For We Were Strangers: A Short History

The story of Passover is a lesson in the oppression of strangers. Although Pharaoh welcomed Joseph’s father and brothers to Egypt in a time of famine and gave them space to settle in the land of Goshen, the Israelites remained strangers. They were, after all, shepherds in a land of people who worshiped sheep. Their separation thus served to minimize religious and ethnic conflict. Over time, the separation of the Israelites from Egyptian society became a liability. It was fear that these strangers would align with Egypt’s enemies that led Pharaoh to impose slavery on them. The transition from protected guests to slaves reflects what we have seen too often in history – the tendency of all societies to oppress the stranger. While we often boast that America is a nation of immigrants, our national story is replete with examples of fear, stereotyping and oppression of newcomers to our shores.
  • In the 1700s, the normally enlightened Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow Philadelphians that the immigrants in Germantown corrupted American society because they would neither assimilate nor learn English.
  • When they started arriving in large numbers in the 1800s, Irish Catholics were targeted for discrimination and infamous "No Irish Need Apply" signs were posted at many workplaces.
  • Later in the 1800s, America reacted to the "yellow peril" of the "inferior face" of Chinese immigrants. President Grover Cleveland described the Chinese as "ignorant of our constitution and laws, impossible of assimilation with our people and dangerous to our peace and welfare."
  • Japanese immigrants were targeted with Alien Land Laws as politicians sought to save "California – the White Man’s Paradise" early in the 20th Century.
  • Jews and Italians were described as "beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence," who would "pollute the gene pool" with their dysgenic Southern and Eastern European stock.
  • When Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 imposing strict national origin quotas, especially on Southern and Eastern Europeans, he said, "America must remain American."
These days, our national xenophobia has centered on Latinos. We have seen the proliferation of “English only” laws that appear to be facially neutral, but may belie a discriminatory intent because the inability to speak English can serve as a convenient proxy for race. Anti-immigrant laws have sprung up at the local level at the same time that the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented an alarming rise in hate crimes against those who appear to be foreigners. Lou Dobbs has used his bully pulpit on CNN to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria. Politicians like Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s mayor Lou Barletta have ridden the wave of nativist sentiment to try to build their own political careers. Local communities in more than 20 states have adopted their own forms of anti-immigrant legislation. Various civil rights groups have filed challenges to these laws and JSPAN has been active in assisting with several of the friend of the court briefs that are being submitted. Cases are currently pending before the Third and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the issue will likely be reviewed by the Supreme Court within the next year or two. We expect to continue to have our voice heard on these issues. While JSPAN does not condone illegal entry into the United States, we believe that any solution to the immigration issue must proceed on two fronts. First, we must make efforts to address border security concerns to help calm the public hysteria that has been sweeping much of the Southwest. At the same time, we must make strenuous efforts to prevent hate crimes and discrimination against people who appear to be foreign, whether they are in this country legally or not. Finally, we must deal in a comprehensive fashion with questions concerning creating a path to citizenship for those people who are in this country, as well as dealing in a compassionate manner with questions concerning family unification and work authorization. Above all, we must deal with these questions at the national level and not let local xenophobia drive immigration policy or debate.