Originally published by Time

The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty was 25 years ago, from a noisy ferry that brought me and hundreds of other eager tourists across New York Harbor. Back then I was a foreign student, in Manhattan for three days to attend an academic conference on linguistics. I had only one afternoon to devote to sightseeing, and faced with the choice of which landmark to visit, I settled immediately on Ellis Island. The site loomed large in my imagination, likely because of its romantic portrayal in the American movies I had grown up watching. I ambled through the stately inspection room, where original chandeliers cast their pale light, sat for a few minutes on the wooden benches, then went inside the exhibit rooms, filled with artifacts documenting the arrival of immigrants.

I still remember the jolt of surprise I felt when I came across a portrait of three Moroccan men and a little boy, all clad in national dress-cloak, djellaba, cross-body bag, leather slippers. It was a trace of a history I didn’t know existed. After the surprise wore off, I began to wonder about their names, their pasts, their families, their reasons for emigrating. Years later, researching this picture online, I discovered that the photographer, an employee of the Executive Division of Immigration, had scribbled Arab jugglers on the back of the print. These were performers, then, seeking fame or fortune here. They forged new identities and became Americans, just like the other 12 million immigrants and refugees who passed through Ellis Island from 1882 to 1954. Or at least, that is how the story goes: America was formed from huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

As I walked around the exhibit rooms at the Ellis Island immigration museum, it never occurred to me that someday I would become an immigrant too, and eventually a citizen. At the time, my goal had been to complete a graduate degree in linguistics and return to Morocco. But my life took an unexpected turn when I met and fell in love with an American. I said yes to him, and yes to staying here. Years passed, during which I learned more about the country I now called home: its charms and foibles, its culture and history, its claims to being a nation of immigrants. And I came to understand that, like any origin story, this one leaves out inconvenient details.

The boundaries of Americanness, which seem so elastic in the myth of a nation of immigrants, have in fact been very rigid-and always, always contested. At the founding of the United States, American citizenship was available exclusively to free white persons. It took decades of struggle, and a bloody civil war, before citizenship was extended to formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Indigenous people, who were members of sovereign nations, did not have full access to citizenship until 1924. And for much of this country’s history, a slew of race-based immigration laws, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, prevented most immigrants from outside Western Europe from coming to the U.S. or claiming U.S. citizenship.

It is tempting to think that this ugly history is behind us. Yet even a glance at current headlines makes it clear how deeply entrenched white-supremacist ideas about Americanness remain. The Trump Administration announced in 2019 that it would cut the number of refugees the U.S. will resettle in 2020 to no more than 18,000, the lowest number since the program was created 40 years ago. These refugees come principally from Asia, Africa and Latin America, which is to say they often come from countries the President has frequently disparaged. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has long been an opponent of birthright citizenship and last fall told reporters that he doesn’t believe a constitutional amendment would be needed to end it. And Stephen Miller, the White House aide who has long echoed white-nationalist talking points and who is widely credited with being the architect of the Muslim ban, has pushed for sweeping changes to immigration laws that would favor people who speak English.

There are also rhetorical clues from this Administration and its supporters about who gets to be a real American. Last summer, Donald Trump called on Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib to go back to the crime-infested places from which they came. (All but Omar were born in the U.S.) More recently, conservative cable hosts like Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade insinuated that Alexander Vindman-an official at the National Security Council who testified that the President had asked the leader of Ukraine to investigate a political rival in exchange for military aid-might not be entirely loyal to the U.S. because he was an immigrant. It didn’t matter that Vindman was an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army; his allegiance was called into question.

Being American isn’t just a state of being, whether native or acquired. It’s a relationship between an individual and the nation-state. To be an American means, among other things, to have the right to vote in state and federal elections, to have protection from unreasonable searches, to be free to speak or worship or assemble without government interference. In the past, these rights, protections and liberties were not granted equally to all, and they still aren’t today. For instance, millions of formerly incarcerated people in states like Alabama, Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi have lost the right to vote and are therefore shut out of the democratic process. This has vastly disproportionate effects on black men. By comparison, Vermont and Maine, the two whitest states in the union, allow both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to vote. Citizenship is supposed to be an equalizer, yet in many ways it still functions as a tiered system that mirrors past racial hierarchies.

Four years ago, while I was visiting New York for a literary event, I took my daughter and niece to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was a cloudy day in June, but the air was thick with humid heat. Both girls were excited about seeing the national landmarks; both undertook ancestry searches at the interactive exhibits. Although neither site was new to me any longer, I felt just as moved as the first time I’d seen them. There is something deeply seductive about these symbols. Even with the awareness of America’s history of colonial expansion and white supremacy, the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is still a potent lure.

I live with this contradiction every day, with the knowledge that the bleak past and the better future meet in the present moment. Citizenship is both an idea and an ideal, the journey from one to the other a measure of the nation’s progress. I wish this journey could be taken in a giant leap, even as I fear it will be walked slowly, fearfully, and with many steps back along the way. Yet I keep the faith. Perhaps it’s because I’m a novelist, whose work involves constant use of the imagination. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an immigrant, whose vantage point grants the privilege to look at the country from the inside and the outside. Either way, I know that promise is the best catalyst for progress.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

On Feb. 26, 1931, a sunny Sunday in Los Angeles, hundreds gathered for an afternoon of relaxation in La Placita park in the heart of the city’s Mexican community.

Suddenly, a large group of plainclothes officers armed with guns and batons entered the park. Two officers were posted at each entrance to La Placita so that no one could leave. Dozens of flatbed trucks circled the park’s perimeter.

Officers rounded up all the people with brown skin, said Joseph Dunn, a former Democratic state senator from California, who researched this forgotten episode of U.S. history.

Panic swept through the crowd. About 400 park patrons were lined up and asked to show proof of legal entry and citizenship of the United States.

The Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans who could not produce proper documentation were detained. Then, some were put on the trucks and sent to the city’s main railroad station, Dunn said. Once there, they were ordered onto previously chartered trains and taken deep into Mexico, according to Dunn.

The raid came at the height of the Great Depression and on the heels of President Herbert Hoover’s announcement of a national program of American jobs for real Americans – code words for  ’getting rid of Mexicans,’ who weren’t considered ‘real’ Americans, said Dunn, whose staff spent three years delving into federal, state and local records in the United States and Mexico to document this little-known tragedy of the Latino experience in the United States.

The program, implemented by Hoover’s secretary of labor, William Doak, included passing local laws forbidding government employment of anyone of Mexican descent, even legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens. Major companies, including Ford, U.S. Steel and the Southern Pacific Railroad, colluded with the government by telling Mexicans they would be better off with their own people, laying off thousands.

The Hoover administration began reimbursing localities for enacting his program.

Los Angeles authorities had planned the raid at La Placita as a scare tactic to motivate the population to return to their motherland, even though many of them were born in the United States.

