Immigrants and Refugees
Immigrants and Refugees
Immigrants and refugees have been the subject of discussion, debate, division, disdain and empathy in ever changing proportions. And of course they have been the objects of much political fodder. This has been especially true in the United States, perhaps in part because the US has a much larger percentage of immigrants than most other countries.
The terms immigrant and refugee are often used almost interchangeably. The dictionary reminds us that an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up usually permanent residence while a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. It seems a clear distinction - the refugee is forced to move while for the immigrant it is a voluntary decision. It also implies that the refugee hopes to return while the immigrant does not. In the real world the distinction is not so clear cut and the areas of gray are wide and deep.
Lets start at the beginning. The US likes to say it is a nation of immigrants We don't say we are a nation of refugees. But consider our origins. Among the earliest Europeans to settle in what would become the US were the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Many were members of the English Separatist Church (a radical faction of Puritanism) who sometimes referred to themselves as “saints” or “pilgrimes.” They were immigrants in that they planned to stay in America but they saw themselves as persecuted for their religion in England by the Church of England and were ostracized during their stay in Holland. As we all learned in grade school the pilgrims came for religious freedom which in the best American tradition they denied to subsequent settlers in Massachusetts. So immigrants in that they decided voluntarily to move to America but refugees who were fleeing perceived persecution.
The US was populated by waves of immigrants/refugees. One cohort was characterized as poor and disease-ridden; as taking jobs away from Americans and straining welfare budgets; as practicing an alien religion and bringing crime including being accused of being rapists. Who were these undesirables - Mexicans, Muslims? No, Irish who were fleeing the potato famine and British oppression. It is estimated that more than 4 million Irish immigrated to the US, many destitute, illiterate and lacking employable skills. The British were so eager to get rid of them that they sometimes paid their passage to America. Needless to say they were not welcomed by the "real" Americans who had previously settled here. While most were immigrants in that they remained in America for life, many at least initially aspired to return home to Ireland and given the conditions they fled are usually referred to as refugees especially if they came during the famine in the 1840's and 50's.
By the 1880's a new wave of immigrants came, this time from Italy. By then many of the Irish were being accepted as Americans but the Italians raised new concerns because they were widely viewed as not being white, a claim bolstered by psuedo-science of the time declaring the inferiority of "Mediterranean" people. This hostility turned to violence with Italians targeted for lynching, most notoriously when 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans on March 14,1891.
The list of immigrants to the US who were vilified, discriminated against and often targets of violence is long and on-going. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, the Jews targeted by the KKK and most egregiously those fleeing Nazi Germany who were turned away at US ports to recent Muslim bans the pattern has repeated. Or as Tariq Ali put it "History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away."
Refugees do not have to come from another country. Perhaps the first climate refugees in the US were the "Okies" and others who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930's and in keeping with the American tradition California set up border stations to stop the influx of desperate people into the state. Using the California Indigent Act of 1933 which made it a crime to bring indigent people into the state some sheriffs set up the "Bum Blockade" to keep refugees out. This ultimately led to a Supreme Court case declaring the actions illegal.
The Dust Bowl migration is often designated as the largest internal migration in US history involving as estimated 2.5 million people. This ignores the 6 million Black people who fled the American south from 1910 to 1970 to escape lynching, Jim Crow laws and economic subjugation in what is termed the Great Migration.
Curiously while the people fleeing the Dust Bowl are routinely referred to as refugees, Blacks fleeing the south almost never are. Perhaps this is a not so subtle way of suggesting that the mostly white "Okies" deserved support while the Blacks did not. Labels make a difference.
So refugees or migrants? How do we characterize people who fled hurricane Katrina, or the Western wildfires? Are the women fleeing states where abortion is now illegal refugees?
When it comes to immigrants and refugees is anything different now? One thing that has changed is that currently about 90% of immigrants, even documented ones, are not white. Despite the initial disdain for Irish and Italian immigrants as well as those from Germany, Poland and the rest of Europe and despite efforts to paint them as non-white, they in fact looked much like the Europeans who had proceed them so that they increasingly tended to blend in and found acceptance. But as we have seen with Black Americans, people of color have a much harder path to acceptance.
It seems we are a nation of immigrants who do not much like immigrants. The cognitive dissidence aside, perhaps that is because despite all the bravado about American Exceptionalism we see something dark in our national psyche from the unending violence of forever wars and our fixation with guns to the unrelenting greed of our economic system. What is truly exceptional is the temple of individualism that wave after wave of immigrants has built at the expense of the common good, of community and of the nation.
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