They Who Knock Cover PictureThey Who Knock at Our Gates
by Mary Antin

The stories of my immigrant great-grandparents were woven all through the years I spent living in the same house with Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe it’s because of that, but whenever I hear anyone speaking dismissively of today’s immigrants, I want to rush to their defense. When I came across a copy of this little book, written a hundred years ago, I wanted to shout “Yes! That’s it!” to the author.  Mary Antin hit the target and put her finger on exactly the point that has bothered me, the sore spot that I’ve never quite been able to name in words.

This is what burns — that we’re missing the point. Those who want to restrict immigration because “they take away jobs” and those who want to encourage it  because “they do jobs no American wants to do” are both equally missing the point. They are both talking as though it’s merely a utilitarian issue. The hollow empty place inside me, the place that hungered for a satisfaction, found something solid in Antin’s discussion. The real point is that we have an unacknowledged, unexamined moral question that lies at the root of the whole tree. Who are we, and what is America? If we can’t answer that question, then we are chasing shadows, arguing trivia.

Mary Antin takes us back to the foundation, back to the Declaration of Independence, back to the roots of the American experiment. What follows, one way or another, must grow from that root, or else it is just dead wood.

I read this little book for LibriVox.  Here’s the audiobook version, if you want to listen.

In 1914, over one million immigrants arrived in the United States, following in the footsteps of approximately ten million others who had arrived in the preceding decade. Faced with so many newcomers, many of them from backgrounds new to the American mix, voices in government and in the press had begun arguing in favor of more severely restrictionist immigration policies. In They Who Knock at Our Gates, Mary Antin broke down the discussion into three basic questions. First, the ethical question — Where do we discover a right to restrict new arrivals, in light of all men’s equal natural rights as declared by our founding documents? Second, the factual questions — Who are these new immigrants, what sorts of gifts and qualities do they possess, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and what biases do we bring to our assessment of them? And third, the slippery question of individual interpretation — How shall we decide without prejudice whether immigration is good for us, as a nation and as individual citizens? Written a century ago, Mary Antin’s analysis of the “immigration question” still speaks to current readers.