U.S. Immigration: A Sordid History

(Photo: Casa San Jose’s Facebook)


By Linda Nordquist

In response to the zero-tolerance immigration policy that resulted in the separation of infants, toddlers, and children from their mothers and fathers, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D, Md) railed against “child internment camps…indefinitely locking away children from public view.” He bellowed: “We are better than this.”

U.S. history speaks otherwise. The tale of U.S. policies toward people of color, minority religions, people fleeing genocide in their home country, facing genocide in their American homeland or brought to these shores against their will – well, that history is sordid.


In 1619 the first kidnapped terrified Africans arrived in colonial America. Their numbers soon grew to 600,000. Those that survived the voyage were sold off; children sold to one buyer, mothers to another. At the time of the Civil War there were five million slave families living under the threat or reality of beatings, rape, or separation by sale. U.S. laws staunchly supported the institution of slavery, epitomized in the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision. References to the bible were called upon as justification.

The legacy of slavery crippled American society. The racism it engendered flows through many of the population’s veins, leaving divisions in the populace where unity is needed. Racism afflicts African-American families; police shoot down innocent black men and children in the streets; others find their lives in flames as they sit in prison for minor drug offenses, trumped up criminal charges, or forced deal making.


The U.S. government, with the support of religious groups, created Indian residential schools during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Those Indians who escaped death from diseases introduced by European invaders, relentless war, loss of land and livelihood, and forced containment on reservations watched helplessly as their children were taken from them and placed in boarding schools miles away. The purpose was to annihilate Indian culture and compel assimilation in U.S. Anglo way of life. Tribal languages, traditions and spiritual practices were banned, replaced by Christianity, Anglo foods, European clothing, English language, disease caused by poor food and filthy conditions, sexual abuse by pedophiles in charge, child labor, cruel punishments and death.

The results of this systematic attack on a people of color and their way of life is rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, domestic violence – all the signs of a societal and familial collapse. Despite this, many leave the reservation and succeed, others remain trapped – all confront racism in their daily lives.


In May, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis carrying 936 desperate Jewish people seeking asylum from Nazi Germany neared the Florida coast. It was encircled by Coast Guard boats. President Roosevelt denied entry and the ship returned to Europe, dispersing the passengers to different European countries. Over one-third of those passengers were slaughtered during the Nazi occupation. (one third of whom? The 936, or the total population? I read on the Holocausts Encyclopedia that just over half of the passengers survived the Holocaust)

In the same year, the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have allowed entry to 20,000 Jewish children under the age of 14 from Nazi Germany never made it out of a Congressional committee. Pollsters found that 53 percent interviewed agreed: “Jews are different and should be restricted.” Between 1933 and 1945 the U.S. took in 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law.

The instability wrought by the Great Depression, high unemployment, the thunderous roar of nativist nationalism led by Fr. Coughlin, rampant American anti-Semitism, and an overwhelming desire to stay out of another international conflict resulted in denial of asylum to millions facing certain death.


After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Japanese families were rounded up and marched off to Federal internment camps. Sixty-two percent were U.S. citizens. It has long been recognized that they represented no security risk. The policy resulted from racism. Americans with a mere 1/16 of Japanese ancestry and orphaned babies who were believed to have a drop of Japanese blood were interned in the camps.


Climate change (drought, floods) and war have rendered some parts of the world uninhabitable. Mass migrations of families seeking food, water, and life are on the move and will grow.

But migration from Central America begins with land ownership (2% of the people own 98% of the land), CIA-initiated civil wars on behalf of United Fruit against peasant land reform demands, poverty, decades of U.S.-supported corrupt dictatorships, mass deportations of gangs from the U.S. and the resultant downward spiral of social disintegration: crime (murder rates are unmatched in the world), brutal violence, chronic abuse of women, forced displacement of families.

Desperate women, wanting to save their children, hop a train, ride the roof-top for days and nights, seek asylum in the U.S.A. only to lose their children to ICE and be booted out.

This is our Democratic-Republican history, Mr. Cummings. We need our own political party, one with a moral compass that eschews the greed of the rich. One that represents working people.

Linda Nordquist is a writer, clinical social worker, and septuagenarian rabble rouser.


Categories: History, Immigrant Rights, News

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