The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights

The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights

The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights

The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights


Despite rhetoric that suggests that the United States opens its doors to virtually anyone who wants to come here, immigration has been restricted since the nation began. In this book, Kevin R. Johnson argues that immigration policy reflects the social hierarchy that prevails in American society as a whole and that immigration reform is intertwined with the struggle for civil rights. The "Huddled Masses" Myth focuses on the exclusion of people of color, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, the poor, political dissidents, and other disfavored groups, showing how bias shapes the law. In the nineteenth century, for example, virulent anti-Asian bias excluded would-be immigrants from China and severely restricted those from Japan. In our own time, people fleeing persecution and poverty in Haiti generally have been treated much differently from those fleeing Cuba. Johnson further argues that although domestic minorities (whether citizens or lawful immigrants) enjoy legal protections and might even be courted by politicians, they are regarded as subordinate groups and suffer discrimination. This book has particular resonance today as the public debates the uncertain status of immigrants from Arab countries and of the Muslim faith. Author note: Kevin R. Johnson is Associate Dean as well as Professor of Law and Chicana/o Studies at The University of California, Davis. His book, How Did You Get to Be Mexican?: A White/Brown Man's Search for Identity was published by Temple in 1999.


One of the more overquoted poems in U.S. history is Emma Lazarus's “The New Colossus”:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

These famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty unquestionably shaped the national consciousness about immigration to the United States throughout the twentieth century. At times, the nation has acted with incredible generosity toward immigrants, in a manner entirely consistent with the laudable ideal expressed by Lazarus. However, the U.S. immigration laws have also occasioned a darker history, one that is painful to recall and thus frequently forgotten. This book, in its focus on this harsher side of the nation's immigration history, contends that the U.S. government's treatment of immigrants is inextricably linked to the efforts of domestic minorities to secure civil rights and full membership in U.S. society.

At least in broad strokes, the U.S. embrace of the “huddled masses” model of immigration has influenced the nation's immigration law and policy. The United States, for example, accepts many more immigrants than most nations, hundreds of thousands each year. Indeed, over nine hundred . . .

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