When Barack Obama welcomes new immigrants to the U.S., he continues a tradition as old as the nation itself. Even before he became the nation’s first president, George Washington helped establish that tradition:
“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges,” said Washington in 1783.
The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. At times anti-immigrant sentiment has risen, but in each case the nation came to repudiate those views and to welcome its newest citizens as part of the national fabric.
- Alexander Hamilton: Hamilton came to the then-British colonies as a penniless, orphaned teenager from the West Indies. As he rose to prominence in the new United States, opponents derided him for his foreign birth. It didn’t work. Today, people know Hamilton as a Founding Father, architect of the U.S. financial system and the man on the $10 bill.
- Lawmakers apologize: Chinese laborers flocked to America in the 1850s and 1860s to work in mines and in railroad construction. In 1882, Congress banned further Chinese immigration. Congress would repeal this law and apologize for it. In 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives passed this resolution, introduced by Congresswoman Judy Chu: “Whereas Chinese-Americans continue to play a significant role in the success of the United States; and Whereas the United States was founded on the principle that all persons are created equal: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives regrets the passage of legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States because of their ethnicity.”
- The Know Nothings: Active in the 1850s, the American Party, also called the Know Nothings, pledged to limit the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants to the United States. Among their opponents: Abraham Lincoln. “I think little better of them than I do of those of the slavery extensionists,” he said in 1855. The future president looked forward to the day that the Know Nothings would be “entirely tumbled to pieces.” They soon were. Later, Americans elected John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish heritage, to the presidency.
In 2013, President Obama restated a creed as old as the American republic:
“Throughout our history, immigrants have embraced the spirit of liberty, equality, and justice for all — the same ideals that stirred the patriots of 1776 to rise against an empire, guided the Framers as they built a stronger republic, and moved generations to bridge our founding promise with the realities of our time.”