Is It Safe?

02/23/2017 09:47 am ET

I have been haunted lately by the repeated question that the late Laurence Olivier asks of Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film Marathon Man: “Is it safe?”

With no clue about the referent for the question, Hoffman repeatedly assures the looming figure in the white coat that “it” is safe, but he is left screaming under the kind of torture in a dental chair that might force any of us to confession.

What does it mean to be safe? And how can we be sure? The recent controversy over the president’s comments on an ambiguous migrant crisis in Sweden has provoked laughter, but might also cause citizens of the United States with Swedish ancestors (I am half Swedish) to wonder about a potential restriction on Scandinavian immigration. Such a restriction seems unlikely, but there was once popular resistance to the immigration of hungry farmers from countries like Sweden – or, notably, Ireland during the “potato famine” (I am also part Irish). My grandfather’s family changed their name so they wouldn’t sound Swedish – and the children were urged to speak English rather than Swedish to the point where they no longer knew the language.

Further controversy seems inspired by the legacy of former president Andrew Jackson. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln were presented, in that order, as great presidents troubled by the newspapers. Yet of course the press has always commented on presidents. During tumultuous political campaigns, Jefferson read newspapers that contained salacious gossip about his relationship with Sally Heming, gossip that took 200 years to substantiate. Lincoln's press rumors contained loaded speculation about his family. Jackson found himself the target of accusations over his possibly bigamous marriage. As a Tennessee frontiersman, Jackson was said to have challenged more than one hundred men to duels, though he was only known to have killed one of them.

The symbolism of Andrew Jackson as recently installed on the wall of the Oval Office, in effect looking over the shoulder of the current president, includes a different relation to the expulsion of people who might seek to be citizens. That is, Jackson is remembered more for promoting the Indian removal act. Signed in 1830, the act proposed an "exchange " of territory for people who “chose” to remove from land in that had become coveted by white inhabitants. Territory in the western part of the United States was presented as available: "For the reception of such tribes or nations as may choose to exchange the land where they now reside, and remove there." The history of the act includes events subsequently referred to as the “Trail of Tears,” because of the number of deaths that accompanied a forced march west, making it clear that any proposed compensation was inadequate.

Such a legacy of violent expulsion combined with Jackson’s participation in legalized slavery encouraged the decision to replace his face on the $20 bill with that of the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman. Now Jackson’s face looks on as new legislation proposing expulsion crosses the desk of the president. For citizens of the United States as well as those seeking to become citizens, the question might still be asked: “Is it safe?”

The matter of safety goes further. Last week, a “day without immigrants” was observed. The call went out for immigrants to boycott restaurants and shops – and to stay home from classes and jobs – in order to highlight the ways that the United States has historically depended on immigrant labor. The earliest restrictions on importing humans into the United States when slavery was a legal enterprise did not include imagining that people imported in order to be sold could ever become citizens. Rather, the first laws restricting immigration concerned white people who were refugees from the French Revolution.

The desire to expel people described as alien developed from a fear of French refugees shortly after the United States had declared itself to be a sovereign nation. Endorsed by President John Adams and a precedent for subsequent executive orders, the “Alien Enemies Act” of 1798 specifically targets “males of the age of fourteen years and upwards” and directs that they become subject to removal whenever “any invasion or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States.” This Act authorizes deputies to carry out the wishes of the president.

Behind the act, then as now, was fear of the invasion of aliens. At the time, refugees from the violence of the French Revolution were considered potential carriers of both disease and revolution, even as the United States had just been created out of the mixture of alien inhabitants described so eloquently by the late eighteenth century writer Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. A temporary immigrant, Crevecoeur returned to Paris to write a fantasy of Americans as “melted into a new race of man.” His Letters from an American Farmer (1782) at first celebrates the agrarian ideal that Thomas Jefferson preferred, but then devolves into the horror of witnessing, on a journey to the south, a man caged, with birds beginning to peck out his eyes. Put in a cage for resisting the conditions of slavery, the man begs to be killed. As a witness to such horror, the narrator whose idealism about farming drives the beginning of the narrative can only retreat in shame.

Lingering shame that the long existence of slavery brings to participation in this democratic republic has remained part of the United States in spite of the Civil War that officially ended it. That the immigration practices of the United States included both the violence of slavery and the violent expulsion of aliens leads us back to the acts of a congress more than two hundred years ago. Wanting to name and describe alien identity in terms of specific countries of allegiance led to the development of the 1798 “Alien Act.” Yet to describe who might be an alien then too easily included citizens whose history involves immigrant ancestors while ignoring the practice of slavery. And the immigrant ancestors we need to remember are those tens of millions whose immigration was involuntary.

The restrictions imposed on subsequent immigration have almost always had to do with a reaction to importing necessary labor, such as the immigrants from China brought in to help build the transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century. After the railroad was finished, they were seen as competition and the United States enacted the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The commentary that has filled the airwaves over the past two weeks has included accusations about terrorism as well as interrogations of historical precedent. Some of the historical precedent has been traced to the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882, and not repealed until China had become an ally of the United States during World War II. Another notable precedent is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, an act authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 and recently commemorated. To round up American citizens and confine them in camps was an act that still reminds people of concentration camps. But it should also remind people of the way that humans were rounded up and incarcerated on the ships that entered ports all along the shores of the United States, an unrestricted act of immigration carried out in order to import bodies for sale.

To remember the full history of immigrant labor in the United States is to suggest that rather than treating laboring humans as commodities to be bought and sold – or deported – the dignity of labor entitles humans to a path to citizenship. A country that established itself through declarations of human dignity – and that notably declared the right to pursue happiness – has always, even reluctantly, offered to convert aliens into citizens.

Right now the country offers safety pins when it needs to offer safety.

Shirley Samuels is a Professor of English and American Studies at Cornell University and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

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