The Los Angeles City Council sent memos to the city’s board of supervisors advising it to stop the illegal deportations, Dunn said. The board got tired of the memos and wrote back to the city council, ‘This isn’t about constitutional validity. It’s about the color of their skin,’  said Dunn, who has boxes of documents detailing such events.

Fear swept Mexican communities nationwide throughout the early 1930s as local law enforcement rounded up people in parks, hospitals, markets and social clubs, crammed them onto chartered trains and deposited them across the border.

Around the country, Mexicans were scapegoated for the bad economy and became victims of cruel dilemmas, said Francisco Balderrama, professor emeritus of history and Chicano studies at California State University at Los Angeles and a co-author of Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, a book based on oral histories and archival research.

In addition to claiming that Mexican deportations would create more jobs, officials also said that Mexicans were overwhelming welfare offices and draining charities set up for the needy during a time of economic calamity. Yet, during the early years of the Depression, Mexicans comprised less than 10 percent of the relief recipients across the country, according to Decade of Betrayal.

Hoover’s approach is echoed in the Trump administration’s immigration policies. There’s no question in the minds of many that Trump’s zero-tolerance policy and increased ICE raids has strains of what occurred to Mexicans in the 1930s, Dunn said.

But the difference between the two presidents’ approaches to deportations lies in Hoover’s use of the term repatriation, Balderrama said. The word suggests a voluntary return to your birthplace, and Mexican repatriation was viewed as a humanitarian gesture by the administration and the public, Dunn said.

In my investigation, I found that what was called repatriation was actually a coverup and a case of unconstitutional deportation because the majority of Mexicans who were deported were born and raised in the United States, Dunn said.

Dunn’s research shows that about 1.8 million Mexicans were deported during the 1930s. Of that number, about 60 percent were U.S. citizens.

Elena Herrada, an activist who has compiled oral histories of Mexicans who were deported, said her father was a toddler when he and his family were forced to go to Mexico in 1930.

Herrada’s aunt said the trip to Mexico was dangerous. Everybody knew Mexicans were leaving, so robberies on the roads were common, Herrada said.

As was the case for many Mexicans who were coerced into leaving, the government gave the Herrada family provisions of food for three days. But the trip took 30 days because they couldn’t drive at night. They would hide their car, which was loaded with possessions, after sunset to avoid being robbed.

For children, most of whom were born in the United States, the trip and relocation to Mexico was especially traumatizing. Leaving the only country they’d known to go to an unfamiliar, rural and poor place where no one spoke English left a mark on Christine Valenciana’s mother, Emilia Castañeda.

Valenciana, associate professor emeritus at California State University at Fullerton, said her mother wasn’t used to not having indoor plumbing, was ostracized at school in Mexico for not speaking Spanish, and suffered from a lack of medical and dental care.

My mother never got a proper education, Valenciana said. She lived in Mexico for nine miserable years.

Finally, when Emilia turned 17, her godmother found her birth certificate, which was needed to reenter the United States, and sent her money to return. Emilia had always considered Los Angeles her home and was anxious to go back. But she wasn’t able to resume her schooling because her English had faded over the years.

With so many Mexicans and Mexican Americans forced to leave the country, there were no voices at the time protesting this mass removal, Balderrama said. Trade unions, the Communist Party and other groups were all in favor of saving jobs for whites in the United States.

The famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was in the United States painting his Detroit Industry Frescos during the early 1930s, helped raise money for deportees and worked to obtain humane treatment for compatriots from welfare authorities, according to Decade of Betrayal. But, like many, he was sold on the idea that repatriation was a positive action instead of a violent disruption with lifelong effects.

At least today we can say things have gotten better in terms of opposition to immigration policies, Balderrama said.

But I can see us slipping down this same path with Trump’s approach, said Dunn. Democracy is fragile.

There was never a formal ending of the deportations, Dunn said. It just faded away by the end of the 1930s and then World War II brought jobs back, so the scapegoating of Mexicans eased up, he said.

In 2005, Dunn put forward legislation in the California statehouse to apologize for the government’s treatment of Mexicans during the Depression. The Apology Act became official on Jan. 1, 2006, expressing regret for the illegal deportations. The law also included installing a memorial where the raid on La Placita  took place in Los Angeles. In 2013, California also passed a law requiring that this lost history be taught in the state’s public schools.

We all know about the internment of 145,000 Japanese during World War II, Dunn said. But 1.8 million Mexican deportees dwarfs that size, and most people know nothing about this topic.

Dunn says the Apology Act was mostly symbolic. But it’s still something, he said. Now no one can say it never happened.

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Originally published by Salon

Holocaust historians’ first impulse is to reject comparisons between those dark decades and our present. We don’t want to be perceived as abusing history for political purposes, or engaging in overly emotional analyses.

But then comes a moment when it’s not possible to avoid parallels.

For me, that moment came two weeks ago.

I study the American response to the Holocaust. I was preparing to deliver a conference paper on U.S. officials’ false claim that the nation’s inflexible immigration laws gave them no choice but to deny visas to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and early 1940s – and historians’ repetition of this false claim. From every media outlet came Trump administration officials spewing similar hollow arguments.

The law made me do it

During the Nazi era, the claim was based on the 1924 immigration law that set annual worldwide quotas, as well as country-by-country limits, on the number of immigrants to be admitted to the United States.

The problem with the claim, and the idea that U.S. officials had no choice but to follow the law and limit immigration, is that the quotas were never even close to being filled from 1933 to 1945, the 12 years of the Nazi regime.

About 200,000 refugees from Nazi Europe were admitted during that period to the U.S., while at least another 200,000 could have been under existing quotas. The quota for Germans of about 26,000 was filled in just one year, in 1939. In every other year, the quota ranged from 7 percent to 70 percent filled.

The law didn’t prevent U.S. officials from admitting more refugees. Officials chose to interpret and implement the nation’s immigration laws so as to exclude as many refugees from Nazi Europe as possible.

Yet at the time, and in many historical accounts, officials consistently blamed the law. That includes Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who explained why his administration could not help European Jews in 1943.

American immigration policy was expressed [solely] in the laws enacted by Congress, which the executive branch had no power to alter, said Long.

I intended at the conference to try to explain why so many historians cling to the law-made-me-do-it narrative, assuming that that narrative was all history.

It wasn’t.

History repeats

As criticism of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border ramped up in mid-June, U.S. officials trotted out their version of Long’s argument – though in less elevated language.

Asked why the administration adopted the zero tolerance policy, which led to criminal prosecutions of all those crossing the border seemingly illegally, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Thursday press conference, because it’s the law, that’s what the law states.

Pressed again, Sanders said, Again, the laws are the one, the laws that have been on the books for over a decade and the president is enforcing them.

Sanders wasn’t the first Trump administration official to blame the law for immigration policy.

