Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These timeless words from Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus are etched into both my passport and the base of New York City’s Statue of Liberty. The monument was constructed in 1885 following America’s then largest period of immigration. Until this time, immigration in the U.S. was dealt with at the state level, meaning that while there were some states which may have placed restrictions on those traveling from certain countries or from certain ethnic backgrounds (i.e. Chinese Exclusion Act in California), there were other ports of entry open to almost anyone. Still, most of these immigrants came from the more industrial Northern and Western Europe meaning that they not only carried some wealth, but also that physically they looked similar to the existing American populous and had a common protestant faith. Even the poor and Catholic Irish immigrants who came in the millions following the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s were allowed into the country with few restrictions due to their familiar language and ethnicity.
Following a global depression in the late 1880s, however, immigration in America changed dramatically. Not only did these ‘new immigrants’ come in numbers nearly three times as high as the decade before, but they hailed primarily from Southern and Eastern European countries, meaning as well as being Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish, they also both looked and sounded very different from previous immigrant groups. Understandably, this new wave of immigration must have been quite a shock to the rather homogenous east coast American cities where they landed. So, perhaps to no surprise it was in 1890, only five years after the Statue of Liberty was erected to beckon immigrants, that the U.S. federal government seized control of immigration and began to place universal restrictions and quotas on certain groups deemed undesirable or ‘alien’. And, somewhat ironically, the government decided to make the country’s main port of entry the tiny ‘Ellis Island’ which sits in Manhattan Harbor quite literally in the shadow of the colossal Statue of Liberty.
From that point on, America found itself stuck paradoxically between its ideological identity as a bountiful melting pot and its reality as a state of de jure exclusion. I’m personally interested in this topic because my all of my grandparents witnessed it first-hand but in very different ways. While my father’s side were Italians who were only allowed into the country in the 1910s after denouncing the Catholic Church, my mother’s family were protestant Ulster Scots who in all likelihood probably hated Italians. This story of American immigration is alive and well today as still there are many who are denied at the southern border for their nationality or halted at the airport for practicing Islam. In fact, I have witnessed this cultural clash so many times at home that I sometimes do not notice it.
A few years ago I did witness this transnational migration in a way that was so visceral it is not burned into my memory. I was 16 and was on a visit to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. I had expected that Lewiston, like many places in Maine, would be overwhelmingly poor and white in population and snowy and postindustrial in aesthetics. For this reason I was surprised to encounter a group of black women brandishing baskets and what looked like African garb drudging up a hill through the snow. If I had seen the same thing in a place as notably cosmopolitan as New York City I would not have batted an eye, but it seemed odd to walk past a group of people who seemed so out of place in such an isolated town. It was only after speaking with a professor at the university campus that I learned that the women were part of a group of over 12,000 Bantu Somali immigrants who moved to the city at the turn of the 21st century. Though this group had been first relocated by the U.S. Government from Somalia to Clarkston, Georgia, there they were housed in only low-rent and poverty-stricken inner city neighborhoods. Somehow taking notice of Lewiston, which had good and affordable housing due to underpopulation from deindustrialization, over 12,000 Bantu immigrants flocked there and were followed by other members of the Somali diaspora.
Like many immigrants, the Somalis were not met with open arms and in 2002, Lewiston’s mayor wrote an open letter to leaders of their community predicting that their arrival would have terrible consequences for the city and asking for them to halt further immigration. And just a few months later, a white nationalist group from Illinois traveled to Lewiston to hold a demonstration against them. But the critics were wrong. And in 2010 the Lewiston Sun Journal used census data to reveal that Somali entrepreneurs had reinvigorated the city’s previously derelict downtown and that Somali farmers, many of whom had previously worked on farms in Somalia under a system of slavery, had increased the county’s agricultural output considerably. Even the soccer team of the local high school benefitted as Somali children helped them win several successive state championships for the first time in their history.
Today, Lewiston still has the largest concentration of Somalis in America. Like so many immigrants they have been the targets of hatred and doubt only to prove themselves exceptional. In so many ways this story so perfectly exemplifies the awkward and imperfect nature of immigration and its role in transnational and global history. I just hope that that somewhere down the line these immigrants are more accepting of the next group.