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National Immigrants Day: Celebrating the United States’ ‘melting pot’

By Marylou Tousignant Special to the Washington Post

Oct. 28 was not an official U.S. holiday, but maybe it should be because Oct. 28 is National Immigrants Day. An immigrant is someone who comes to a country to live there, usually permanently.

The United States prides itself on being a land of immigrants. Some of the most stirring and often-quoted words in our nation’s history are written in bronze at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, which has welcomed millions of immigrants to this country:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The United States has more immigrants than any other nation – about 45 million, or nearly 14% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. If you or your parents are not among them, chances are you don’t have to look far back on your family tree to discover which of your ancestors made the daring decision to leave their homeland and start a new life here.

Scientists have widely debated when and how the first people arrived in North America. A recent report on footprints discovered in New Mexico suggests that humans might have lived here at least 21,000 years ago. It’s not known whether they came from Asia on a land bridge or from elsewhere by sea. But wherever they came from, they were our first immigrants.

European explorations of the New World in the 16th century started the “modern” era of immigration in what is now the United States. English, Spanish, Dutch, French and other people came for many reasons, including religious and political freedom and the hope of a better life.

Some were forced: Enslaved people from West Africa were brought to the American colonies in chains starting in 1619. More than 450,000 Africans became immigrants this way, although at the time they were considered property.

The 19th century had large waves of newcomers. Germans headed for the cities and farms of the Midwest. Irish, facing starvation at home, descended on the East Coast, accounting for nearly half of all U.S. immigrants in the 1840s.

Asians, the majority of whom were Chinese, were lured to California by news of the discovery of gold in 1848. In the late 1800s, Central and Southern Europeans began streaming in along with 2 million Jews fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe.

About three-fourths of these immigrants arrived by ship in New York. As their numbers swelled, a large processing center opened on Ellis Island in 1892. More than 12 million immigrants passed through it before it closed in 1954. Forty percent of Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island, according to the National Park Service, which manages the popular tourist site.

A 1908 play popularized the term “melting pot” to describe how the blending of nationalities, customs and beliefs made the United States stronger. Not everyone agreed, and racial and social tensions often flared. If they found work at all, immigrants usually were paid less. New taxes and literacy (reading and writing) tests were imposed.

Most significantly, new laws limited overall immigration while favoring certain countries. Immigration by Chinese workers, for example, was put on hold in 1882, and those already here were denied citizenship. This lasted until 1943.

About 1 million immigrants now arrive in the United States each year. Additionally, large numbers of would-be immigrants from Central America and Mexico – many of them children traveling on their own – have gathered on the Southern border. Polls show that Americans think immigration is good for the country, but the heated debate over who can and should be granted entry continues.

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