We don’t deport anyone, John Kelly declared, when he was still Homeland Security secretary. American law deports people.

Nor has Sanders been the last.

Kelly’s successor, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president have all said at various times – and then taken it back – that they had no choice.

Jobs and security

The Trump administration has justified its anti-immigrant policy as a way to help unemployed Americans. So did the Hoover administration and then the Roosevelt administration.

Faced with the Great Depression, Hoover decided in 1930 to limit the number of immigrantsallowed into the country, because – supposedly – they would take Americans’ jobs.

Hoover did it by changing the interpretation of a decades-old provision that enabled officials to deny visas to those who were likely to become a public charge. Under the new interpretation, almost every applicant was found likely to become a public charge with no guidance or consistency in what that meant.

Immigration dropped 90 percent in the first five months.

From 1933 to 1945, the Roosevelt administration continued to use this interpretation of the likely-to-become-a-public-charge clause and other provisions to keep immigration under what the law allowed, even after the economy picked up.

The Trump administration has claimed immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and to be national security risks, using unrepresentative anecdotes and amorphous fears to justify its policy.

So did the Roosevelt administration. One State Department lawyer maintained that officials should deny visas to those who had criminal tendencies, even if they have no criminal record.

Government officials during the Roosevelt administration also assumed a large proportion of immigrants, particularly Jewish ones, were communists determined to subvert democracy. They denied visas on that basis.

Officials also assumed German Jewish refugees would be spies for the Third Reich. That was based upon the flimsiest of evidence: a Cuban ambassador’s claim some Jewish refugees celebrated the fall of Paris to the Nazis and a former U.S. ambassador to France’s allegation that German Jewish refugees made up half the 200 spies the French Army arrested.

I believe you should instruct our counter-espionage services of all sorts to keep an especially vigilant eye on the Jewish refugees from Germany, William Bullitt, the ex-ambassador, wrote Roosevelt. Sad, isn’t it?’

Jewish refugees didn’t turn out to be spies. Of the 23,000 enemy aliens who arrived in 1940, for example, fewer than one-half of 1 percent were taken into custody for questioning. Only a fraction of those were indicted – for violating immigration regulations, not for espionage.

Denials of visas based on national security concerns and other reasons, however, meant that just 21,000 refugees entered the United States between Pearl Harbor and the war’s end, with quotas from Axis-controlled countries only 10 percent filled. Historian David Wyman estimates that the U.S. could have saved nearly 200,000 victims of the Nazis by allowing them to enter the country.

Who gets to be American

Based on my research for a chapter I wrote in Allied Powers’ Response to the Holocaust, a forthcoming book edited by Alexander Groth and Tony Tanke, I have concluded that U.S. government officials’ fears about refugees from Nazism being public charges, criminals or security risks were primarily pretexts for their real concern. That concern was that allowing in too many refugees would fundamentally alter the nature of American society.

Many decision-makers, particularly in the State Department, hailed from the WASP elite and perceived ambitious Jews as threatening their exclusive domains. The fewer Jews in the United States, the greater the chance of preserving the country as it had been and as they wanted it to continue to be. These officials justified any position and tolerated any cruelty, including refusing to change immigration policies once it was known the Germans were exterminating all of Europe’s Jews.

Roosevelt administration officials turned out to be both right and wrong in their fears.

They were right that the European refugees who came before, during and after the war, though small in number, reshaped the world of higher education, the arts and the sciences and contributed to the rise of the postwar meritocracy. That postwar meritocracy broke down the class-based system that kept Jews and Italians and eventually blacks and Latinos out of elite institutions.

But they were wrong that these changes undermined American democracy or changed the country’s spirit.

The nation was better off letting in 200,000 refugees between 1933 and 1945. It would have been even better off filling the quotas and allowing in the additional 200,000 refugees. And it would have been better off still had the country admitted anyone in need and tried to save all those who were imperiled as the Holocaust unfolded.

Some might object, probably under their breath, that these refugees were different. They were good refugees.

But that is not how they were perceived at the time. And that is exactly the point and precisely the parallel.

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Originally published by The Huffington Post

In 1882, Congress voted to ban an entire ethnic group from immigrating to the United States.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, iterations of which remained on the books for over 60 years, had a lasting effect on the history of U.S. immigration, as depicted in a new PBS documentary airing Tuesday.

Filmmakers Ric Burns (brother of Ken) and Li-Shin Yu trace not only the law’s development and implementation but also its connection to other integral parts of American history unfolding contemporaneously, like segregation in the Jim Crow South, urbanization on the East and West Coasts, and trade abroad.

At a screening of the film last week, Burns called the Chinese Exclusion Act a quintessentially American story and described it as the biggest part of American history that people don’t know about, because you would be hard-pressed to find it mentioned in many history courses.

If you want to know about immigration in America and you don’t know the story of Chinese exclusion, it would be like saying you want to know about race relations in America, but you’ve never heard of slavery.Filmmaker Ric Burns

In the film, several historians marvel that some Americans are shocked to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Many Americans today cannot believe this happened. How could this country, with its culture, with its politics, with its economics, do what it did against a whole class of people? NYU professor John Kuo Wei Tchen says.

But while watching the documentary amid today’s political climate, it isn’t unbelievable at all. Burns and Yu acknowledged that it doesn’t take much effort to see parallels to President Donald Trump’s America – though this was not their original intention, as they began working on the film six years ago, Burns said.

Central to the bill’s 1882 passage were political attacks on Chinese immigrants that labeled them unassimilable and portrayed them as economic threats to white Americans and a filthy scourge on society. The film shows how newspaper headlines and editorial cartoons from that period disseminated this propaganda.

“The Anti-Chinese Wall,” an 1882 political cartoon from “The Puck” magazine, which reads: “The

The Anti-Chinese Wall, an 1882 political cartoon from The Puck magazine, which reads: The American Wall Goes Up as the Chinese Original Goes down. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nineteenth-century politicians’ nativism and fear-mongering are remarkably similar to today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. President Donald Trump famously began his presidential campaign by saying that Mexico was sending rapists, drug dealers, and criminals to the U.S.

Other right-wing political figures have raised the old complaint that certain immigrants are unassimilable. During an NPR interview earlier this month, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said that undocumented immigrants are not people that would easily assimilate and don’t integrate well – an uncanny reminder of how this political language persists.

Burns sees another commonality in the rhetoric: the factless nature of claims that immigrants are stealing our jobs.


Both then and now, there’s zero truth to it, he said. These things almost never have any basis in reality. It becomes a function of playing to fears, playing to usually white vulnerabilities, and finding wedge issues for politicians.

The Chinese Exclusion Act tells us all we need to know not just about immigration, but about the story of America.

These parallels make it particularly difficult and infuriating to watch the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act unfold in the film, including how it raised questions about birthright citizenship that were later settled in an 1898 Supreme Court case.

