fairly menacing:

Cossack-man-from-the-steppes-of-Russia

Are those bullets of some kind on his jacket? That seems like a knife in his belt. Whatever he’s holding—club, sword—is also pretty violent-looking. This man came to America loaded for bear. But he got in, and you know that he got his picture taken because of his “colorful outfit”.

We just weren’t scared of people like this a century ago because we assumed that anyone who came to America would see that it was the greatest society on Earth and toe the line. We believed that our society was strong enough to take in disparate peoples and turn them into Americans. We believed our society was appealing enough to win over our immigrants and make them real Americans who would live and die for their new country.

When did we lose that faith in ourselves? When did we decide that every single immigrant, man, woman or child, was a threat powerful enough to bring down our whole system and way of life? Why did we decide it? There have been acts of terrorism in this country before 2001, and they were usually (and usually wrongly) blamed on immigrants (think Haymarket). And we’ve passed stupid laws banning certain “undesirable” immigrants: the Chinese, the Japanese, southeastern Europeans (read Jews and Catholics). But the panicky idea that all immigration is a threat, that no one should be allowed into the country unless they’re white people from Europe, that every immigrant and even every refugee must go through the most rigorous, nay impossible screening process imaginable, is recent.

Here’s a rundown of what war refugees must do if they want to enter the U.S. today, courtesy of John Oliver:

Look, it is difficult to vet people coming out of a war zone, but it’s not like we’re letting just anyone in. We are the United States of America, not Arizona State. Because just for the record here, let me just walk you through what our screening process actually is.

If you’re a refugee, first, you apply through the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, which collects documents and performs interviews. Incidentally, less than one percent of refugees worldwide end up being recommended for resettlement.

But if you’re one of them, you may then be referred to the State Department to begin the vetting process. At this point, more information is collected, you’ll be put through security screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. And if you’re a Syrian refugee, you’ll get an additional layer of screening called the “Syria enhanced review,” which may include a further check by a special part of Homeland Security, the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorates.

And don’t relax yet, because we’ve barely even started. Then, you finally get an interview with USCIS officers, and you’ll also be fingerprinted so your prints can be run through the biometric databases of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.

And if you make it through all that, you’ll then have health screenings which, let’s face it, may not go too well for you, because you may have given yourself a stroke getting through this process so far. But if everything comes back clear, you’ll be enrolled in cultural orientation classes, all while your information continues to be checked recurrently against terrorist databases to make sure that no new information comes in that wasn’t caught before.

All of that has to happen before you get near a plane.

This process typically takes 18 to 24 months once you’ve been referred by the U.N. to the United States.

This is the most rigorous vetting anyone has to face before entering this country. No terrorist in their right mind would choose this path when the visa process requires far less efforts. But nevertheless, the House still voted on Thursday to add a few more steps.

It doesn’t seem likely that anyone in the photos above would have entered the U.S. under those conditions. And that would have been a terrible injustice. Not every immigrant is an angel. That German guy probably got into a lot of fights. But we can’t be scared of immigration. We can’t put ourselves in a lock box and say “no more immigrants”. We have to believe, as we once did, that America makes Americans, that Americans can be made, not born, and that that is a source of our greatest triumphs as a nation.

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A Nation of refugees

Posted on November 17, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

The wars in what we grew up calling “the Middle East”, from the Syrian civil war to the battles against the so-called Islamic State, are doing what all wars do: creating millions of refugees. This is not new in human history. Why is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? In large part because millions of people fled war in Europe during the 19th century. From the revolutions of 1848 to the wars that created Germany to the people who fled Europe after WWII, war has always grown our population in the U.S.

But that last one in the list, WWII, is actually an anomaly. It was after WWII that the U.S. began adopting policies that limited immigration, even for people claiming refugee status. There were multiple reasons for this; anti-immigration policies had begun to multiply in the 1920s and 30s, and affected people’s ability to leave Europe for America before the Second World War. These policies led to the refusal of the St. Louis in May 1939,  because it carried 937 Jewish Europeans seeking refugee status in Cuba; Cuba would not take them, and according to the Immigration Act of 1924 that cut immigration from southeastern Europe sharply, neither would the U.S. (The Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe where they fell victim to Nazism.) After WWII, the Cold War encouraged U.S. officials to restrict European and Asian immigration as we became a fortress closed against Communism.

So we actually became less welcoming to Refugees from Foreign Wars, as they used to be called, during WWII. Famously, it took an emotional visit by First Lady Rosalyn Carter to starving and dying Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War to change our policy and allow them to enter the U.S.

In the 1920s, the U.S. banned immigration based on religion and race: “undesirable” Catholics, Jews, and people who were not considered white at that time like Italians and Czechs and Russians all had their quotas lowered. Since the 1950s, immigration has been viewed through the lens of politics and religion: Catholic Latinos in the 1970s-90s, and now Muslim Middle-Easterners are the new bogeymen. In the late 19th century and to the 1930s, southeastern European Jews and Catholics were decried  loudly by panicking white Protestants: their mission from the Pope or whoever controlled them was to destroy the U.S. government and our white nation. Today, the nativists panic as they claim… the exact same thing.

Muslims can’t understand democracy. They can’t participate in it. They won’t learn English. They hate our free society. They’ll bring their religious laws here and try to enforce them. They’ll destroy our government. They’ll commit acts of terrorism.

All of these hate-panic claims were once made about Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Catholic immigrants. Somehow none of them came true.

Yet some of our political leaders are clearly nostalgic for the bad old days. Rick Santorum thinks all Syrian refugees should go back home and fight ISIS. Somehow they will succeed where Russian air strikes have not. Carly Fiorina wants all refugees screened for terrorism before they can come here. Rand Paul has a blanket “no” when it comes to Muslim refugees. Bobby Jindal thinks all refugees should be constantly monitored in the U.S., ankle-bracelet style. And Mike Huckabee thinks it’s “crazy” to take poor people from the “desert”, “who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a [sic] same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter”.

Luckily none of these people are running the country. Our president faced this front of ignorance by reminding us of who we are:

When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful, that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests (for) our compassion.

This is a much-needed counter-attack against those who insist that instituting the religious tests that our Constitution absolutely outlaws and deplores as undemocratic will keep our democracy safe. Suspecting people who have fled for their lives in a war of being warmongers whose only goal is to destroy any nation that takes them in and offers them hope is beyond ignorant. And it’s beyond American.

Whenever anti-immigrant, hate laws were passed in our history, there were Americans who stood up against them. There are always Americans who fight for justice for all. That’s our true identity. That’s American. Let’s remember that. Let’s remember who we are and how we got here, always aspiring to greatest-nation-on-Earth status, because the old saw is true: if we destroy everything we stand for in the name of security, the terrorists win.

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