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Past & Present: A Nation of Immigrants

The familiar verse “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” from Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The New Colossus” affirms many Americans’ belief that the United States is a nation of immigrants.

While the colonies and the United States did welcome in and absorb millions of immigrants, Americans also have a history of rejecting and restricting immigrants and their native-born children from the full benefits of citizenship out of fear that these newer arrivals will stear the nation and the American character away from a mythologized, essential purity.

In response to the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt reflected this darker side of Americans by issuing Executive Order 9066. This order designated certain areas as military zones and paved the way for the deportation and internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Beginning in March 1942, the United States interned 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, more than 62 percent of who were citizens. Internment meant involuntarily leaving homes, businesses, communities, and careers to be confined in stark, makeshift and overcrowded camps.

The stated purpose of this order was to safeguard the West Coast from Japanese invasion. However, the inequity between the sweeping application in the continental western states and the more limited application in the territorial Hawaiian Islands alludes to a more insidious racist agenda, fueled by wartime panic that rested on long-held skepticism of Asian immigrants’ capacity to be Americans.

In hindsight it is easy to look back and judge, declare “never again,” and decide that we would have done differently or are better now. It is far harder to stand up against closing off the nation and its promises of freedom and opportunity to the most vulnerable of the world’s citizens. But to stand up to bigotry and prejudice and instead “lift [our] lamp beside the golden door” might just be the most American thing we can do.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.