Trump is among those who have relitigated the issue in the decades since: During his presidential campaign, he suggested abolishing birthright citizenship.

There are also echoes of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the legal battle over Trump’s travel ban, which bars people largely from majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. It’s yet another compelling piece of evidence for the film’s central argument: The Chinese Exclusion Act tells us all we need to know not just about immigration, but about the story of America.

A poster celebrating the Chinese Exclusion Act's passage, proclaiming that "The White Man is on Top." Courtesy of t

A poster celebrating the Chinese Exclusion Act’s passage, proclaiming that The White Man is on Top. Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum.

The events of the film intersect with another grim period of American history: the Jim Crow era in the South. According to the film, the California politicians spearheading discrimination against Chinese immigrants built support for the exclusion act by compromising with Southern politicians trying to pass measures to systematically disenfranchise black people. The political maneuvering, which Burns referred to as horse-trading, essentially amounted to exchanging one form of discrimination for another.

Sexism and misogyny also fueled the fire. Laws that helped lay the foundation for the 1882 bill were particularly discriminatory against Chinese women, who were stereotyped as prostitutes. As Columbia University historian Mae Ngai relates in the film, Chinese women were required to prove they were not prostitutes to be admitted to the U.S, a process so stringent that it effectively discouraged most women from immigrating.

Through these connections, the documentary effectively makes the case that the Chinese Exclusion Act is fundamental to questions of American identity.

It is not a melodramatic or breathlessly hyperbolic thing to say that if you want to know about immigration in America and you don’t know the story of Chinese exclusion, it would be like saying you want to know about race relations in America but you’ve never heard of slavery, Burns said.

Burns and Yu said they intend for the film to be an educational tool, and PBS and the Center for Asian American Media are distributing it to schools so that learning about Chinese exclusion becomes a given in U.S. history class.

Just the way you know about the Fourth of July, you know about the Civil War, and you know about the Pilgrims – usually a ludicrously cartoonish way, Burns said, you’ll at least have a ludicrously cartoonish version of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Chinese Exclusion Act premieres on PBS on Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

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Originally published by LA Times

My friend Brian used to tell a charming story about the derivation of his last name. His paternal grandfather had been born “Dam.” But upon arriving at Ellis Island, the first thing Grandpa Harry saw was a fruit seller, so he changed his name on a whim to Fruchter, later changed again to the more easily spelled Frazer.

At least that was the story until I offered to help Brian with his family tree a few years ago. I found his grandfather’s birth record from Navariya, a town in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Harry’s name at birth had in fact been Dam. But “Fruchter” was clearly listed on that 1904 document as well: it was his mother’s maiden name. And “Fruchter” was actually the surname printed on Harry’s Polish passport and the name he had given when he boarded the S.S. Paris in Le Havre to come to the United States in 1930, before ever setting foot on Ellis Island. It was all right there in black and white. “Fruit seller” indeed.

Myths and secrets – some benign in the “fruit seller” vein, some far more explosive – can burrow themselves into family narratives with surprising ferocity. But genealogists come along and unpack them. We turn up the hidden arrest records and the never-discussed babies who died in infancy. We know that Great-Aunt Sadie was really five years older than she let on and that Cousin Harold had a shotgun wedding. We know that Uncle Morris, who passed himself off as British even to his children, was born Jewish in Riga, Latvia. In genealogy, we always have receipts.

And it’s receipts that are sorely missing from the current debate over immigration policy. I’ve watched in dismay as the rhetoric has become both increasingly fraught and increasingly divorced from reality, with policy positions justified by little more than variations of urban legend-ish “fruit seller” stories.

Contemporary immigrants are demonized as bottom feeders living off “handouts,” uninterested in assimilation. They skulk their way into the country through what the right now calls “chain migration,” dragging hordes of unsavory associates across the border with them. As Mara Liasson of National Public Radio put it, “The message is immigrants are coming here to kill us.” (For the record, those “migrants” are simply people, and the “chain” they are part of is more often called a family.)

Immigrants of old, on the other hand, are beatified with nostalgic but grossly simplified generalizations: they worked 12 jobs and never took a penny of assistance from anyone. They effortlessly adapted to American life, casting off all traces of their native countries and burning the midnight oil to learn English as soon as possible. Oh, and they walked to school uphill both ways while carrying a hot potato.

“Legal Italian immigrants didn’t wave Italian flags coming into America,” reads one social media meme. “They didn’t riot and try to stop the election process. They didn’t try to make Americans speak Italian. They learned English.”

The objective truth that emerges from census documents, naturalization papers, ships’ manifests and the like is nuanced and messy. Besides, crowing about “legal” immigration from Europe prior to 1924 is essentially meaningless, as there were almost no laws in place for immigrants to break.

Were our immigrant forebears all model Americans? Spend any time perusing census records and you’ll see that many early 20th century immigrants never learned to speak English, some of them even after living here for decades. In 1911, a congressional commission published the results of a comprehensive three-year study of immigration. Of more than 246,000 immigrants working in mines and manufacturing, for instance, only slightly more than half, 53.2%, were able to speak English. Didn’t take handouts? The same commission found that, nationwide, roughly 38% of charity was given to immigrants. In 15 of the 43 cities studied, more than half of the charity recipients were immigrants.

Surely none of their descendants could possibly be among those now bashing immigrants for not learning English and draining the social services system, right?

The current nativist furor is shrouded by a puzzling selective amnesia. The founding narrative of our country is an immigrant narrative. “American culture” is an evolving amalgam – one built by eradicating native cultures and exploiting slave labor, to boot – so that the definition of “American” is always going to be a subjective moving target, at best.

Of course, nativism is nothing new. Without fail, every generation of newly assimilated Americans has looked down upon the next and considered pulling up the ladder behind them; it’s practically a rite of passage.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, worried that the Germans in Pennsylvania would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” “Shortly?” That was in 1751. (The reference to complexion is hardly coincidental, either, as racism plays an undeniably troubling role in our immigration history.)

“Fifty, even thirty years ago, there was a rightful presumption regarding the average immigrant that he was among the most enterprising, thrifty, alert, adventurous, and courageous of the community from which he came,” bemoaned the Atlantic 145 years later. “Today the presumption is completely reversed.” Those words were published, incidentally, before President Trump’s Scottish mother and Vice President Pence’s Irish grandfather had even been born in their respective countries.

I’ve seen this particular trope play out in my own family: my “greenhorn” grandfather, who arrived in 1920, was belittled by his American wife’s sisters, who thought he was beneath them. One of those sisters was born in New York City in 1895, a mere four years after her mother had stepped off the boat from Ukraine. If that kind of entitlement can breed in just four years, imagine what can happen in 50 years. Or 100. Or 250.

