Constable: The U.S. struggles with identity as a 'Nation of Immigrants'

The speech eighth-grader Mary Stuhr of St. Alexander Catholic School in Villa Park read to win an American Legion competition in 1951 called for America to be "the key to freedom." Stuhr, now 80 and living in Addison, said most of that essay was written by her father, Theodore Roosevelt Weitzel, who urged America to stand up for the weak, shun "isolation" and secure "freedom for others around the globe."

"It reminded me of what's going on today," Stuhr says. We're still grappling with our nation's role as a global provider of freedom and haven for those needing help.

The United States of America celebrates July 4 as the 242nd anniversary of the day our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Eight of those 56 men who signed that document were immigrants born in foreign countries. The rest were British colonists who became Americans by virtue of that piece of paper.

It was the media, namely The Daily State Journal of Alexandria, Virginia, that coined the phrase, "nation of immigrants." In an editorial on March 21, 1874, praising a state bill allocating $15,000 to encourage European immigration, the paper wrote, "We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants' children."

Poet Walt Whitman, in the preface to his 1855 classic "Leaves of Grass," wrote of the U.S.: "Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations." In addressing a 1938 convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists."

In 1958, then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy wrote his book titled, "A Nation of Immigrants," which was published after his assassination. "There is no part of our nation that has not been touched by our immigrant background," Kennedy wrote. "Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life."

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson even used a foreign phrase "E Pluribus Unum" (Latin for "out of many, one") for the first Great Seal of the United States.

But we have been better with words than actions. Our first immigration law, the 1790 Naturalization Act, limited citizenship only to those who were a "free, white person" residing in the country for two years and possessing "good moral character." After the Union won the Civil War, we extended naturalization in 1870 to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent."

We dedicated the Statue of Liberty (officially called "Liberty Enlightening the World") on Oct. 28, 1886, as a symbol of our ability to promote freedom and end oppression, and the statue became a beacon of hope and a welcome sign for immigrants. Meanwhile, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887 to limit foreigners according to their ethnic background.

We attached Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet, "The New Colossus," to the Statue of Liberty, asking the world to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Then we hung up signs saying, "Irish need not apply." Even when we were defeating the Nazis and helping save the world from fascism, we rounded up our Japanese-American neighbors and stuck them in internment camps. We set up quotas, and bent the rules when we wanted to let in more immigrants from Cuba or Vietnam.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration law that allowed nearly 3 million people illegally residing in our nation to become U.S. citizens. Under George W. Bush, the newly created United States Citizenship and Immigration Services promised to secure "America's promise as a nation of immigrants." The department deleted that phrase from its mission statement earlier this year.

With a motto of "A Nation Built By Immigrants," the George W. Bush Presidential Center notes that immigrants make up 13.5 percent of our nation's population now, pretty much the same as it has been throughout history. That's just slightly below the immigrant percentage in that group of Founding Fathers who signed our Declaration of Independence.

  In the shadow of a man dressed as Captain America, this sign speaks to the value of immigrants. Burt Constable/
Dedicated in 1886, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor quickly became a symbol of our country's willingness to welcome strangers to our “Nation of Immigrants.” But we've been struggling with how best to do that since the 18th century. Associated Press
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