An Asylum for Humanity


Immigration 101 tracks my course at Hofstra Law School.

Before an immigrant becomes a citizen, she must first pass a test in civics. A question frequently asked is why the Pilgrims came to America. There are several other questions in the test that have to do with the Pilgrims, but none at all about Jamestown, the first English settlement, or St. Augustine, settled earlier by the Spanish than either English colony. The reason the Plymouth story is more appealing than the other two is contained in the Federally approved answer: “The Pilgrims came seeking religious liberty”. They were refugees from religious persecution.

This concept of America as a refuge for persecuted humanity was repeatedly announced during the the American Revolution. Thomas Paine talked about making America the “asylum” for refugees from tyranny in his seminal “Common Sense”.  Even before the new country consecrated its democracy, it hung out the banner of Liberty. Freedom from persecution based on the exercise of conscience was a key to attracting millions of immigrants to this country. America was never just the Land of Opportunity, it was also the Daughter of Liberty. In fact, on the Centennial of American Independence, the Statue of Liberty was given as a gift from the people of France to the United States. This icon does not commemorate mere liberty from Britain, it celebrates America as Liberty given corporeal existence and our country’s role in attracting freedom loving people from all corners of the globe.

During the early days of the Republic, there was no need for special laws to protect those fleeing persecution in their homelands. The rule of immigration before the Civil War was simple-Just show up! No Federal immigration agency existed and anyone who could afford to book passage to America could enter. So, the German revolutionaries who peopled the Midwest began to come in large numbers when the democratic revolutions of 1848 were violently suppressed. Irish seeking work here were accompanied by Irish seeking to escape British prosecution for what today would be considered terrorism. Jews fleeing pogroms did not apply for asylum, they just came here on the same ships that brought their anti-Semitic persecutors seeking better jobs.

It was only with the creation of a restrictive immigration system in the 1920s that the need for special laws to protect refugees would become obvious. Unfortunately, the restrictions came in the decade before the rise of the Nazis.  The impact of tough new immigration laws on refugees from Hitler’s atrocities will be discussed in the next installment of Immigration 101.