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Immigration and Refugee Debates—Public Policy Controversies Dating Back to Plymouth Rock

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
April 20, 2020

This year, Massachusetts observes the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims, and what became Plymouth. The Pilgrims were, arguably, the first persecuted refugees looking for a land where they could be safe from persecution and free to worship in their own way.

The relationship between the Pilgrim “refugees” and the native inhabitants was as rocky as the New England coast. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book Mayflower, offers a detailed account of the relationship between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the native Wampanoags under their charismatic and calculating chief Massasoit. The two groups over the succeeding five decades maintained a fragile working relationship that culminated in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of New England. The near eradication of the native population in what was called, “King Philip’s War.” Among the differences that threatened the forging of a peaceful relationship were race, religion, lifestyles and concept of land ownership, as well as fear of different races and cultures—factors that seem entwined in the history of relations between American citizens and refugees up to the present day.

A little more than a century later, fears about the influence of immigrants and refugees exploded on the American stage with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In summer 1798, three alien acts were passed in Congress aimed at French and Irish immigrants who were primarily pro-French. The laws increased the waiting period for naturalization from 5 to 14 years, permitted detention of subjects of an enemy nation and authorized the deportation of any alien considered dangerous. When the threat of war with France passed and a different party was elected, most were subsequently repealed except for the Alien Enemies Act. Of interest to Americans celebrating the centennial of women’s right to vote, that act was amended in 1918 to include women as subject to the law.

Less than 50 years after the controversy with the Alien and Sedition Acts, new concerns over immigrants became the foundation of a controversial, and primarily anti-Catholic, political movement called the Know Nothing Party. Lorraine Boissoneault, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, noted, “At its height  in the 1850’s, the Know Nothing Party (American Party) included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California.” Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals, a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants, mandatory Bible reading in schools and elimination of all Catholics from public office. Anti-Catholic riots and the burning of a convent occurred during the party’s tenure in state government. The party split over the slavery issue, and when it lost at the national level, Massachusetts Governor Henry Gardner attributed the loss to immigrants.

While prejudice toward Irish immigrants and refugees of the Great Famine was a prominent aspect of political and community life after the Civil War, the West was witness to significant anti-Chinese resentment over the large numbers of Chinese who were imported to work on the railroad construction. The first half of the Twentieth Century saw more anti-immigrant sentiment primarily related to America’s role in the two World Wars. Anti-German feelings were rampant during both wars and the United States government took anti-Japanese attitudes, even further suspending civil liberties of Japanese-Americans and establishing internment camps during World War II. Another low point in America’s attitude toward refugees was the refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany during World War II.

With the September 11, 2001 attack on America by Muslim terrorists, and subsequent wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, followers of the Muslim faith, especially from many Middle Eastern countries were among the first groups of immigrants and refugees to suffer discrimination from the American government in the 21st Century. However, refugees from poverty, drug gangs and lack of jobs in Central America sent thousands of families north to the United States—Mexican border during much of the second decade of the current century. Asylum seekers became so numerous that the refugees overwhelmed government’s ability to respond effectively and the population of illegal immigrants swelled. A new study authored by Yale University’s Dr. Mohammad Fazel Zarandi estimates that there are 22.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States. This is more than doubles the estimates compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, which claim 11.1 million illegal aliens live in America.

Americans, today, remain sharply divided over the issue of immigrations and refugees, how many to welcome, how to treat immigrants who accompanied parents as young children and whether there should be a path to citizenship. The debate, as it has been since the Pilgrims landed, still involves differences of race, religion, economic factors, lifestyles and language. We may ask if the noble sentiments of Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty still speaks for the majority of Americans. Will America, once again, welcome those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free?


 Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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