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Six Historical Precedents to the Debate Over Syrian Refugees

What we can learn from the United States' checkered immigration legacy.

As a nation of immigrants, America is a country built on the promise that those who arrive on our shores will be afforded the opportunity to create a better life than the one they left behind.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.


In fact, a look back at the history of the United States paints a different picture altogether—one in which people are brought to this country against their will, or detained upon arrival, or are simply refused entry altogether (to say nothing of the treatment of those native peoples who predate European colonialization). In fact, as a nation of immigrants, America has a decidedly mixed track record when it comes to living up to the offer etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, inviting the world’s poor, tired, and huddled masses to enjoy a better existence within its borders.

This week, the debate over whether—and to what degree—the United States should resettle Syrians fleeing the horrific violence that has pulverized their home country hit a series of alarming lows; GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a national Muslim tracking database, fellow office-seeker Dr. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs,” and the U.S. House of Representatives voted by a margin of nearly two to one in favor of blocking the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The truth is that since it’s inception, the United States has struggled to embody the very ideals it professes to the world. And so, wave after wave of immigrants and refugees have been subject to scrutiny, abuse, and derision, simply for being “next” in the long line of peoples arriving at America’s borders. This week it’s Syrian refugees. Before that, it was Mexicans, Jews, Irish, and Chinese, to name just a few who made the journey to America, and in doing so, made this country better than it was before.

Here, then, is a brief history of America’s history of immigration debates.