America has always had a love-hate relationship with immigrants. Even the first contacts between Europeans and indigenous people met with mixed reactions. Some natives welcomed and assisted the intruders while others resisted them vigorously.
As white Europeans entered the continent in increasing numbers from England, Holland and Scotland, each successive wave was castigated and denigrated as a threat to the existing culture. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, recognized that this fledgling nation might become a destination for oppressed minorities and observed that "immigration, therefore, must be approached carefully and cautiously."
French and Spanish settlers, who shared the continent with their Protestant brothers and sisters, worshipped the same God but through different intermediaries, which led to internecine wars over centuries. The ethnic enclaves they established were characterized by diverse languages and cultures that brought a variety of food, music and sports. Yet these early arrivals shared the dream of religious freedom and a work ethic that fed into a motivation for success.
Not all of the early settlers came by choice. By 1865, 4 million Africans were held as slave laborers to build the nascent capitalist economy. They were treated as chattel and viewed by many inhabitants of the colonies as subhuman. They shared public opprobrium with later arrivals, denigrated as inferior to the established Anglo stock. When waves of Irish fleeing the devastating potato famine in the 1850s arrived, they, too, were treated with contempt and derision, stemming from fear of competition for jobs and cultural contamination.
The influx of Asians, principally Chinese in the late 1800s, led to laws that sought to limit their number and restrict the civil rights of those already here. But the American industrial engine demanded an infusion of new sweat, which led to a massive influx of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Coming mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe, more than 25 million passed through Ellis Island, where they were greeted by Lady Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
This new wave of immigration again precipitated a backlash nourished by a eugenicist movement that viewed them as unwanted ne'er-do-wells polluting the Anglo gene pool. The writings of Madison Grant, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Lothrop Stoddard provided impetus for the anti-immigrant reaction, as did Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in their effort to purify the "master race."
Today, Ellis Island is a national museum, a place where 40 percent of Americans have roots. And while the harsh rhetoric of the racist eugenicists has diminished, there are, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,000 established hate groups in this country and, as sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, more than 60,000 hate websites on the Internet spewing racist anti-immigration venom not unlike earlier versions.
New immigrants to the United States are religious minorities from Asia and the Middle East — Buddhists and Muslims — who are joined by millions of Latinos from Mexico and Central and South America. Like their predecessors, they come in search of better lives, the American Dream that eludes many hard-working people already here, some of whom resent them.
The Bureau of the Census tells us that the complexion of this nation is changing — that the rate of intermarriage among blacks, Latinos, whites and Asians is increasing and the number of births of children of color now exceeds whites. As our white population ages and its birthrate declines, we should not forget the many paths that brought us to this point in history.
Founded as a secular pluralist nation, a refuge for persecuted religious minorities, and a haven where people could pursue their dream of social and economic independence, America has benefitted from cultural diversity. It continues to do so. Forty percent of all the scientists and engineers in the country as well as 25 percent of our physicians are foreign graduates. We will continue to depend and thrive on the diverse talents of immigrants and their blood, sweat and tears.
As we celebrate our nation's birthday, we must resolve to continue the struggle for equality of educational and occupational opportunities that will make the promise of America a reality — truly e pluribus unum.
H. Roy Kaplan was the executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. His most recent book is "The Myth of Post-Racial America."