Despite being a lifelong New Yorker, I’ve been to Ellis Island only once, about 25 years ago, when some of my wife’s relatives were visiting. Wokeness, then known as political correctness, was already setting in, and immigration was becoming an issue in the culture wars. So, though I harbored warm feelings about immigrants and their contributions to this country, I steeled myself for an insufferable “celebration of diversity” and harangue about American nativism.
There was some of that, but the feature presentation at the island’s historical museum—the 1989 documentary Island of Hope, Island of Tears, still shown there every half hour—conveyed a different impression and helped crystallize my thinking about immigration. The film’s title aptly reflects its theme: the hope and the tears of the millions who passed through the island are inextricably linked. The hope and promise of American immigration could not, and cannot, be achieved without the hardheaded policies that produced the tears.
The short film shows the remorseless vetting immigrants faced and the inevitable sorrow of family separation as some were rejected. Most of this vetting was for health reasons, but that was linked to other important considerations concerning their fitness for admission: “America did not want the burden of an unhealthy immigrant; America wanted a person who could make a living.” People were turned away for “mental difficulties” as well as physical ones and had to produce “a letter from a relative guaranteeing they would not become a public charge” and “proof that they were not . . . a dangerous alien.”
The exclusion of those who would be a burden or a danger to America was one of the two pillars of immigration policy that made it possible for the country to absorb successfully some 20 million newcomers between 1880 and 1920. The other was a continual emphasis on assimilation and “Americanization” of the new arrivals. No one gave better voice to the philosophy behind these policies than Theodore Roosevelt, president during the peak immigration period from 1901 to 1909. He summed up his views in a letter just before his death in 1919:
We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American.
In a famous address to the Knights of Columbus a few years earlier, TR had denounced “hyphenated Americanism.” He warned, “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin . . . would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” His alternative vision combined elements that today would be considered “progressive” with others now decried as “reactionary.” He strongly condemned nativism but also declared that “[n]o man can be a good citizen if he is not at least in process of learning to speak the language of his fellow-citizens” and called for the deportation of those who failed to do so. Indeed, “a common language . . . the English language” was one of his three “principal essentials” of Americanization. The others were “a common civil standard, similar ideals, beliefs, and customs” and, notably, “a high standard of living . . . equality of opportunity and social and industrial justice.”
TR’s uncompromising rejection of all manifestations of ethnic identity undoubtedly went further than necessary: in an article early in his career, he said that immigrants “must learn to celebrate . . . the Fourth of July instead of St. Patrick’s Day.” As Peter Salins noted in an eloquent defense of assimilation against the rising tide of multiculturalism 25 years ago: “Assimilation need not imply the obliteration of all traces of ethnic origin.” The generations of assimilated Irish-Americans who have proudly celebrated both holidays attest to this.
But even TR’s extreme would have been better—and far more conducive to large-scale immigration—than the divisive multicultural path that modern “progressives” have led us down over the past 30 years. Previous generations of immigrants and their children were acculturated in a celebration of American history, values, and ideals—a message constantly reinforced by schools, the entertainment industry, and other powerful institutions. Today, by contrast, a continuous drumbeat of propaganda bombards immigrants from almost the moment they step off the plane at JFK, undermining their nascent love for the country taking them in and instead encouraging them to cling to their native language and every other aspect of the places from which they’re fleeing. It’s a recipe for the “tangle of squabbling nationalities” that TR feared, and it fuels understandable hostility to immigration among citizens who fear the resulting loss of national cohesion.
All this ties in, of course, with the refugees from the Afghan debacle. While some conservatives rail against our taking them in, I would hope that most accept that we have a moral obligation to help those who helped us, just as we took in South Vietnamese refugees 45 years ago—over the opposition of liberals like Joe Biden. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that, in the withdrawal fiasco, we seem to have left behind tens of thousands of Special Immigrant Visa holders—the translators and others who aided the American war effort and have already been rigorously vetted—while evacuating thousands of others who have not been vetted at all. So, even more than with those coming through Ellis Island, stringent vetting must be a requirement for admission and, sadly, we must err on the side of exclusion. That means that there will necessarily be some heartbreaking cases (for example, a loyal family with a son in the Taliban).
We also must acknowledge the real cultural differences posing challenges to integration. For example, Afghans apparently have the highest sexual crime rate of any refugees in Europe. The solution is not to celebrate or even tolerate such destructive cultural tendencies but to eradicate them, as Teddy Roosevelt understood. Assimilation can be difficult under the best of circumstances, but multiculturalism, which is inherently hostile to the goal, makes it impossible.
It’s a tragic irony that elites began to reject assimilation in favor of multiculturalism just as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 brought us into a new era of mass immigration, with a far more diverse mix of nationalities and cultures than before. For immigration to continue to contribute to American flourishing, we must return to the hardheaded wisdom of TR—and to the hope and tears of Ellis Island.
Photo JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images