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Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Crossing in Droves

Posted on Saturday, November 28, 2015 by Shelley Cowan

As I watched the fear generated by the attacks in Paris morph into fear of Syrian refugees in America, I was curious to know more about Americans’ reactions to immigration over the years.

When did it begin? At what point were there so many new arrivals that the Mayflower folks couldn't help but notice? Maybe in 1640, when English immigrants in the Massachusetts Bay area numbered 20,000, up from zero in just twenty years. Certainly by the 1670s, when the population hit 70,000.

It would have been obvious. People were crossing the ocean in droves.

Moving in droves is an Old English expression. It stems from the word “drive,” and originally carried a specific reference: a multitude of animals or people moving forward together as the result of a force from behind.

At least some of those already in the 'new world' were not happy about the droves. In 1656, the New England colonies (except Rhode Island) passed or tried to pass laws preventing Quakers and “their accursed tenets” from immigrating. Laws in Massachusetts barred the lame, impotent and infirm from entering the colony.

As droves from Holland, Sweden and Germany followed, one’s nationality offered still another reason to be excluded. in 1717, Pennsylvania enacted a requirement that German immigrants pledge an oath of allegiance. 

The 1790 Alien Naturalization Art defined the nation's first rules of citizenship, excluding all but "free white persons." Indentured servants, slaves and most women were among those excluded from voting and other benefits of citizenship.

In 1837, the Supreme Court declared New York’s precautionary measures against the moral pestilence of paupers, vagabonds and possible convicts to be legal.

1849 saw the founding of the Know Nothing political party, formed to put legislative muscle behind the 1830s Nativist Movement, in part a reaction to Irish Catholics who "threatened America’s founding Protestant values."

Fear and suspicion aside, a nation rich in land required many hands to work it. The story of Chinese immigration provides a great example of how our laws were written and rewritten to accommodate the needs of a dynamic economy.

1862 President Lincoln signed an act to prohibit the forced shipment of Chinese laborers – Coolies – but left the door open to Chinese who came voluntarily. The 1868 Burlingame Treaty welcomed Chinese immigration. The Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, was built largely by Chinese labor.

By the 1880s, an economic depression gripped the West coast. Chinese immigrants were blamed. After protests in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, the Burlingame Treaty suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers. Immigration ceased altogether with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to prohibit a specific group from immigrating to the United States.

Chinese immigration was in the news again in 1898, when the Supreme Court ruled San Franciscan-born Wong Kim Ark a U. S. citizen by virtue of the 14th Amendment, even though his parents, also living in San Francisco, were subjects of the Emperor of China.

There were humanitarian responses to immigration as well. The Emma Lazarus sonnet, The New Colossus, ("Give me your tired, your poor") may not have represented everyone. But along with the statue it adorns, the words endure as a symbol of American culture. 

By the 1920s, hundreds of immigrant settlement houses dotted the country. And countless families still tell stories of small kindnesses that made their immigrant relatives feel welcomed, and become American.

And so it goes.

This past week we heard people say that even orphaned Syrian children should be prohibited. People who were appalled by these statements possibly found comfort from those who answered, “That’s not who we are as Americans."

But history says this sort of is who we are as Americans. It’s just not who all of us are, and not all of the time.

Immigrants come to the United States for many reasons. But over the years, vast numbers have come seeking refuge from poverty, lack of opportunity, persecution, terror and war. 

These are the immigrants who come in droves. Driven. Moving forward together because of a force from behind.

Clearly these thoughts do not address the hundred of thousands of Africans whose 'drove status' had nothing to do with choice, or the Americans whose families lived here for millennia before being ‘discovered’ by Europeans.