When Rep. Steve King of Iowa asks how we can restore “our” civilization with “somebody else’s babies,” I say: “How do we define ‘our,’ exactly?” King’s grandmother was once one of those very babies, arriving steerage at Ellis Island from Germany in 1894 with her family. It’s all there on the ship’s manifest for the SS New York, which indicates they were headed to the United States for a “protracted sojourn.” I feel confident there wasn’t a fruit seller in sight.

Jennifer Mendelsohn is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and the creator of #resistancegenealogy, a project that highlights the unifying nature of our immigrant past.

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Originally published by Slate

As the drama around Dreamers and the government shutdown unfolded, Donald Trump’s racism was on full display for anyone not dedicated to denying it. Referring to African and Latin American countries as shitholes behind closed doors was just icing on the cake. Yet Trump also tossed out occasional claims about love that seemed utterly at odds with what one might expect from an overtly racist president – if you knew nothing about history.


In fact, neither Trump’s more explicit racism nor his mixing in seemingly contradictory statements here and there is nearly as surprising as most commentators take them to be. Two new papers about race-related attitudes show Trump to be a follower of mass political developments that have largely been ignored and denied, rather than a unique causative factor.

One forthcoming paper, The Increasing Racialization of American Electoral Politics, 1988-2016, by Adam Enders and Jamil Scott, previewed here in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, shows that racial resentment has steadily become more tightly linked to a broad range of political attitudes over the last few decades: Specifically, a mix of context-dependent attitudes (candidate evaluations), deeply-held predispositions (partisan and ideological self-identifications), attitudes about general (services) and specific (health insurance) public policy issues, and actual political behaviors (vote choice).

Racialization, like polarization, is a state and a process – it is a heightened connection between racial considerations and other seemingly non-racial political objects, and it is a process by which those connections strengthen over time, the paper explains.

The racialization of healthcare under Obama, highlighted by Michael Tesler, is shown to be part of a much longer and broader process, and the increased racialization of politics with Donald Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 is part of the same pattern. Obama and Trump are significant figures, but far from the whole story in terms of reshaping our politics.

Every trend examined showed the same pattern of convergence, and all but one was statistically significant – that of candidate choice, which was not surprising, Enders told Salon, Vote choice is so highly correlated with partisanship and self-reported ideology – both controlled for in the model – that there isn’t a whole lot of unique, residual variation in vote choice for other variables, like racial resentment, to explain, he said. In a sense, that fact only highlights how remarkable all the other correlations are.  Here is a summary chart:

The second paper, The Changing Norms of Racial Political Rhetoric and the End of Racial Priming, by Nicholas Valentino, Fabian Neuner and Matthew Vandenbroek, in the Journal of Politics, shows that the previously assumed penalty for explicit racist comments has evaporated, so that there’s no measurable difference between how implicit and explicit racist messages are perceived in a variety of realistic settings.

Previous scholarship suggested that politicians had to use implicit racial rhetoric (such as the famous Willie Horton ad) to activate racial attitudes because explicitly hostile racial rhetoric would turn off both liberal and conservative voters, Neuner told Salon. (This was known as “racial priming theory.”) 

Our research suggests this is no longer the case, he said.  Contrary to past thinking, citizens no longer reject explicitly racial messaging more than they do implicit arguments. … This can help explain why then candidate Trump was not punished electorally for utterances and behavior that seemed xenophobic and racist.

This was not a result of Trump, since the research was conducted before Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015. What’s more, Neuner added, We once thought that calling out racially hostile rhetoric would neutralize it, but our new work suggests that this counterstrategy is no longer effective for large swaths of the American public.

This finding is “surprising to many because of the widespread narrative that Obama’s election had ushered in an era of ‘post-racial’ politics,” Neuner said. “There was the hope that the election of an African-American politician proved we had moved past our fraught history of racial conflict and that we might move to a more cooperative era of politics with more bipartisan deliberation and compromise. Those hopes have evaporated, obviously.

On the other hand, as Valentino pointed out, Racial conflict has been a defining feature of the American political landscape for much of our history. In some sense, the partisan detente reached during the Jim Crow era essentially took racial policy disagreements off the table for a small number of decades.

“Following the Civil Rights movement and the partisan realignment of the 1970s and 1980s, we began to slide back into the same patterns as before, where race and racial animus were quite central to the ways parties organized themselves. We are now seeing the consequences of that realignment come to full fruition. These historical forces, therefore, are probably far larger than any one or two presidents could fundamentally alter.


This doesn’t mean we’re back in a pre-Civil Rights mode of politics – more like an echo. Whites are now more likely to believe that they are part of a coherent group that is experiencing discrimination, which in their eyes legitimizes claims against out-groups such as Muslims, blacks and immigrants, Neuner said. Privilege is always precarious, but the more it is felt to be so, the more dangerous it threatens to become.

The second paper’s method involves using implicit racial rhetoric, code words that activate subconscious attitudes, such as inner city. the poor or urban core neighborhoods, in contrast to explicit racial references.

Across our four experiments we manipulate the language used to describe people and groups either implicitly, using such terms, or explicitly by referring to African-Americans directly, Neuner explained. After exposure to purported news articles including these manipulations, we ask respondents a host of questions about their support for various politicians (from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin) as well as support for policies such as the Affordable Care Act or other social programs. We then examine the effect of racial attitudes on those variables to see whether exposure to these different stories affects the relationship.

There’s an elegant simplicity to the approach, and to the results, as well. Previous work suggests a stronger relationship between racial attitudes when the story uses implicit language, Neuner said. But across four studies we find no difference: Racial attitudes are strongly linked to all dependent variables, irrespective of whether people were exposed to implicit or explicit rhetoric.

Together, these two demystify how and why Trump has succeeded much more than his critics expected, and make clear that there’s nothing special about him. They also catch a whole contingent of Never Trump conservatives and Republicans with their pants down, historically speaking. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere, and he didn’t dramatically change anything about American politics. He exposed something that had already happened.

The trend described by Enders and Scott, which has also been identified by other scholars, helps explain how partisan politics was able to become increasingly racialized, said Neuner. We agree that racial attitudes have increasingly become tied to partisan politics and that this is a trend that started before President Obama. We believe that this ‘sorting,’ whereby racial attitudes and other attitudes are more closely linked, enabled the rise in the acceptance of explicit appeals that we describe, he said.

The racial sorting such that most racially conservative whites now identify with the Republican Party while African-Americans identify with the Democratic Party has altered the calculus for political parties, Neuner added. This sorting means that Republicans no longer need to campaign for the votes of racial liberals and Democrats no longer need to appeal to racial conservatives, and thus there are fewer constraints on using explicit rhetoric.

It’s important to note that racial resentment is relatively constant in the public at large.But this increased homogenization of within-party views makes Republicans more comfortable with explicitly racist expressions. Hence the frequent excuse for Trump, He’s just saying what everyone thinks, and the distinct racial tinge to his promise to supporters: I will be your voice.

