Lily Winner and immigration, then and now

Ninety-one years ago today, journalist and playwright Lily Winner published an essay in The Nation entitled "American Emigrés." She wrote:

"Why has America the 'melting-pot' failed to Americanize? Why is Congress, in its hysterical weathervane fashion, passing bills to restrict immigration when, by casual inquiry, it could ascertain that the margin between arrivals of new people and departure of old, is so slight as not to fill the hearts of employing capital with boundless joy?"

Winner was an advocate not only for open immigration, but also for acculturation. She condemned the lack of programs to teach immigrants American manners and values and lamented the fact that many immigrants sent or brought American capital back to their home countries. Though her critique smacks of what we would today recognize as ethnocentric intolerance, Winner fought against the maltreatment of immigrant workers--a position that placed her squarely among the progressive voices of her time. (She was also an outspoken advocate of birth control!)

I have to wonder what would Lily Winner think of the various immigration discourses in America today.

I imagine she would oppose the 2010 legislation enacted in Arizona that makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police the authority to detain anyone they suspect of entering the country illegaly. As an advocate for the fair treatment of immigrants, I am inclined to believe she would see this as a civil rights infringement, opening the door to discriminatory racial profiling practices in the state.

As a advocate for women's reproductive freedom, I feel that Winner would have seen right through the "anchor baby" argument--a kerfufle that occurred in response to a proposed Arizona bill directly challenging the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause that grants the citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. Some Republicans believed that people were immigrating to the U.S. illegally and having children here in order to use their so-called "anchor babies" as a way to gain citizenship for the whole family. Of course, Winner opposed restrictions on immigration, therefore invalidating the idea of "illegal immigration" all together. Additionally, she wanted immigrants to stay in the U.S. and contribute to the American economy. If anything, Winner might have welcomed the idea of "anchor babies" as a way to keep immigrants here and help them acculturate into American society.

And this week, I am particularly wondering what Lily Winner would make of the recent announcement that for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S. As a supporter of the melting-pot idea, I imagine she might have some trouble with this news and all it implies. Particularly, she might not support the move from the melting pot to the "salad bowl" or "mosaic" or whatever metaphor for a pluralistic understanding of American manners and values you prefer.

Would Winner be uncomfortable with this new minority-as-majority American society? Would she rail against things like bilingual public education? Or would she be able to roll with the times, rise above the prejudice of her era, and remain a progressive voice on immigration in the contemporary world?

I'd like to think that she would. And I'd also like to think that some day, we'll have moved beyond the "hysterical weathervane fashion" of anti-immigration policy discourse in both Winner's time and ours.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Lily Winner and immigration, then and now." 18 May 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 9, 2023) <>.

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