“This Land Is Our Land: A History of American Immigration,”
by Linda Barrett Osborne.
Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, 124 pages, Grades 5-7.
The United States was built by people immigrating to these shores seeking a better life. The countries all these immigrants came from were often torn by war, persecution or oppression. It is little wonder that the United States looked like a land of opportunity. All of the people arriving in America eventually became a great melting pot of different nationalities, religions and races.
Because of the mix of races and religions, the United States has always faced the difficulties of trying to balance charity with political necessity. It is not an easy path. Linda Barrett Osborne has written a powerful account of the forces behind immigration to America and how the country has coped with the many different groups seeking shelter here.
With the exception of Native Americans, everyone in the United States comes from a history of immigration. In the beginning of the country, these groups tended to be from England and were persecuted for their religious beliefs in Europe. The American Colonies looked like a panacea to these suffering groups and they quickly established settlements and towns. This part of American immigration was mostly comprised of white people from England. Since they spoke English and had many Anglo-Saxon customs, they reflected most of the values of Great Britain. This produced some colonies that could be described as White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (WASP).
But as the 19th century progressed, new groups began flocking to the United States because of European catastrophes. One of the first was the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. With death and destitution stalking Ireland, about one million Irish came to the United States. Here they were met with suspicion by the well-established WASP society. Common complaints were that the Irish were clannish, dirty, drunken and being Catholic, of the wrong religion. For decades they faced oppression. But as the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, the railroad companies suddenly liked the Irish immigrants. They were useful doing the hard and brutal work of constructing a massive railroad from Omaha to San Francisco.
At the same time, in California, the railroad companies found they also needed a useful group of workers to blast through the Rocky Mountains laying railroad track eastward. They found that the Chinese immigrants fit the bill. So with Irish immigrants pushing west and Chinese immigrants tunneling east, the great American wonder, the Transcontinental Railroad, was built. But soon groups native to the United States, such as the No Nothing Party and others began clamoring to halt immigration, saying these immigrants would ruin our society with their mix of races and differing languages, religions and customs. Laws were soon passed to limit immigration. However, the supposed threat of the immigrants tended to change regarding these policies when a large amount of workers were needed in an industry. And so, back and forth the argument went. Should we let them in, or keep them out? Could we live with them, or can we survive without them? Where does charity intersect with justice?
Linda Barrett Osborne has written an outstanding book about the groups that immigrated to the United States and their immense contributions to American society. She argues that a country has a right to protect its borders but that it should also remember that the United States was built by immigrants. Osborne gives no easy answers to the complex questions surrounding immigration. But she does show that enlightened public policy has always benefitted the United States. I hope you get a chance to read this timely book and share it with other family members. It is available at many public libraries and can be ordered in book stores.