What does the treatment of immigrants say about American values in terms of  its commitment to equality, liberty, dignity in early 20th Century?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that the treatment of immigrants reflects a complex reality in terms of American values such as equality, liberty, and dignity.  One part of the statement being made regarding such values is that there is a degree of struggle and toil needed to achieve them.  The idea of "the New World" as one where an individual can find their own vision of the American Dream is essential to understanding the swelling behind immigration in the early 20th Century.  Emma Lazarus' poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty speaks to this condition of being in the world:  

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to be breath free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming short./ Send these, the homeless, tempest- tost to me,/ I life my lamp beside the golden door.

These words were seen as the greeting to many of the new immigrants coming to America in the early 20th Century. Such words spoke to the nation's commitment to equality, liberty, and dignity. It was an essential part to the treatment of immigrants at the time. They were critical in carving out America's place in the world as "the New World" where "the streets were paved with gold."  The vision of America as a haven for people who sought personal freedom in varied forms as well as a "better life" for they and their families was an active and vibrant one that appealed to many immigrants.  This activation of this idea in the immigrant mind is a part of the treatment of immigrants in early 20th Century American History.

The vision of hope with which most immigrants entered America or treated themselves to in emigrating to America was tested with the conditions in the nation.  There were many challenges that immigrants faced when they came to America.  These challenges spoke to the gulf between theory and reality, between the promises of hope and the conditions of life that govern such possibility.  

The immigrant of early 20th Century America did not find "the streets paved with gold."  Work was difficult to find and work that was found was not automatically filled with wealth.  Like so many workers in the time period, immigrants had to work in low paying jobs for many hours. Immigrants who did not speak English were often taken advantage of and manipulated by those who were craft enough to do so.  At the same time, immigrants did not find themselves able to live where they wanted to with a sense of immediacy. Many immigrants had to live in ethnically designed neighborhoods because of such lack of opportunity.  The treatment of immigrants made the promises of hope a challenging reality.  For many, the American Dream that was so alluring to the immigrant of the Early 20th Century was such a challenge in achieving that there were moments where it became the American Nightmare.

This chasm between hope and reality became a part of the immigrant experience in the early 20th Century.  This treatment reflects how the immigrant's hope and desire to achieve equality, liberty, and dignity were essential to the achievement of their dreams.  The core belief of commitment to achieving these values was reflective of the challenges they faced.  The will to persevere through harsh realities such as discrimination and prejudice, economic challenge, and alienation was reflective of the difficulty intrinsic to America of the time.  It also speaks to how equality, liberty, and dignity were conditions that could be achieved.  Yet, their attainment had to be matched with a commitment to do so.  The absence of this resolve made their grasp elusive for many.  

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