On Immigration, Xenophobia, and Secret Societies; Or, Jumbled Thoughts

Written by Maia Lamdany

Edited by Dawn Bush

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“Why is the United States bringing these people here? There are so many Americans who need jobs.”

“That [immigration] is what America is all about!”

“Who cares? Just send them all back.”

The first is from Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus.” The quotes that follow are memorable statements that I have heard since I started serving in AmeriCorps, some positive and some (obviously) not.

I have pondered how to respectfully respond to the negative statements that some people have uttered. With the exception of Native Americans, every person living in the United States today is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. Rejection of immigrants therefore appears illogical to me, but I certainly cannot preach in all circumstances. Even if I could I suspect that there are many people whose opinions I would be incapable of changing. So what to do? I can mention the humanitarian issues, and that the refugees I have encountered are both eager to work and contribute to Pittsburgh, but I still wonder how to effectively respond.

I am also aware that prejudice and fear of foreigners and others who are different have been part of the United States for virtually its entire history. Our history is riddled with examples, from slavery to the relentless persecution of Native Americans to “No Irish need apply” signs to the gentlemen’s agreements that kept Jews out of certain neighborhoods. The (ironically named) (Native) American Party of the mid-19th century developed out of a Protestant fear of Catholic Irish and German immigrants who some long(er)-established Americans worried were controlled by the Pope. Others christened them the “Know Nothings” since members publicly denied all knowledge of the party and its activities. Other than giving some historical context to American xenophobia, what am I trying to say here? Mostly to point out that at some point, almost every group in the United States has experienced persecution to some extent, and that in my opinion we need to remember that and be cautious about making any strongly unwelcoming assertions, even in the relative privacy of our own communities.

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