History may help us digest what these studies are saying. Trump’s dichotomized race talk, noted above, is nothing new in itself. Paternalistic love for selected exemplars – from good” and “obedient” slaves up to present-day black Trump supporters – has always played some role in elite racist discourse.

The stereotypical preamble, Some of my best friends are black, but… were how I first learned to spot well-mannered racists as a kid. The proud, defiant racists I sometimes saw on TV were few and far between among the people I met or observed firsthand growing up in Northern California. But there was plenty of plenty of de facto racism and discrimination close at hand, and the first demonstrations I ever went to, with my parents, were responses to it. Over the past 50 years, this sort of coded racism and professed ambivalence went together so frequently they could seem like one and the same thing – until now.

A watershed moment came with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington in 1963. As Taylor Branch pointed out on its 50th anniversary, George Wallace began that year proclaiming, Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, segregation forever, but ended it with a Trumpian denial that he’d never said any such thing:

By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing big government by pointy-headed bureaucrats, tyrannical judges, and tax, tax, spend, spend legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns. We have shaken the eyeteeth of every liberal in the country, he said.

Wallace’s rhetorical transformation – driven home by his presidential campaigns in 1964, 1968 and 1972 – set the tone for the emergence of a new racist discourse and ideology that many observers are still profoundly unwilling to label as such.  But whatever they called it, starting in the 1980s, social scientists tried to start conceptualizing and measuring it.

1998 paper examining and comparing the old and new racism explained: One factor that emerges consistently from the various definitions of symbolic or new racism is the emphasis on whites’ belief that blacks are unwilling to help themselves and are, therefore, undeserving of government assistance. Thus, whites who more or less agreed with George Wallace in spirit could claim they also agreed with King: Their problem wasn’t with blacks’ skin color, but with the content of their character – as defined by white perceptions built around the Protestant work ethic.

The American National Election Survey – the primary data source Enders and Scott draw on – began using a battery of four questions in 1988 to measure racial resentment, two examples of which are Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve and It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.

As the authors explain, the scale is “designed to capture feelings about how hard blacks try to get ahead in society and whether they receive too many favors from the government, and it is the key dependent variable in their analysis, Similarly, in 1985, the General Social Survey, which they also draw on for supporting data, began asking why people thought blacks, on average, had worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Was it mainly due to discrimination, or lack of access to education? Or was it because black people had less in-born ability to learn or lacked the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?

Such attitudes are not necessarily based on individual animus, but reflect a socially sanctioned worldview in which racist outcomes are naturalized, expected and rendered unproblematic. In such a worldview, it’s folks who are concerned, upset or outraged about racism who are the problem. As we’ve heard a great deal recently, they are the real racists because they notice that skin color matters, and they call attention to racism.

There have been long-standing debates over the relationship between new and old racism. But the continuity is undeniable in terms of key political actors like Wallace and late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, whom Enders and Scott describe as the Republican operative most famous for reinventing the ‘Southern strategy’ through the use of implicit, rather than explicit, racial cues. It’s worth repeating what Atwater told an interviewer in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Enders and Scott go on to discuss the “symbolic, abstract language and imagery” of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign (shaped by Atwater) and how it continued “during subsequent presidential campaigns that focused on crime and expanding welfare, denigrated the ‘liberal’ label, and made a case for the repeal of supposedly antiquated Civil Rights and affirmative action policies.”

The destruction of the policies this rhetoric was used to refer to – governmental services aimed at strengthening social safety nets and reducing the effects of racial discrimination – quickly became the centerpiece of the Republican Party platform. Thus, the new Southern strategy has, over the past 30 years, permeated all forms of political discourse, strategy, and behavior. …

[I]t is the cumulative impact of these racial cues over the past 29 years that has caused a racialization of political attitudes and predispositions. Thus, we posit that racial resentment has become increasingly tightly connected with other, previously non-racial political predispositions.

This is the legacy of Republican politics past that created an environment where Donald Trump could flourish, a legacy for which Never Trumpers and principled conservatives have yet to take responsibility.

Enders and Scott’s methodology can’t establish a causal connection between racial attitudes, on one hand, and ideology and party identification on the other. But given how much racially infused rhetoric there has been over such a long period of time, it’s a highly credible assumption:

Racial considerations became an increasingly important – perhaps, the most important – issue dimension along which the major parties restructured their policy positions and major coalitions during the Civil Rights era. It is the evolution” of racial issues that Carmines and Stimson (1989) [“Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics“] contend drove the party realignment of the 1960s, and that Hetherington and Weiler (2009) [“Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics“] assert contributed to the sorting of authoritarians and moral conservatives into the Republican Party over the course of subsequent decades.

In fact, Hetherington and Weiler use the term worldview evolution to underscore the similarity between their work and that of Carmines and Stimson. I asked Enders how the evolution of racial resentment fit together with them.

As Enders told me, it was “the sorting of people with disparate attitudes about different racial groups” that may in turn have fueled a process of “authoritarian sorting that made Donald Trump possible. These sorting processes may help explain the end of the subtler, coded political language of “racial priming,” which Trump seems to have realized was no longer necessary. But it makes no sense to claim that Trump caused that change; he perceived it and took advantage of it.

Our experiments (conducted in 2010 and 2012) clearly predate candidate Trump, Neuner said. Further, the growing impact of racial attitudes is smoothly increasing over time, not simply a phenomenon of the Obama or Trump administration. The partisan realignment and sorting of racially conservative individuals into one party allowed Trump’s rhetoric to be successful.

Neuner added another note of caution. It is not clear Trump figured this out before anyone else. His and others’ racially conservative rhetoric was constant, and prior to 2016 was mostly dismissed on the national stage. So he may simply have gotten lucky in terms of timing: His racist attitudes were no longer anathema.

A clearer understanding of how we got here is no doubt useful. I asked Neuner about the practical and strategic consequences of this research for progressives: Where do they go from here? It’s a “tough question,” he admitted.

Our research only shows that calling out racism no longer works. This may only be a temporary shift and the norm might swing back to where it was in the past. However, when our respondents were asked, “In general, how sensitive do you think most people are when talking about racial issues in public these days?”, 60 percent of respondents answered either “way too sensitive” or “slightly too sensitive,” compared to 13 percent answering “not quite sensitive enough” or “not nearly sensitive enough.” Any strategy aimed at combating these appeals thus first needs to change the perception [that] calling out racist speech in any way is just an overreaction.

Bipartisanship could help, he said. It seems like more trusted sources in the Republican Party will need to join the Democratic chorus proclaiming these types of appeals unacceptable in a diverse society such as ours.

