We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. (William Shakespeare)
With all this frenzied chatter about a monolithic wall to keep “bad hombres” out, and religious tests to ban Muslims from entering the United States, one might get the impression that hostility toward immigrants is a new phenomenon in America, reflective of a contemporary global threat in its urgency to keep us “safe.” Nothing could be further from the truth. (Have patience, we’ll get to Shakespeare before the final curtain.)
When the Religious Society of Friends, who became known as Quakers, formed in mid-17th century England, they were persecuted by the established church and its leaders. Some Quakers took refuge in the Netherlands. Others came to the New World where, quelle surprise!, their books were burned, their
property confiscated, and their “heretic” selves thrown into prisons or banished by Massachusetts Puritans. Several were executed.
Under the leadership of Roger Williams, a community of Quakers established a safe haven at Providence Plantations (now, Rhode Island) in 1657, but that same year saw Quakers being flogged, fined, and imprisoned in New Amsterdam (the southern tip of Manhattan). When Edward Hart, the town clerk of Flushing, reminded Governor Stuyvesant that the town charter promised citizens liberty of conscience, Hart was arrested along with two other magistrates who had signed his petition.
What Would Emma Lazarus Say?
Okay, it can be argued that this was well before we declared our independence and became this grand experiment called the United States of America. Before we proclaimed ourselves a melting pot. Before the Statue of Liberty lifted her torch, a beacon of light to welcome the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as poet Emma Lazarus put it. And yet, in the several decades both before and after Lady Liberty was erected (1886), hostility to immigrants was vocal and widespread.
What were these “dirty, lazy, untrustworthy” Irish, Italians, and Chinese wannabe citizens doing to earn such public disapprobation?
Well, many of them were building the railroads that would span the country, connecting the East Coast to the West, and increasing the wealth of a newly-industrialized America by millions.
One of the charges made against immigrants then and now is that they “steal” jobs from “real” Americans. But I’m guessing the wealth did not trickle down to those who actually built the railroads. And the work was brutal. Tunneling through the Sierra Mountains at eight inches a day with hammers and chisels, always under threat from the black powder used to blast through the rock. Laying down mile after mile of track by hand in the rain, wind, and snow. Today, immigrants harvest our food and slaughter livestock on industrial and factory farms. Grueling work that leaves many workers sick and broken. Let’s be honest: Immigrants have always done the jobs no one else wants to do. And their employers have always profited handsomely. Sub-minimum wages. No benefits.
The (Reluctant) Melting Pot
Discrimination against immigrants based on religion, and the resulting clamor to implement discriminatory immigration laws is not new either. The influx of Irish immigrants throughout the 1800s met with violent riots and demands for limits on their rights. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a kind of KKK against Catholic immigrants, supported a 21-year waiting period for naturalization and a ban blocking anyone but native-born Protestants from holding public office. The OSSB later reformed as the American Party under the motto “Americans Shall Rule America.” In the decade before the Civil War, they won a number of local and state elections.
Americans were so disgruntled by the influx of Italian immigrants in the 1920s, President Woodrow Wilson felt empowered to enact a raft of anti-immigration legislation. Italians were thought to be low-class, ignorant, and prone to criminal activity. And like the Irish, they were Catholics.
Most shameful of all is the hard line taken by the U.S. against Jews fleeing certain death at the hands of Hitler and his Nazis. In a November 2015 Smithsonian article, Daniel A. Gross writes: In a long tradition of “persecuting the refugee,” the State Department and FDR claimed that Jewish immigrants could threaten national security.
In 1942, a ship transporting hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution left Sweden for New York City. On board was a German man, Herbert K.F. Bahr, who the FBI later accused of being a Nazi spy, paid by the Gestapo to steal American industrial secrets. His case got a speedy trial where the prosecution asked for the death penalty. But the real crime was that Bahr’s alleged treachery was used as an excuse to prevent thousands of Jews from entering the country. Even President Roosevelt argued the threat to national security posed by a spy in refugee clothing.
Bahr, however, was more of a lightning rod for prevailing anti-immigrant attitudes than a cause for same. As far back as the late 1930s, the U.S. was denying visas to European Jews. In 1939, the German liner St. Louis with its hundreds of Jewish passengers was turned away at the port of Miami and forced to return to Europe, where many of those aboard died in the Holocaust.
Although most historians, Gross says, believe Bahr to have been the exception rather than the rule, government agencies such as the State Department were happy to use him to promote their case against refugees. It wasn’t until 1944 that a whistleblower from the Treasury Department issued a report stating:
“I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”
As a result of this report, Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board, an organization that made it possible for tens of thousands of Jewish refugees to gain entrance to America. But what of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Jews who might have been saved in the years before?
Present Echoes of the Past
Today’s refugee crisis is as great as that of World War II. The total number of displaced people at the end of 2015 was 65.3 million (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), or one out of every 113 people on Earth, and the number keeps rising.
Again, we hear protests over religion. They’re Muslims! (Echo: Jews! Catholics!) Again, we hear how refugees will take Americans’ jobs (would these be the jobs already farmed out to countries where U.S. corporations pay $1.00 or less an hour?). Perhaps they have the “wrong” skin color, speak the “wrong” language, play the “wrong” games or laugh at the “wrong” things.
Let me repeat: The fight against immigrants is nothing new. Will Shakespeare understood this. He made an eloquent case for mercy toward refugees in his 147-line contribution to the revised drama Sir Thomas More (originally written by Anthony Munday).
In Shakespeare’s day, upheavals over religion and the flexing of muscle by new nation states (remember, this is the dawn of capitalism) brought many refugees/immigrants to England’s shores. The English people, feeling the strain of several bad harvests and the continual feeding of Elizabeth I’s war chest, resented the newcomers and feared these “foreigners” would (all together now) TAKE THEIR JOBS! Riots were common. Sir Thomas More was felt to be so incendiary in its portrayal of such riots that the Master of the Revels would not allow the play to be performed during Elizabeth’s lifetime.
In his contribution to the revised play, Shakespeare has Thomas More deliver a moving address to the anti-immigrant rioters. Through More, Shakespeare pleads for compassion and tolerance. What if it were you? he asks.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Shakespeare understood: It’s not easy to leave your homeland. Your extended family. All your connections and familiar places. People who do so risk everything they have. They are strong, resourceful, determined, hopeful. Not bad qualities for a prospective citizen. I like to think we are big enough, strong enough, kind enough to take them in. It’s who we profess to be after all. A nation of immigrants. And how terrible it would be to realize, as Oskar Schindler does (at the close of Schindler’s List), “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I didn’t do enough.”