America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States

Image of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States
Release Date: 
November 25, 2019
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

Xenophobia has had a long and sordid history in this country, as admirably pointed out by author Erika Lee in the text. Notwithstanding the current raging debate in recent years regarding illegal immigration, not that many people in our society really stop to consider the fact. That is what makes this publication necessary as well as interesting.

Before there even was a United States, xenophobia got its start in colonial times and evolved over the years to include many different, largely non-white, immigrant peoples who desired to come here for personal, economic, political, and other reasons. Consequently, immigration has many times been a hit or miss proposition for foreigners, dependent on such factors as economic necessity, national security, immigration law, and other considerations.

As a history of xenophobia, the format here is obviously chronological, and the text follows its path through the years and the various peoples and groups who have been targeted for exclusion mostly by virtue of their race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and perceived ability to assimilate as Americans in terms of our customs, habits, culture, traditions, and democratic institutions.

As previously mentioned, even in colonial times, Benjamin Franklin was railing against the influx of German migrants who were seen as being far below the norm of what was expected or wanted by the previously white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (WASP) population that originated in Great Britain.

As time went on into the 19th century, emphasis focused on the Irish and/or Catholic populations and their unskilled employment prospects, perceived poverty, propensity for crime, and the fear that they would be beholden to the Pope and therefore corrupt, if not turn over, the country and its institutions to the Church.

With grudging acceptance of Germans, the Irish, and other “somewhat” white populations, xenophobic ire turned to the Asians, specifically the Chinese and the Japanese. Once again, there was fear that these inferior races would take jobs from whites and turn the West Coast into an Asiatic colony of sorts, hence the reasons for the exclusionary laws promulgated in Congress restricting their immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Further legal and societal persecution forced many Chinese and Japanese to return to their native countries even to the extent of “de-Americanizing” many of their children who had been born in this country and were, therefore, citizens. Of course, the most egregious act was the incarceration in internment camps of Japanese Americans in World War II, justified in terms of national security and causing the loss of homes, businesses and, obviously, their civil rights.

The same factors could be applied to the Mexicans who, more often than not, came to this country originally for purposes of employment yet didn’t always settle here although they, too, were accused of taking jobs from real Americans. Even their children, at times, were de-Americanized. Their presence was also perceived as a reconquest of the American Southwest following the results of the Mexican-American War in the 1840s.

Not surprisingly, even with the end of slavery, Africans came in for xenophobic scrutiny, continued persecution and lack of civil rights as racism and discrimination was in full swing across the country.

Finally, especially with the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, Muslims have become the target du jour with many of them now feeling unsafe living here and experiencing the effects of the Trump Administration’s controversial ban on their immigration from a list of specified Muslim countries in an attempt to secure and, hopefully, eliminate terrorist acts in the American homeland.

Much of the xenophobia in this country’s history has its roots in racism and white supremacy. Immigration law has had its basis in trying to maintain the status quo of who whites believe best meet the unwritten standards of assimilation and most certainly skin color. The issue will most certainly continue to be in the forefront with the ongoing effort to combat illegal immigration by building a wall at our southern border.

As Ms. Lee states, xenophobia is a potential threat to our democracy, for myriad reasons. However, it is not necessarily true that a presumed xenophobic minority can or will dictate immigration policy to the majority now or in the future.

By the same token, the concern of many over illegal immigration is justified in our uncertain world. Xenophobic considerations notwithstanding, established immigration law is what it is and law is the basis of our society. We need to be as safe and secure as we can be, hopefully distinguishing between those who might do society harm and those who may benefit our democracy.