To the Editor:
I found Myles Goodwin’s letter (Feb. 15, “Founding Fathers on Immigration”) deeply disturbing, not least because it was written in a style evidencing both education and intelligence that gave it an air of erudition. But his intelligence and historic references cannot disguise the basic meaning of his letter, which is pure nativism of a type we have seen many times before, usually as a means of distracting the population from the real problems and fears faced by the country. In the mid-19th century, the country on the verge of civil war saw the rise of the Know Nothing Party. Its adherents campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, aimed at keeping the Irish out of the country because, they said, they were degenerates and, worse still, Catholics, who would corrupt our society and bring papism to America. Today the nativist cry is, Keep out the Muslims, as they are all terrorists and want to establish an Islamic republic in our land. Keep out the Mexicans. They are all criminals and are stealing our jobs.
I think Mr. Goodwin’s use of quotes from Washington and Jefferson to further his anti-immigration arguments is flawed, as they are taken out of their historical context. His quotes ignore the differences between America today and in the early 19th century, and the intellectual and cultural backgrounds of both men.
Both Washington and Jefferson were writing at a time when the population of the United States was so small and our form of government was so new and fragile that an influx of immigrants might conceivably have had an impact on the society. That is not so today. Our political system is now so established and so strong that a few immigrants will not be able to undermine it. Further, though the phrase “melting pot” is overused, it does describe the effect that our vast and varied population has on immigrants. They form such a small element in the population that it seems hardly possible that they could “warp and bias” the direction of our government, as Jefferson feared. Nor does it seem possible that they have the ability to render our government “heterogeneous and incoherent,” as an overwrought Jefferson suspected. This country has survived generations of immigration without becoming incoherent, and we have thrived on our heterogeneous character.
We should also note that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners and wealthy aristocrats, brought up in the English class system. Despite the rhetoric in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, these men did not hold the same egalitarian views we have today, and both were deeply skeptical of the intellectual suitability of the common man to govern himself. Their views on immigration were in accord with their prejudices and aristocratic upbringing, as well as their awareness of the newness and fragility of the experiment in democracy on which they were embarking. Today I would hope that such views would be seen as anachronistic at best.
History has not borne out the anxieties of Washington and Jefferson. As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany (my mother) and from the tsar of Russia (my dad), I can testify that my parents did not come to this country to propagate the views of their former governments. They or their parents came here in large measure because of the democratic values and freedoms espoused by this country, and their greatest aim was to assimilate as quickly as possible. I would argue that their presence here was an asset rather than a liability. I look around at the immigrant community today, and in general would come to the same conclusion. Immigration has made and will continue to make this country strong.
The views expressed by Mr. Goodwin, which he seeks to reinforce with quotes from Jefferson and Washington, have found echoes throughout the history of our country — in the Know Nothing movement mentioned above, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the persecution of German Americans during WWI, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, to say nothing of the treatment accorded the blacks emigrating out of the South. These dark moments in our history are today recalled with shame, as I hope the anti-immigration movement of today will be. Nativist crusades have usually been a tool for distracting the people from the real problems they face, not, as Mr. Goodwin implies, an honest effort to maintain the purity of American ideals, the views of the Founding Fathers notwithstanding.