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E Pluribus Unum: Who Are We?

Image of E Plurebus Unum patch
E Pluribus Unum.  Out of Many, One.

These words are on the Great Seal of the United States. They are on every piece of currency and coin we use. It is a motto as old as the Republic, dating back to 1776.

They define America and make us a beacon and example for the world. Or do they? Are we at present—or have we ever been—a welcoming nation to immigrants? Does our history embrace the melting pot and rejoice in our diversity? Do we live up to the inscription chiseled on the base of the Statue of Liberty?

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The answer, it seems, is that it is complicated. Let us examine a brief history, particularly our own political history, and then consider where we are in 2017.

As much as we refer to America as a nation of immigrants, this is only technically true. From the importation of slaves, to the treatment of Native Americans, to the influx of Irish, Italian, German, Asian and other immigrants, to the rejection of Jews fleeing the Nazis, to the current fears directed against Hispanic immigrants, America has not always laid out the welcome mat.

As Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, points out, over 12 million slaves were sent to the New World between 1525 and 1866. Most went to the Caribbean and South America, only about 388,000 were sent to North America. By the 1860 census, however, due to a growing population, the number of slaves in the United States stood at 4 million (out of a total population of 31.5 million). Political and economic calculations up until the Civil War led our leaders to embrace the sad and immoral practice of slavery. This was hardly a shining example of “all men are created equal.”

Now those who hold the power are those who used to be persecuted. While 32 million Americans, about 10% of our population, celebrate their Irish roots on St Patrick’s Day, they were not always treated as equal citizens. Beginning in 1845 with the potato famine, until the late 1850s, nearly two million Irish immigrants came to the United States. The response was strong and immediate by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. They elected eight governors, 100 members of Congress and big city mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Abraham Lincoln took them head-on in a letter written in 1855: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’” Everywhere, the Irish were confronted with “No Irish Need Apply signs and newspaper advertisements.

The Irish were far from the only victims. For Italians, prejudice and discrimination, even lynchings and Catholic Church burnings, confronted them upon arrival. America initially welcomed Germans as teachers of the language in the late 1800s, but as World War I approached that changed radically. The country used Chinese labor to build our railroads and mine our gold, but prejudice arrived with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that lasted until its repeal in 1943. Finally, the Japanese internment camps during World War II are a sad reminder of our treatment of American citizens of Japanese descent.

Politics mitigated anti-immigrant fervor and brought change by electing new officeholders at all levels. New York and Boston elected Irish mayors starting in the 1880s, which paved the way for the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds later on. Italian politicians rose to prominence in New York City (Mayor Fiorello La Guardia), New York State (Governor Al Smith – of the Ferraro family), and San Francisco (Mayor Angelo Rossi). As America elected more leaders of color and diversity, they began to push back against unacceptable rhetoric. Through political power and influence came change and greater acceptance of diverse, multicultural viewpoints.

Where are we now in America? Unfortunately, not in a very good place.

Due partly to Donald Trump, people are more aware than ever of the role and presence of immigrants, refugees, religion, race and ethnicity. From Trump’s very first announcement, where he railed against immigrants, called them rapists and demanded a wall that Mexico would pay for, Trump put the issue of America’s diversity front and center. He called for a ban on people from six majority-Muslim countries. He has made it clear that his campaign and his presidency will be heavily defined by his hardline policies on immigration. His appeal to disaffected, less educated white voters, living in rural areas carried him to the presidency and form a core part of his base.

In a very real sense, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric kick-started his campaign for President. It played to many who felt left out, alienated and economically harmed by “the system.”  Traditionally, one of the key measurements of the national mood is whether voters believe the nation is headed in the right direction or is off track. In most national polls over the last ten years, 60-70 percent of voters consistently feel that the nation is on the wrong track. Fear dominates and voters are looking for someone or some group to blame. Immigrants, once again, are the preferred target for the new ruling coalition.

With an estimated 11 million people residing in the United States without identity papers, and the inability of our elected officials to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the kindling was ready to be ignited. When the economic crisis of 2008-2009 hit Americans hard, many of whom had not seen appreciable increases in their salaries over the past 15 years, their anger and frustration, especially against immigrants, trade, and income inequality, ballooned. Soon it became visceral and personal.

There are now more than 65 million people displaced by war and conflict. Over 500,000 new refugees have recently been added to this total with Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh. Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen all are enduring protracted conflicts. The plight of refugees cannot be ignored. Yet, the United States under President Trump wants to admit less than 50,000 refugees a year. Moreover, Trump would extend these restrictions to legal immigration as well.

Trump’s effort to single out Muslims throws gasoline on a smoldering fire. Muslims comprise 1.8 billion people and 24 percent of the world’s population. It is worth asking a simple question: how can we survive in an increasingly global, interdependent world if we stoke conflict with one quarter of the world’s population?

Fortunately, there is another path.

Here in Idaho, we have seen a positive example with the success of the Chobani plant in Twin Falls. 1,000 employees from diverse backgrounds, nations, and religious beliefs came together to carry out an investment of over $550 million. Yet, extremist talk show host and conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones and his pseudo-media company InfoWars chose to attack Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya anyway. Additionally, Breitbart and other outlets falsely linked Hamdi to extremism, terrorism and even rape. Ulukaya filed a lawsuit and ultimately received a settlement and retraction from Alex Jones. It is not easy overcoming prejudice and taking on false accusations – Twin Falls has been at ground zero dealing with anti-Muslim activity, as the New York Times recently reported. Fortunately, local government, business leaders and Idahoans from all walks of life recognize the importance and the success of what Ulukaya has accomplished.

The success of immigrant entrepreneurs is widespread. CBS News reports that immigrants have started twice as many businesses as those born in the U.S., that one-third of companies that went public (2006 to 2012) had at least one immigrant founder, and that of the 87 private companies worth over $1 billon, 51 percent had immigrant founders. According to an article from the George W. Bush Institute, “when immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise the GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus.”

It may be that E Pluribus Unum remains an aspiration, but it is worth putting at the top of our political agenda once again. By reaffirming who we are, what we stand for, and the acceptance – indeed embrace – of immigrants, we will be much stronger as a nation and a true example to the world. It takes political courage to resist the demagogues and those who want to close the doors behind them, but we can have security and stability as well as openness and freedom.

The “huddled masses” still yearn to “breathe free” and to contribute to an even better America. It is up to all of us to make that dream a reality.


Photo of Peter FennPeter Fenn worked as an aide to Senator Frank Church on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in his Senate office and on his political campaigns. He co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets and has been a political media consultant, working in all 50 states and internationally, for over thirty years.