The United States calls itself a country of immigrants, a place where anyone can come and fulfill their dreams if they just work hard enough.
I have been in the USA almost 30 years. Twice as long as I lived in my homeland, Ecuador. My heart is always torn because I love both countries and I am, as we say in Spanish: “Ni de aqui, ni de alla.”
I’m one of the “lucky” immigrants. I came by choice leaving a wonderful life behind. I had proper documents, and I had all the resources to make a good life here. And when I was ready, I went through the process of applying for a green card and eventually citizenship.
But that still does not mean it was easy.
Even though I followed the procedure outlined by the law, I was still mistreated at immigration offices; I had to scrape savings to pay the fees, sometimes twice when the government made a mistake and I had to start over; and it took much frustration and heartache to get there.
Most people don’t realize just how complicated, expensive, and prohibiting it is to immigrate to the United States legally.
To that we add the fact that our immigration and naturalization laws and regulations have marginalized certain groups from the beginning, making it harder for people from certain countries or who look a certain way to fulfill that “American dream.” History shows that the idea that the USA is a welcoming heaven for anyone is merely a myth.
Since 1783 more than 86 million people have entered the United States, according to a report from August 2021 by the CATO Institute.
During colonial time and the early years of this nation, those who were poor or of a certain race, were denied citizenship. In 1790 citizenship would be liberally extended but only to free white immigrants of good moral character, who had lived here for at least two years. It will be another hundred years before Black folks were given the same opportunity.
In the late 1870’s the first exclusionary laws were passed banning criminals, prostitutes, and Chinese laborers from entering the country, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903, the Immigration Act of 1907 (which prohibited “imbeciles” and “feeble-minded” persons from coming into the country) and The Immigration Act of 1917, which prohibited entry from several nations in the Asia-Pacific triangle.
Starting in 1915 newly arrived immigrants processed through Ellis Island had to pass physical and mental tests to be admitted. The testing resulted from the growing eugenics movement that shaped U.S. immigration policy of the time. It intended to avoid the introduction of the “wrong” gene into the general population. Anyone deemed “unfit” to live in this country by these tests was sent home without even leaving the depot.
Even in times of dire human tragedy, the USA has shown a reluctance to accept the immigrant. During the Evian conference of 1938 when 32 countries met in France to discuss the fate of the German Jews who still needed refuge, the USA refused to expand their German/Austrian immigration quotes to more than 20,000 even though they had more than 125,000 applications.
Quotas were another way in which immigrants were turned away. From 1921 until 1965, the national-origins quota system could legally discriminate immigrants by race, ancestry, or national origin, givingWestern Hemisphere countries preference over the rest of the world.
Modern times have seen US immigration and naturalization laws continue a pattern of discrimination against certain ethnic groups. In 2020 the Supreme Court upheld a rule that would deny permanent/resident status to any legal immigrant who could be deemed as “public charge” because they had or may receive public assistance such as Medicaid or Social Security.
While a country has a right to manage its immigration to not overrun its native population and overtax its resources, our immigration policies have been and continue to be discriminatory against certain nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, etc. attempting to create a system in which only the “best” of humanity is welcome.
This attitude is in stark contrast to popular claims that we are a Christian country, a country whose symbol to the world, Lady Liberty, exclaims: ‘Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” And one that stands in conflict to what Scripture teaches us about welcoming the stranger and those in need.
When Mary and Joseph were in desperate need of refuge, of a place to land, of safety, they were told there was “no room at the inn” for them. It seems that throughout history, the USA has been telling the same thing to some who arrive at its shores in dire need.
By Gabriela Buitrón