There are already a few Republican outliers, like defeated 2012 candidate Mitt Romney and retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, but I’m not holding my breath. Trump appears so emboldened by these trends that his periodic expressions of love for the Dreamers have reached a level of cognitive dissonance almost without equal in our history. While those hundreds of thousands see their lives hang in the balance, millions more Americans are threatened with another consequence of this dynamic: the rebirth of welfare reform rhetoric, and the Republican hunger to destroy Medicaid and other vestiges of the social safety net.

Racism has always made governing easier by feeding irrational fears on the one hand, and irrational fantasies of superiority on the other. If the people can be rendered helpless enough as a result, then any fool can rule over them. Which is more or less our current situation. As we’ve just seen illustrated with DACA, Trump is actually terrible at making deals. His true talent lies in conning, bullshitting and gaslighting. Giving a new form to the resurgence of old-fashioned racism is the essence of his achievement. Undoing the damage he has already done or enabled will be far more difficult than understanding its roots. But such an understanding is a necessary starting point.

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Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Originally published by The Washington Post

On Sept. 16, 1920, at 12:01 pm – just as workers were starting to head out to lunch – a bomb went off outside the JP Morgan Bank at 23 Wall St. in New York City (the facade of which is still pockmarked from the event). Thirty-eight people died and hundreds more were injured in what was at the time the largest terrorist attack in American history, not surpassed until the Oklahoma City bombing by white nationalist Timothy McVeigh claimed 168 lives over seven decades later.

In the aftermath of the event, a consensus formed: immigrants did it.

That same anti-immigrant hysteria, in which immigrants were scapegoated for acts of terrorist violence, appeared again this month when President Trump touted a Department of Justice study claiming that immigrants are disproportionately responsible for terrorist attacks (a study whose methodology was immediately called into question). As the Wall Street bombing and its aftermath expose, however, scapegoating immigrants is a dangerous mistake - one that we must avoid repeating today.

The 1920 bombing came at a highly sensitive time in American history. The early 20th century saw a massive influx of immigrants into the United States, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. Largely Jewish and Catholic, these immigrants were seen as alien to what was then a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country. Many of them also subscribed to left-wing political ideologies that were seen as threats to the United States (especially after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia in 1917). This combination produced the kindling for a massive backlash.

The result was a Red Scare targeting largely left-wing immigrant activists.

In 1919 the Department of Justice (yes, the same agency that authored the above-mentioned study) launched the Palmer Raids, rounding up thousands of leftist political activists and deporting as many as possible back to their home countries. Following the Wall Street bombing, the DOJ’s Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of today’s FBI) charged a very young J. Edgar Hoover with investigating the attack, and the New York City Police Department formed a special unit to monitor radical elements in the city.

The extremity of this response led to the birth of the civil liberties movement – the ACLU was formed in 1920 largely to address this government crackdown on free speech and political activism.

Despite several investigations (the last one concluding in 1944), no culprit for the 1920 bombing was ever found. While suspicions lingered on immigrant activists, nothing definitively linked any specific individual or group to the bombing, which remains unsolved today.

That didn’t stop the bombing from fueling anti-immigrant hysteria, however. Writing in Good Housekeeping in 1921, Vice President Calvin Coolidge decried the threat posed by leftist immigrants to the United States, saying, There is no room for the alien who turns toward America with the avowed intention of opposing government. … His purpose is to tear down. There is no room for him here. He needs to be deported, not as a substitute for, but as a part of his punishment.

In 1924, Congress passed and President Coolidge signed the National Origins Act, which established a quota system that would be based on the 1890 census – before the mass arrival of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who would as a result largely be unable to enter the United States.

The tie between the terrorist attack and the restrictive immigration laws that followed reflected the way hysteria crowded out nuanced and reasoned thinking when it came to immigration and terrorism. Even The Washington Post sounded alarmist notes. An editorial published Sept. 20, 1920, described the Wall Street bombing as exemplifying the extent to which the alien scum from the cesspools and sewers of the Old World has polluted the clear spring of American democracy.

Some immigrants committed violent acts in the late 1910s and early 1920s, while some leftist immigrants undoubtedly wanted to see fundamental changes in the American political system. But the scale of these terrorist threats by a few bad actors never came close to justifying the wholesale exclusion of millions desperate for new lives.

As we confront these same questions today, we must ask ourselves how real the purported terrorist threat posed by immigrants to America is. Ignoring this question a century ago had tragic consequences.

As a direct result of the National Origins Act, America’s doors were closed both to Jews seeking to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany and to the millions of refugees displaced by World War II and the descent of the Iron Curtain that followed. It took a special executive order in 1945 by President Truman to give priority access to those displaced by the war. Although the new law benefited some (such as the Epsteins, a family of Holocaust survivors whose story is told in Under One Roof, a new exhibit at the Tenement Museum – where I serve as president) it did not go far enough. The executive order and the subsequent Displaced Persons and Refugee Act of 1948 only allowed the admission of 423,000 people – a fraction of the tens of millions displaced by the war – some of whom were forced to live in camps until the 1960s.

But today, we can learn from this history.

According to research by the libertarian Cato Institute, the annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist. Of the 3,252,493 refugees admitted from 1975 to the end of 2015, only 20 committed terrorist acts. In recent years (2008 to 2016), there were nearly twice as many incidents of native right-wing terrorism than terrorism caused by Islamic extremism. And of the 10 most deadly mass shootings in American history, nine were perpetrated by American born and raised shooters, seven of whom were white men.

Despite these facts, we hear no calls to ban white men from immigrating to the United States. Instead people demand to limit the number of Muslims and folks from shithole countries who enter the United States. When things go wrong in our society, we tend to scapegoat those who seem most foreign – those who worship differently than the majority of Americans do, those who come from new lands underrepresented among our current population, those who adhere to different political traditions. It seems to be easier to blame our problems on a foreign other rather than accept responsibility for our own role in creating them.

After all, there have already been 11 school shootings in the United States in 2018 – none perpetrated by immigrants – yet we hear no outcry about the threat posed by native-born Americans killing our children. Apparently we’d prefer to take on an imaginary, foreign threat than a real, domestic one.

But before we rush to shut our doors to people fleeing the horror that is Syria or send people back to conflict-ridden El Salvador, let’s make sure we are dealing with real facts, not imaginary foreign boogeymen, and let’s consider the possible consequences of so doing.

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Originally published by The Atlantic

The words of Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet The New Colossus have seemed more visible since Donald Trump’s election. They can be found on the news and on posters, in tweets and in the streets. Lines 10 and 11 of the poem are quoted with the most frequency-Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free-and often by those aiming to highlight a contrast between Lazarus’s humanitarian vision of the nation and the president’s racist rhetoric.

