The desperation and hopelessness of the dying Irish is heartbreaking, the more so because the famine was largely man-made, the result of misgovernance by Ireland’s British overlords. In contrast, the new Americans step confidently into the future. But the father’s face expresses deep sadness, for he has abandoned friends and family to their fate, and reluctantly accepted the bitter truth that an uncertain future is better than certain death. The mother looks back in pity at those they have left behind, but doesn’t hesitate as she matches her husband stride for stride. Only the boy, leading the way, is innocent of the tragedy.
Such is the fate of the immigrant, and one would have to have a heart of stone and ice-cold blood in his veins not to feel sympathy for these people. Classical Greece’s glory is its art and philosophy; Rome’s, its architecture, engineering and law; and, if future historians should ever write of the once-great nation known as the United States, our glory will be that we gave hope, opportunity and freedom to more of mankind than any other nation had ever dreamed of doing. Perhaps that will redeem us from our sins; perhaps not. Either way, we should be proud of the accomplishment.
But that’s not the whole story. The destitute Irish, Italians, East European Jews, Chinese and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” of dozens of other nations weren’t welcomed with open arms; they were tolerated, and often just barely. A few generations later, in the 1920s, their descendants joined the descendants of earlier immigrants in growing so alarmed at the number of people flooding into the country that they demanded a halt. Immigration (at least legal immigration) nearly stopped for over 40 years. That crackdown has often been criticized as an exercise in racist xenophobia.
It was that ugly and shameful in part, but only in part. Far more important was the recognition of the legitimate problem that, at some unknowable point, immigration becomes invasion that destroys rather than creates. America has more than enough history of its own to prove the point. Just ask the Native Americans, who were pushed out of the way and all but annihilated by immigrant/invading Europeans. Ask the Mexicans, who invited a few Americans to settle in Texas in the 1820s and wound up losing half their country to the gringos in 1848. Ask the Hawaiians, who found themselves annexed into the U.S. in 1898 in what amounted to a corporate coup. Furthermore, history proves beyond any doubt that this isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.
It’s easy and correct to criticize America’s crackdown on immigration in the 1920s as a gross overreaction with reprehensible racist elements. It would be foolish, though, to draw the conclusion that it would be better policy to open the gates to all comers, or, even better, to tear down the gates. No, we no longer have an empty continent to fill, or booming factories in need of strong backs, weak minds optional. Circumstances dictate, and it’s simply common sense, that we welcome the immigrants we want to come, on terms that we ourselves determine to be in our best interest.
That leaves plenty of room for compassion — if we will accept the reality that we can’t solve all the world’s problems. It doesn’t have to close the gates — it means we have to have wide gates in strong walls, metaphorical or otherwise, and be willing to close them when we must. It doesn’t have to impose racial, national or religious quotas — and for the left-wing radicals who scream that’s a vicious, bigoted, racist, white-elitist lie, all I can suggest is that you calm down a bit, start negotiating, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Control doesn’t mean prohibition. It does mean having to decide what’s best for the continuing creation of a great and good America, and doing it firmly, fairly and consistently.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.