"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 words, penned by Emma Lazarus, appear at the end of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty's base. This passage resonated with me as a child. I felt proud that many Americans had immigrated here from somewhere else. We were a nation of underdogs. Then, as I aged, I learned about other aspects of our history that showed we were not always so welcoming to immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1921, and the Johnson Reed Act of 1924 all expressed hostility to immigrants. As a Mexican American, I, too, faced discrimination.
Donald Trump and his supporters carry on this tradition of hate motivated by fear. In announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Mr. Trump disparaged Hispanics, referring to them as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists while allowing that some might be “good people.” Now Mr. Trump has doubled down on the xenophobia spreading across the nation in light of the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks by calling for the exclusion of all Muslim immigrants to this country. This idea has met with wild applause at his rallies. Why? I argue that it is because many of us fear losing our jobs and our culture to these "dangerous" new immigrants. But I suggest that Americans have nothing to fear from continued immigration.
Immigrants have proven to be the economic backbone of this nation. Rather than taking jobs, immigrants seeking the American dream fuel the economy. Historically, they have provided the cheap labor necessary to build such a grand economy. Railroads, highways, buildings, and other infrastructure were all largely built by Chinese, Irish, Mexican, Polish, and other immigrants. Numerous measures, including Small Business Administration statistics, have proven that immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than do native-born Americans. So immigrants are actually helping to create new jobs and new businesses. And although we place a high premium on well-trained, highly educated individuals, the majority of immigrants were poor and poorly educated. Their spirit of independence allowed them to succeed.
Linguists like to point out that a language must change and adapt to current needs or it will stagnate and die. The same is true of culture. As we have become more diverse, we have become more culturally enriched. Our food, our music, our clothing, our language have all been affected by immigrants for the better. Being from Texas, I can assure you that there has been an ongoing tradition of music that crosses linguistic borders. Look up “Texas Tornadoes” and “Los Super Seven” on YouTube, for starters. Perhaps nothing upsets folks more than the fear of losing their language. Mexicans in particular seem to bring out this fear. Yet studies prove that by the third generation, Mexicans become English dominant, just as all other immigrant groups have done throughout history. The same will be true of Muslim immigrants.
If we hope to continue as a world-leading civilization, we must keep the lamp lifted beside the golden door to welcome future generations of immigrants, who will also contribute to this ongoing experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America.
Anthony Quiroz is professor of history at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. He is the author of Claiming Citizenship: Mexican Americans in Victoria, Texas and editor of Leaders of the Mexican American Generation.