Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Brief History of Asylum in America

In 1620, a small group of religious refugees from England, called Pilgrims, landed on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Facing persecution, imprisonment, fines and even execution in their native land, they had fled to the New World to find a better life.  Their early years were hard, but they persisted and eventually prospered.

The Pilgrims were soon joined by other refugees from England--the Puritans--who had also fled persecution in order to improve their lives.  The Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a beacon of liberty from whence the American Revolution sprang.  Many of the colonial men who assembled in the early hours of April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord to await the British Redcoats descended from the Pilgrims and Puritans.  The refusal of these offspring of 17th Century refugees to submit to tyranny remains the foundation of American liberty today.

Other religious refugees from England and elsewhere in Europe found asylum in America.  Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland all provided asylum to the persecuted and endangered.  They, too, prospered.

In the 1840's and 1850's, a flood of refugees from Germany and other parts of Europe arrived in America, fleeing the Revolutions of 1848, a largely failed group of democratic uprisings. These refugees found in America the freedom that they had been denied in Europe.  Many of the German refugees were instrumental in establishing heavy industry in America, particularly a robust machine tool industry that powered America's victory in World War II.   During the war, America produced some 295,000 aircraft, 88,000 tanks and other armored vehicles, and some 6,000 ships.  Refugees helped to make America the Arsenal of Democracy.  Even to this day, America has substantial manufacturing prowess, employing over 12 million people and producing over $2 trillion worth of goods.

During the first half of the 1860's, a large number of refugees of African descent fled bondage in the Confederate States of America and found asylum from the blue-coated Union Army.  Some 200,000  African-Americans enlisted in the Union Army and bolstered the ranks of the Army of the Potomac that Ulysses S. Grant led to victory over Robert E. Lee.  These refugees, too, fought and sometimes died for the liberty we now enjoy.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, many Jewish inhabitants of Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire fled pogroms--persecutions that featured mass murders, pillaging and destruction of property.  Many and perhaps most were penniless and not well educated when they arrived.   But they and their offspring prospered in the warmth of American freedom and can now be counted among the most successful of Americans.

In 1949, a small group of Chinese college and graduate students studying at American universities, around 3,000, were stranded by the Communist victory in China.  These students were largely from well-educated and well-to-do backgrounds, which made them enemies of the people from the Communist perspective.  Many of their family members remaining in China were treated harshly by the Communists, up to the point of execution in some cases, and suffered the loss of their jobs and property.  These students faced the same if they returned to China.  But they were given asylum in America.  Many found jobs in the high tech industries, and played important roles in developing modern electronics, including the integrated circuits that are at the heart of modern computers. 

When we look at photographs of those seeking asylum today, we should see not just what they are at the moment, but the potential they offer.  Refugees have powerful reasons to work and succeed, more so than those who ensconced in comfortable suburbs or upscale urban neighborhoods.  Providing asylum is an act of compassion and mercy (witness the sanctuary offered by Christian churches since ancient times).  It also brings social and economic benefits that have powered America to its status as the world's sole superpower.  The energy and motivation of asylum seekers and other immigrants can bolster America's safety nets--Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--with the employment taxes they will pay at a time when native-born Americans have falling birth rates, lower employment force participation, and aging demographics.  Countries in Europe and Asia face the same and more severe demographic problems. But their tightfisted attitudes toward immigration and asylum will force them gradually to cut back on social safety nets, which will likely lead to ugly political maelstroms. America is vibrant and flexible enough to avoid that outcome. 

So, when you hear the cry of an asylum seeking child, think about what asylum has done for America.  Those who know history may sometimes want to repeat it.

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