Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

The Land of Refuge

Joe April 15, 2020

Throughout history migration has never been an easy thing. If your not an immigrant, it is quite hard to imagine. To migrate, you must leave almost everything behind, in most cases even your native language. Therefore, even the simplest of things, for example, the ability to communicate can become a very frustrating task and at times impossible. So please, don’t take lightly when you read, “the mass movement of people into the U.S. was a fundamental component in the founding of the nation”. This mass movement was for most, terrifying and a last resort. If they survived the trip, arriving to the new land was not an indication their battle for survival was finished, more accurately, it was an indication the true battle had just begun. For the people who had arrived earlier, these waves of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere would rapidly displace – and in many cases decimating – the existing populations – this is true even today.

With a clear understanding of the the true struggle of migration, individual reasons for migrating varied enormously. Most were guided by the desire to seek out new opportunities whether economic opportunities, fleeing religious persecution back home, or otherwise improve their lives and the lives of their families. At a time when America was experiencing mass economic and industrial growth, immigration was the logical conclusion. It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. was founded by immigrants. Immigrants who risked everything, including their lives to get here and once here work even harder to prosper not just to keep it.

Today there is much public discussion, both in the United States and abroad, about the worldwide refugee crisis. In recent years, the United States has welcomed 70,000 refugees per year. However, under President Obama the U.S. received 84,995 refugees in fiscal year 2016, effectively meeting the 85,000 ceiling set by the Obama administration at the beginning of the year. An increase which has been criticized by some lawmakers and politicians. In considering the appropriate U.S. response to the refugee crisis, it is important to remember the central role of refugees in the American experience. This Perspective provides background on the role of refugees in the United States, including welcoming and exclusionary responses. The impacts of these reactions, and lessons to consider in determining our response to the current refugee crisis is just the tip of the iceberg.

Many acknowledge that much of the initial migration to the North American English colonies was primarily refugees fleeing oppression and persecution. The Pilgrims’ search for a place to freely practice their religion which is at the very root of America’s identity. Other seekers of religious freedom also found a home in the colonies that were sometimes labeled “plantations of religion”.

Yet persecution and flight also lay at the core of new American arrivals. Consider two examples from the middle of the nineteenth century. The “famine Irish” provides one example. The potato blight that appeared in 1846 put the Irish at the brink of starvation. Disease soon followed; death by fever joined death by famine. So the Irish fled to America.

In one sense, their flight might seem “economic”: the catastrophic failure of a way of agricultural production. A consideration of historical conditions, however, shows how that doomed system of livelihood was itself created by a long-term British colonialism that stripped the lands from the Irish Catholics in favor of large English Protestant landholdings. The Irish were consigned to the periphery of their own country, with small plots of land that were little more than gardens and a crop that had little resistance to disease. Surely this was a form of governmental “persecution” like that invoked in recent legal definitions of refugee status. Furthermore, while the Irish were starving, the British were still shipping food from Ireland back to England. That too is a form of governmental persecution. But the suffering did not end with their flight from Ireland. As for many other refugees, the journey to America was a further trial. For with the famine had come disease. As they moved “out of Ireland, across the ocean . . . fever went with them, and the path to a new life became a path of horror.”

The second example involves the German “Forty-Eighters.” 1848 was a year of tumult across Europe. In France, uprisings brought down the monarch Louise Philippe, and established the Second Republic. In Germany, agitation against autocracy and regionalism led to a liberal constitution in 1848 and an elected parliament. However, backlash soon gutted the parliament, and they were forced to flee. Initially—like many other refugees—they remained close to German borders hoping for a reversal of the situation. As time passed and hope for success abated, they turned toward countries farther away, including an America that had long been a destination for German immigrants. As new arrivals in America, their allegiances shifted over time to their new country. Thus, these refugees possessed both skills that would make them successful in economic pursuits and the political experiences that would transform their own experiences of exile into a sharper appreciation for the American ideals.

In both the Irish and German cases, the United States’ acceptance of people in need turned out to be immensely valuable to the country’s economic and political growth. In both cases, it seems fair to characterize these arrivals as “refugees” even though we often think of them only as “immigrants” adapting to a new land. For these cases—and for many others—we might not be far off the mark to say that some have mistaken America to be as much a land of refugees as a land of immigrants. America may appear to be a land of refuge, but it is not, and to say otherwise minimizes what the founder and many others have sacrificed and accomplished.

America has not, always been willing to offer refuge, and those denials reverberate through our history. Even before the founding of the United States, the colonists often turned against those who were seeking refuge. Some believe the colonist to have been themselves looking for refuge and by denying refuge to others would make the founders hypocrites and they wouldn’t be wrong. However the founders were not looking for refuge, but instead the opposite is true. These were people willing to die for their freedom and prosperity. You see, by definition a refuge is a condition of being safe or shelter from pursuit, danger or trouble; an institution providing safe accommodation or better yet a welfare state. With the definition in mind, we can take a closer look at the founders to help us determine if indeed these were refugees or immigrants, and hypocrites or honorable.

A closer observation will reveal the founders were not looking for safety and shelter. Fleeing from oppression and persecution yes, but willing to die in an effort to exchange their oppression and persecution for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. For there was no one to offer shelter or a place of refuge. The first colonists had to find sources of food and water. In the case of the Pilgrims, they found Native American caches of food. In the case of Jamestown, they found water, but they located their colony in a tidal swamp that was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. As a result, many of the original colonists of Jamestown died of mosquito-borne diseases, while many of the earliest settlers of Plymouth died from malnutrition and exposure to the elements. It sounds more like these people were willing to die for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Far from being hypocrites.

It is no coincidence the founders did not include happiness as a right under the Declaration of Independence, but instead they included the “pursuit” of happiness, the action of following, pursuing someone or something. It is nothing you get, but it is up to the individual to pursue it and achieve it. The stark difference between welfare and hardship, to work for, or to achieve. With welfare you receive and with pursuit you achieve. The land of opportunity yes, opportunity but not without sacrifice. America has throughout history rejected the state of welfare from both immigrants and it’s own people. This is evidence in the words of John F. Kennedy, “ask not what your country can do for you but instead ask what you can do for your country”.

Immigrants to the United States on the deck of the S.S. Patricia on December 10th 1906.
Ellis Island seen from New York Harbor, 1903.
Interior view of the Great Hall at the Ellis Island Immigration Station in New York.
A large group of immigrants with baggage lined up at tellers’ windows for money exchange in 1907.
Pens at the Ellis Island Registry Room or Great Hall, all filled with immigrants, 1907.
The dinning room for detained immigrants at Ellis Island.
New arrivals line up have their papers examined.
Immigrant children being examined by a city health officer upon arrival in 1911.
Members of the Health Department carefully examine an immigrant mother and child.