'America's always had a love-hate relationship with immigration': The caravan and the country's immigrant past

The Tenement Museum tells the stories of generations of American immigrants. Museum president Kevin Jennings says the caravan making its way toward the southern U.S. border is the continuation of that history.

Tenement Museum president Kevin Jennings says the caravan is the continuation of America's immigrant history

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands travelling from Central America en route to the United States, queue for food in a makeshift camp in Mexico City, Mexico, November 8, 2018. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
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Kevin Jennings tells the stories of immigrants who came and settled in the tenements on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

More than 15,000 people, from over 20 different countries, made their homes in those tenements over the course of many decades. Their stories are told at the Tenement Museum in New York City.

Kevin Jennings, the museum's president, likens the experiences of immigrants in the 20th century to those of the thousands of people currently making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border in what's being called the migrant caravan.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday invoked extraordinary national security powers to deny asylum for migrants who enter the country illegally as the caravans approach the U.S.-Mexico border.

As criticism and attacks on the caravan continue, including fake stories about how the caravan is funded or alleging that it will bring diseases — and even bombs — into the U.S., Jennings tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that he sees echoes of past stories in the caravan of today.

Here is part of their conversation:

You've been following the personal stories of some of the people in this caravan. What are the parallels that you see between their stories, and the stories that are told in the Tenement Museum?

What we tell here at the Tenement Museum are the real stories of people who immigrated to the United States beginning in the 1860s and ending in the 1960s. And a lot of these folks came out of desperation.

They came because the countries they were coming from were poor, they were war torn, there was political turmoil and they were engaging in very dangerous journeys to come here.

A view of Orchard Street, an area lined with low-rise tenements, on Manhattan's Lower East Side circa 1915. (Museum of the City of New York)

In the case of the Irish, about one in 10 people coming to the country died in the so-called coffin ships that brought them across.

So, when we look at the journeys of people coming from Central America they're coming from poor countries with tremendous amounts of political turmoil.

They're engaging in an incredibly dangerous journey on foot across Mexico, across deserts, across mountains. And in some ways it is very reminiscent of what previous groups of immigrants have had to do to get to America before.

So, people coming to America, fleeing persecution, looking for a better life — this is part of the American story. Why do you think the caravan of today is so controversial?

I think, first of all, we have to look to our leaders for how they are leading at this time.

They could either welcome people who are different than ourselves or they could tell us to be afraid of people who are different than ourselves, and the message we're getting from some of our leaders is to be afraid. And if you stoke people's fears you shouldn't be surprised when they react with fear.

I think, secondly ... often in previous era's immigrants have been portrayed as threats to America. And that's what's happening once again with these caravans.

Rather than understand them as being much like immigrants who came before — people seeking better lives and fleeing places where it's very difficult to live — they're being portrayed as people who are coming here to somehow do us harm. 

A view of Orchard Street circa 1898. (Museum of the City of New York via Tenement Museum)

I don't think that's the case. I think that immigrants of yesteryear and immigrants of today are very similar. There are people who simply want to create better lives for their families and are trying to get out of a bad situation to a better one.

And if we were to look at today's caravans within the context of the people who came in the past, we'd find that they're really not so different than our own ancestors.

But historically, did those waves of earlier immigrants face similar fear mongering as what you describe is happening today?

Absolutely. The Irish who came in the 1800s were greeted with 'No Irish Need Apply' signs. In 1882, the federal government enacted the so-called Chinese Exclusion Act which specifically forbade further immigration of Chinese people to America.

In 1924, the federal government enacted the National Origins Act which set quotas for Italians and Eastern Europeans so that they could exclude largely Jewish immigrants.

America has always had a love-hate relationship with immigration. On the one hand, we have the Statue of Liberty telling us that we welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. On the other hand we have a long tradition of prejudice and laws designed to keep immigrants out.  

And propaganda, I think, against waves of immigration as well. When you hear Fox News commentators talking about the caravan bringing disease to the U.S., is there an historical precedent for that kind of propaganda? There's no factual basis for that. This is propaganda.

Absolutely. Whether you take the Irish in the 1800s, or the Chinese in the late 19th century, or Jews and Italians [in] the early 20th century, the same types of arguments are always made against them.

They are speaking unfamiliar languages, they're practicing unfamiliar religions, they come from different racial and cultural backgrounds than us and they're going to somehow do damage to our country.

 I'm sorry to say that many of our leaders right now seem to be on the 'fear and loathing' end of the spectrum.- Kevin Jennings, The Tenement Museum

So, the names of the villains change from the Irish to the Chinese to the Jews to the Italians to the Central Americans, but the arguments are always the same.

And one thing the history proves is that none of those things turned out ever to be true; that these folks end up becoming good loyal Americans who contributed enormously to our society.

Our society wouldn't be what it is today without the contributions of these waves and waves of immigrants. So, the idea that somehow these folks are coming here to do us harm ignores the historical fact that immigrants have helped build this country.

But a lot of people are willing to ignore those facts. You wrote an op-ed in The New York Daily News asking people to consider how desperate these refugees are. Who are you trying to reach? Why did you feel compelled to write that?

I think that somehow people view today's refugees as different than refugees of previous generations, whereas in reality I don't think they are.

My ancestors came from Canada. They were French-Canadians who were seeking better jobs in the United States in the late 19th century. They just wanted to create better lives for themselves than was available to them in Quebec at the time.

The Tenement Museum shares the stories and history of immigrants to the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. (Submitted by Tenement Museum)

I don't think that the Central Americans coming to America today in the 21st century are any different than my French-Canadian ancestors who came in the late 19th century. What they have in common is they were trying to find a better life for themselves and their families.

That to me is a universal human urge and we should recognize that human beings — there may be differences among us — but at the end we all want the same thing. which is to provide a good life for ourselves and our families.

And regardless of what time period, or what background people come from, that story is always the same.

Are you hopeful about the way people will view immigration going forward? Do you think we're living in a dark time or do you think that this is historically like any other time?

I think this all comes down to a question of leadership. Our leaders can either encourage acceptance and appreciation of difference, or they can encourage fear and loathing of people who are different.

I'm sorry to say that many of our leaders right now seem to be on the fear and loathing end of the spectrum. And I'm hopeful that we can see some leadership that shows real leadership which would be embracing of different and teaching people to be afraid of it.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Kevin Jennings, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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