My wife and I spent last weekend in New York City. In addition to spending some time with good friends and seeing Rockefeller Center’s famous Christmas tree, we had the chance to explore some of the immigrant history of New York. I’m convinced that if every American adult went on the immigration history tour of New York City that I had this weekend, the tone of our national debate over immigration would be distinctly more civil.
One of my favorite places to visit in New York City is Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Over the course of a few decades—beginning in 1892—more than twenty million immigrants poured through Ellis Island as their first stop in the United States. By the late 19th century, an unprecedented percentage of the American population, 15%, were immigrants (by comparison, despite several decades of relatively high levels of immigration within our country’s history, currently about 12% of our nation is foreign-born).
Many of us have positive mental associations with Ellis Island. Nearly half of Americans can trace at least one ancestor’s arrival in this country through the island, and our nation generally remembers the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island as heroes: brave individuals who left behind everything, worked hard, and achieved the American dream.
We often forget, though, just how unwelcoming many in the United States were toward these newly arrived immigrants at the time. We have not remembered the hostility and prejudice faced by one wave of immigrants after another, particularly by those who were Catholic or Jewish (not Protestant), southern or eastern European (not northern or western European), and relatively poor and uneducated. There are few better ways to remember the experiences of our immigrant ancestors than a visit to the Tenement Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This large tenement building was home to thousands of immigrant families between the 1860s and the 1930s, when it was condemned.
The museum offers a number of exceptional tours of different rooms of the building, each telling the story of a particular family who lived there at one time. Last Saturday, we learned about an Irish family, the Moores, who lived in the building just for one year, while the neighborhood was a primarily German neighborhood. The Moores likely faced significant discrimination—this was the era of “No Irish Need Apply”—and the lack of adequate sanitation and their poverty likely both contributed to the illness of their infant daughter, who ultimately died. In fact, Irish immigrant children had an infant mortality rate that was several times that of native-born U.S. citizens of that era.
After the Germans and the Irish, that tenement was home to others: to Italians, Poles, Greeks, and Russian Jews, among others, and each subsequent group faced similar discrimination when they first arrived. So strong was the hostility toward these immigrants that the American people insisted that their elected officials restrict immigration: our first federal immigration restrictions went into place in 1882, and then were gradually increased until they culminated in the 1920s with the National Origins Quota Act. That legislation established the requirement of a visa for the first time ever—until then, you just got on a boat and showed up, and even as restrictions were added, more than 98% of individuals coming through Ellis Island were allowed in—and made visas much more readily available for the northern and western European countries considered to be more desirable.
Ironically, of course, the ancestors of those immigrants from countries once considered “undesirable” are now considered just as American as anybody else. And yet many Americans continue to employ the rhetoric of native-born U.S. citizens of generations past about today’s immigrants, that these immigrants are different than our ancestors, that they will never integrate into American society, that they are uniquely responsible for crime, disease, and economic woes (even when researchers find no evidence of these persistent myths, and even that immigrants actually reduce crime and strengthen the economy). In New York City today, immigrants represent 36.8% of the population, and about one in two New Yorkers speaks a language other than English at home—and Mayor Mike Bloomberg has stated repeatedly that the city’s immigrants are vital to the city’s economic strength and resilience.
Long before immigrants started arriving in the United States, the people of Israel were foreigners living in Egypt, where they were mistreated and oppressed under Pharaoh. Eventually, God rescued them out of that situation and led them to a land promised to their ancestors, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). As he settled them there, he issued them a strongly-worded command: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). God mandates that his people remember their history—and particularly the mistreatment endured by their ancestors—so they can respond with grace, welcome, and empathy to those foreigners who come after them.
We would do well as a nation—or at the very least as those of us who call ourselves Christian within this country—to take that lesson to heart, remembering our own history as immigrants. A few days in New York, with visits to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Tenement Museum, and to the many sites throughout the five boroughs of the city that remind us of the immigrant communities that currently make this city strong, might serve as a good reminder.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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