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Ellis Island Era Immigration Summary & Analysis

"Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor..."

Emma Lazarus is not usually considered to be one of the great figures of nineteenth-century American literature, but her 1882 poem "The New Colossus" must rank among the most famous verses in American history. The poem, which Lazarus wrote in 1882 in celebration of the construction of the Statue of Liberty, has become the ultimate expression of America's self-image as a welcoming "nation of immigrants." Through her poem, Lazarus transformed the Statue of Liberty—built by the French to commemorate shared Franco-American ideals of democracy—into a beacon of hope for foreigners seeking a better life in the United States. "Give me your tired, your poor," says Lady Liberty in Lazarus's poem, "your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The blazing torch of the Statue of Liberty—the lamp beside the golden door—eventually showed the way for more than 16 million immigrants as they steamed into New York Harbor, bound for arrival at the famous immigration station on nearby Ellis Island. In 1903, Emma Lazarus's poem, which had done so much to define the Statue of Liberty's meaning in American culture, was inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the pedestal of the statue itself. The poem remains today a powerful credo for those who celebrate America's past and present role as the world's foremost destination for immigrants.

But Emma Lazarus's vision of the United States as a welcoming refuge for the world's poor and oppressed has always been countered by a powerful opposing strain in American thought: nativism. For as long as America has welcomed immigrants, it has also bred nativists, citizens who fear that large influxes of foreigners will corrupt American culture, undermine American democracy, and impoverish American workers.

"Is It Well to Leave the Gates Unguarded?"

Thomas Bailey Aldrich was a nineteenth-century American writer who has been mostly forgotten today, but in his own time, he enjoyed a much greater reputation and readership than did Emma Lazarus. (Mark Twain was a great admirer of Aldrich and even claimed to have modeled Tom Sawyer after the eponymous hero of Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy; with typical wit, Twain once declared of Aldrich that "he was always brilliant, he will always be brilliant, he will be brilliant in hell—you will see.")14 In 1895, Aldrich published "Unguarded Gates," a poem that can be read as a kind of nativist riposte to Emma Lazarus's "New Colossus," right down to the Statue of Liberty imagery:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates
And through them presses a wild motley throng
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav
Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws
In street and alley what strange tongues are loud
Accents of menace alien to our air
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?

Unlike Emma Lazarus, Thomas Bailey Aldrich isn't often quoted in American civics textbooks (and you certainly won't find his words carved in bronze anywhere on Liberty Island). Aldrich's poem may strike modern readers as embarrassingly xenophobic, if not downright racist. But "Unguarded Gates" represents a strain of American thought on immigration with roots every bit as deep as the open-door ideals of "The New Colossus."

American Immigration, American Nativism

Throughout our history, many citizens of this "nation of immigrants" have, like Thomas Bailey Aldrich, harbored deep doubts and fears about the impacts imposed on American society by foreign-born newcomers to the country. As early as 1753—more than 20 years before the American Revolution—Benjamin Franklin worried that heavy German immigration into Pennsylvania would leave the English colonists there unable to preserve their language or government. In the early years of the American Republic, the Federalist Party of George Washington and John Adams passed the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts in order to limit immigrants' potentially destabilizing influence in American politics. For a brief moment in the 1850s, it seemed likely that anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, rather than antislavery Republicans, would become the Democrats' main rivals within America's two-party political system. The anti-immigrant politics of nativism have always been a potent force in American life.

Before 1882, however, the politics of nativism in America never translated into a general government policy of exclusion. Through the entire colonial era and the first century of the American Republic, free and open immigration remained the basic law of the land. The First Congress guaranteed the rights of immigration and naturalization to "free white persons," and, despite frequent upwellings of nativist sentiment, the millions of immigrants who came to the United States before 1882—hailing mostly but not exclusively from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany—arrived to find the gates, as Aldrich said, essentially unguarded.

The Principle of Exclusion

In 1882—ironically the very year that Emma Lazarus penned "The New Colossus"—everything changed. Congress, responding to demands from white workingmen in California to limit competition for jobs from low-wage Chinese "coolie" laborers, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. For the first time in American history, an entire class of people—all Chinese nationals—was barred from migrating to the United States or obtaining American citizenship.

Chinese Exclusion was rooted in the very specific circumstances of racial acrimony and class conflict that roiled California during the brutal economic depression of the 1870s. But the Chinese Exclusion Act established a general principle—"undesirable" classes of immigrants could and should be prevented from entering the United States or gaining American citizenship—that quickly spread far beyond California's Chinese community. That principle of exclusion, and the huge federal bureaucratic apparatus that soon grew up to enforce it, stood at the heart of American immigration policy from 1882 until at least 1965, if not indeed to the present day.

Within just months of passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress passed additional legislation adding new classes of foreigners to the ranks of those categorically barred from entry. The Immigration Act of 1882 prohibited the admission of "lunatics," "idiots," and anyone federal agents deemed "unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge"—in other words, anyone lacking a steady income. Over subsequent years and decades, the classes of potential immigrants barred from coming to America steadily grew. By the time the era of exclusion peaked in the 1920s, would-be immigrants could be blocked for undesirable individual traits (disease or disability, past criminal activity, political radicalism) or, more commonly, merely for being born into the wrong class ("paupers" and those "likely to become a public charge"), gender (unmarried women, usually excluded as potential prostitutes or welfare cases), or nationality (virtually all Asians and the vast majority of Eastern and Southern Europeans). The federal government maintained huge immigration stations on both coasts, efficiently sorting out inadmissible deportees from legal entrants. The gates were no longer unguarded.

The Unexcluded

While the immigration politics of Thomas Bailey Aldrich seemingly eclipsed those of Emma Lazarus during the era of exclusion, immigration to the United States did not simply cease with the imposition of more restrictive policies. To the contrary, the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth witnessed the greatest surge of immigration in American history proportional to the overall population at the time. Despite all the obstacles thrown in their path, nearly 25 million people entered America through "the golden door" during this period. The proportion of the American population born abroad has never been higher than it was in 1910, when the Census found that 14.7% of the nation's residents had been born in another country.

In the end, the era of exclusion was also, paradoxically, the third of the four great eras of immigration in American history. (The first two, which occurred at the very end of the colonial period and in the middle years of the nineteenth century, get the Shmoop treatment in Immigration Part I; the fourth, which began in 1965 and continues to the present, is covered in Immigration Part III.) The millions of immigrants who arrived on these shores between 1882 and 1965 (with a heavy concentration of those landing before 1930) transformed American society even as they were transformed by it. Emma Lazarus seemingly got the last word.

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