I have heard many stories from both sets of my grandparents about coming to America as immigrants via Ellis Island, and what is was like to be a new American without money or belongings and with little or no English-speaking skills. Roger Daniels’ Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 proved a fascinating and enlightening examination of the plight of those who come to this country, as my grandparents did, in search of a better life.
This book covers American immigration policy from the 1880’s and the act of Congress entitled The Chinese Exclusion Act all the way to the policies of the Bush Administration after the 9-11 terror attacks, including the demise of the INS. Throughout the years in between, the reader gets quite an education about just how many people have come to this country from “somewhere else,” who those people were, why they came, how they got here, and what happened to them once they arrived, many, like my grandparents, without a dollar to their name.
What really makes this book so fascinating is the author’s ability to present statistical information and historical data in a style that is pleasant to read, something books of this detail and scope often fail to do. The overall history of immigration and policies towards immigrants and refugees is examined, as well as the political and social sentiment behind those policies. I was shocked to read about the different groups of immigrants who have received preferential treatment in this country, such as the white Cubans, and horrified to learn that other groups of people have been treated with extreme prejudice by presidential administration after administration, such as the Haitians. I was also surprised to learn that immigrants do NOT tax our economic system, as so many white Americans insist, but actually benefit and add to it.
So many myths and assumptions about immigration and immigrants are shattered in this solid and scholarly book, with plenty of statistical evidence to back up the truths that the author presents, that I found myself thinking about immigration much differently than I did before, when my knowledge of the subject was limited to what I heard about from family members and what the political pundits ranted on about.
Througout history, as the author points out, each political adminsitration has had different issues to deal with regarding immigrants and refugees, from the Vietnam War refugee influx to the Cuban asylum-seekers of the 1980’s and 1990’s, to today’s heavily Mexican and Central American immigrants, legal and illegal. With each differing immigrant population, immigration law tried to adapt and change, sometimes successfully and other times ending in unintentional results. What the reader comes to understand in Guarding the Golden Door is that these groups of people do not come here to take advantage of America, but to become American out of a deep respect, honor and admiration of what this country stands for. Sometimes, in the case of refugees and asylum-seekers, they come here to save their own lives, or the lives of their children. What the reader also comes to understand is that which groups of people are allowed in is not entirely a just and humane issue, but often the result of governmental preferences, societal prejudices and economic demands of the time.
Obviously, the message here is that immigration laws and national policies have not always welcomed everyone with open arms. In the 1880’s, the Chinese were the targets of anti-immigration policies. Over a century later, it would be black Haitians who were discouraged, even prevented from coming here, and today the discrimination continues, this time toward Muslims and Arabic peoples. Nor have immigration reforms, as we come to learn, always “reformed” existing laws for the betterment of the people coming here OR for those already settled here and trying desparately to earn a decent living.
Guarding the Golden Door illustrates how we as a nation have struggled between welcoming those who seek a better life and keeping out those we believe would make our own lives worse. This eye-opening and engaging book chronicles that ongoing struggle.