by Mallie Jane Kim

Today, it's Hispanics, Southeast Asians, or Middle Easterners facing suspicion from some Americans. Then, it was southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, or Russians.

The nation has grown and changed dramatically in the 125 years since the Statue of Liberty started her welcoming watch over New York's harbor on Oct. 26, 1886, but one thing hasn't: Americans' mixed attitude toward immigration, at the same time welcoming and rejecting.

"There's an old immigrant saying: America beckons, but Americans repel," says American University history professor Dr. Alan Kraut, who is the chair of Ellis Island Foundation's History Advisory Committee and author of several books on U.S. immigration history.

The origin countries have changed, but the draw of American economic opportunities is the same, and America has long needed immigrant labor. But at the turn of the 19th century when immigrants would crowd to the top of ships to see the Statue of Liberty, Kraut says, "There were many Americans who were not happy to see these immigrants arrive: too many Catholics, too many Jews, too many people of swarthy complexion, and too many people who would take American jobs," he says, adding that these sentiments are similar to some in today's immigration debate -- though focused on different racial groups. "The arguments are almost a constant in American culture. Immigrants are at the same time needed and yet the object of suspicion and sometimes antagonism."

Lady Liberty was a gift to the United States from France as a celebration of liberty and democracy -- the image of the statue welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" actually came from a poem that wasn't affixed to the statue's base until 1903. But between 1886 and 1924, almost 14 million immigrants entered the United States through New York, and many of those came through Ellis Island, the nation's first federal immigration site. The statue was a powerful symbol of welcome, particularly to those who came from oppressive societies. "Here's a statue that stands right at the entry of the country you're coming to," Kraut says, "and it represents freedom."

But that welcoming symbol was matched by vitriol and suspicion similar to that in today's debates, he says, though of course the most controversial aspect of the immigration fight today is over the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized illegal immigrants in the United States. Because the federal government has been unable to pass reforms to handle these undocumented residents, states like Arizona and Alabama have attempted to deal with the issue on their own, leading to laws that critics say encourage racial profiling.

If history is a lesson, Kraut points out, Hispanic people will increasingly be accepted as part of mainstream America, just as southern Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, and other groups are now. "I see this as an ongoing cycle of arrivals, prejudice, and integration," Kraut says.

Even the Obama administration's immigration policy reflects this paradox of welcoming and repelling. Last week the Department of Homeland Security announced it had deported nearly 400,000 people during the past fiscal year, a record number. Yet at the same time, President Obama supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and his administration has taken steps to make sure immigration agents are using discretion to let off people who are not criminals.

Homeland security is another concern early 21st century Americans share with those from the early 20th, Kraut explains. Today the worry is jihadists from the Middle East or elsewhere, but in the early days of the Statue of Liberty, the worry was over anarchists, socialists, and communists.

But one thing that has changed, according to Kraut, is the widespread recognition that immigrants built America. "These were anonymous people. They weren't rich, they weren't famous," Kraut says. "But nevertheless, they are the people who carved this country."

And despite debate vitriol and homeland security concerns, Kraut explains, the Statue of Liberty has remained a vital symbol of this aspect of the American spirit. "It's amazing the kind of traction the Statue of Liberty has of what America prides itself on being and how we like to think of ourselves," Kraut says. "As a nation of nations. A nation of immigrants. And that in and of itself is significant."


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Statue of Liberty Turns 125; Old Immigration Attitudes Alive as Well | Politics

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