After reports that Trump had described Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as shithole countries, the former FBI director James Comey tweeted a bit of the sonnet, along with his interpretation of its meaning:

Several other public citations of Lazarus assume that her poem is reducible to a message about the value of diversity. Comey’s tweet echoes Nancy Pelosi’s interpretation from early 2017: You know the rest. It’s a statement of values of our country. It’s a recognition that the strength of our country is in its diversity, that the revitalization … of America comes from our immigrant population. For Comey, diversity is greatness. For Pelosi, diversity is both the existing strength of America and its source of revitalization. To marshal Lazarus’s poem in support of a redefinition of American greatness, however, is to capitulate to the terms of Trump’s exceptionalism-and to ignore the poem’s own radical imagination of hospitality.

A little like Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, published in 1916, The New Colossus is one of those poems that is constantly rediscovered and recontextualized. Whether the popularity of The New Colossus is a consequence of the poem’s timelessness, its curious forgettability, or its schmaltzy sincerity, writers, readers, and politicians resurrect Lazarus’s sonnet to speak directly to a present moment in which anti-black racism, xenophobia, immigration bans, and refugee crises define the terms of U.S. and European political discourse.

The story of the poem’s creation has circulated almost as widely as the lines of Lazarus’s poem. The Jewish Lazarus was a prolific writer in multiple genres, a political activist, a translator, and an associate of late-19th-century literati-from Ralph Waldo Emerson to James Russell Lowell. She wrote the sonnet, after some persuasion by friends, for an auction to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But the details of the poem’s production and of its author’s biography do not fully capture the conditions under which the poem emerged, conditions that help to explain the poem’s message to its immiserated masses.

The New Colossus emerges at a pivotal moment in history. The year before Lazarus’s poem was read at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York, in 1883, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first federal law that limited immigration from a particular group. Though set to last for 10 years, various extensions and additions made the law permanent until 1943. The year after Lazarus’s poem was read, the European countries met in Berlin to divide up the African continent into colonies. The New Colossus stands at the intersection of U.S. immigration policy and European colonialism, well before the physical Statue of Liberty was dedicated. The liberal sentiments of Lazarus’s sonnet cannot be separated from these developments in geopolitics and capitalism.

The poem’s peculiar power comes not only from its themes of hospitality, but also from the Italian sonnet form that contains them. A Petrarchan sonnet is an awkward vehicle for defenses of American greatness. Historically, the epic poem has been the type of poetry best suited to nationalist projects, since its narrative establishes a storied pomp in literature that has yet to exist in the world. The sonnet, in contrast, is a flexible, traveling form, one that moved from Italy to England. It is more at home in the conversations, translations, and negotiations between national literatures than in the creation or renewal of national eminence.

U.S. poets across the 20th century, from Claude McKay to Gwendolyn Brooks to Jack Agüeros have turned to the sonnet for a critique of American greatness, rather than a liberal redefinition of it. These poets, in sonnets such as McKay’s The White City, Brooks’s A Lovely Love, and Agüeros’s Sonnets From the Puerto Rican, expose that greatness as being predicated on the slavery, denigration, and exploitation of colonial, African American, and Latinx subjects. This difficult, high literary form, ostensibly the property of a white European elite, has become one of the available tools to take apart the racism of society and the ravages of a global economy. To place Lazarus in that lineage is to see her poem as something more than a competing vision of American greatness, as Comey and others would have it.

The poem’s peculiar power comes not only from its themes of hospitality, but also from the Italian sonnet form that contains them. A Petrarchan sonnet is an awkward vehicle for defenses of American greatness. Historically, the epic poem has been the type of poetry best suited to nationalist projects, since its narrative establishes a storied pomp in literature that has yet to exist in the world. The sonnet, in contrast, is a flexible, traveling form, one that moved from Italy to England. It is more at home in the conversations, translations, and negotiations between national literatures than in the creation or renewal of national eminence.

U.S. poets across the 20th century, from Claude McKay to Gwendolyn Brooks to Jack Agüeros have turned to the sonnet for a critique of American greatness, rather than a liberal redefinition of it. These poets, in sonnets such as McKay’s The White City, Brooks’s A Lovely Love, and Agüeros’s Sonnets From the Puerto Rican, expose that greatness as being predicated on the slavery, denigration, and exploitation of colonial, African American, and Latinx subjects. This difficult, high literary form, ostensibly the property of a white European elite, has become one of the available tools to take apart the racism of society and the ravages of a global economy. To place Lazarus in that lineage is to see her poem as something more than a competing vision of American greatness, as Comey and others would have it.

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of Why am I being hurt? accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: We are here because you were there. The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s Why am I being hurt that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

The cry of the tired, poor, and huddled heard by Lazarus’s poem is manifest today within the poetry written and recited by women exiles, freedom fighters, imprisoned activists, and detainees. A Female Cry, by the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, asserts the right, not to resources, but to something more than an accommodation by the existing system. Here are the final two stanzas of the poem:

O my dream, kidnapped from my younger years

Silence has ravaged us

Our tears have become a sea

Our patience has bored of us

Together, we rise up for sure

Whatever it was we wanted to be.

So let’s go

Raise up a cry

In the face of those shadowy ghosts.

For how long, O fire within,

Will you scorch my breast with tears?

And how long, O scream,

Will you remain in the hearts of women!

Tatour demands more than patience and tears, of which she has more than enough; she calls for an uprising on behalf of whatever it was we wanted to be. Tatour’s addresses-to dream, fire, and scream-are the addresses of the genuinely tired, poor, and huddled (as well as detained and imprisoned) rather than those of the model liberal subject. The colossal cry has burst its sonnet’s narrow cell: It appears as one possible form in which the poetry of a global uprising anticipates and prefigures the moment of revolution itself.

Pelosi and Comey, however distinct they are as political figures, quote Lazarus to support a liberal narrative of American exceptionalism, based on multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion. Yet the collective, immiserated masses invited and welcomed by these lines are tired, poor, and huddled-and at odds with the empowered, individualized hard worker that Comey and othersreproduce as the ideal image of the immigrant.

It is not that people shouldn’t be acknowledged for their hard work, of course; it’s just that that shouldn’t be the most relevant criterion for the performance of political and economic justice. The language of diversity and inclusion has become one of the prominent means by which the nation currently manages its political and economic crises by seizing the power of moving bodies as human capital. If the justification for managing borders relies entirely on the recitation of liberal values-however necessary it may be to continue to affirm them in the midst of their relentless negation-there is no guarantee that liberty will be fully realized.

Lazarus’s poem begins by repudiating the greatness to which Comey summons the poem as witness. It continues with a denial of nationalist narratives that are based on historical claims of ancient possession: Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!

What might be more important than the values that the New Colossus speaks-ethical claims to rights, liberty, and hospitality that, despite their reiteration, have hardly succeeded in preventing the worst violence of the late 19th and 20th centuries-is the silence that the poem refuses. And to hear this silence is to read the poem’s sonnet as voicing a cry that those who passionately recite its words, from Pelosi to Comey, as well as those who violently deny them, might well train themselves to hear.

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