June 2007

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Lady Liberty and U.S. Flag postage stamp.
News and Opinion

The Return of the Nativists

-- Philip Rosen

Lady Liberty holds up her beacon hand on postage stamps. In New York harbor, her pedestal proclaims:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Present day attacks against immigrants belie that message of welcome.

The charges against the Mexican Americans echo charges against immigrants made many times in our county’s history. The restrictionists have proved to be mistaken through the years and are mistaken now. The charges against the Mexicans who find jobs in this country are duplicates of those against the Irish in the 1840's, the Catholics in the 1880's, the Chinese and Japanese in the 1880's and 1900's, and the Jews, Italians in the 1920's:

  • "Rigid laws are needed to prevent the flood of immigrants."
  • "Immigration threatens American living standards."
  • "Certain nationalities are undesirable because of their habits which they wont give up."
  • "Immigrants do not make good citizens."
  • "The immigrants are not as intelligent as native-born American stock."
  • "There is not any more room here."

There is a great deal of irony when a citizen complains about immigrants. Except for Native Americans everyone is descendant of immigrants. The Native Americans, misnamed Indians, inhabited the two continents before the arrival of Europeans for 12,000 years. The United States expanded through dishonest and often violent removal of the original inhabitants. The Native American population was decimated by a "Trail of Tears," forced removal to reservations far from Native American homelands. President Polk and proslavery elements concocted a war with Mexico and stole away the whole southwest, the very places where Mexicans enter now. The anti-foreigners, the native-born Americans (nativists) here assert this land is ours alone and it is a disgrace that others enter it.

As early as 1751 Benjamin Franklin writing his pamphlet Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind wrote "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Languages or Customs?"

In the 1840's, a potato famine pushed many Irish from their homeland to the U.S. Once here they worked at the bottom of the social ladder as laborers and domestic servants. The native population considered them unclean and unhygienic and thieves of American jobs. A political party with its aim of immigration restriction called the Know Nothings formed. In 1844, a three-day riot against them ended with the burning of two churches and a number dead in Philadelphia. A parallel school system for Catholics was instituted.

The American Protective Association was founded in Iowa in 1887 as an anti-Catholic society. Its membership came from America’s rural heartland. Like the Know Nothings, Orangemen (Northern Irish Protestants, joined by Scandinavians filled its ranks), the A.P.A. platform included drastic curtailment of Catholic immigration, English as a requirement for citizenship and the elimination of Catholics from public schools and public office. At its apogee 2 million Americans and 20 congressmen believed the Vatican with its American Catholic followers was out to control America. With the growth of Populism in the South and West, the movement faded and by 1911 disappeared.

Chinese came to America as railroad workers, miners and farmers. The nativists particularly in California passed laws discriminating against them, denying them jobs and land ownership. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act denying them citizenship. The Orientals were beaten and sometimes killed. A huge riot erupted in Los Angeles. Japanese also came to California seeking work. They became fishermen, truck farmers and gardeners. The Board of Education of San Francisco segregated them at school offering inferior education. President Theodore Roosevelt made a "Gentlemen’s Agreement" with the Japanese government: "Restrict your nationals from emigrating to America and I will end segregation." In 1942, Japanese Americas were placed in camps without trials or formal charges against them. Despite this, young men from the camps joined the American Army and fought bravely.

In the time period 1880-1924, millions of "new immigrants" reached these shores --- new because they came from southern and Eastern Europe as opposed to the "old immigrants" from Western Europe. These newcomers were labeled inferior, of a lower mental, moral and physical quality than the native-born Americans. An Immigration Restriction League was founded by Harvard graduates, the Anglo-Saxon elite. They had no faith that the American environment would change the foreigners into free, energetic and valuable peoples. Rather they believed the influx would have a negative effect. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed a nationalities quota act which lasted until 1965. This 1924 act greatly limited peoples from Italy, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Romania. Quotas reflect Nordic bias. From Great Britain 34,007 could enter while from Russia (more than half of Jewish extraction) 2,248. The congressmen were greatly influenced by eugenicists (native psychologists, geneticists and sociologists) who believed that the American stock would be great harmed by dark-haired swarthy, small people particularly Jews and Italians. The used a new science of genetics to justify their rejection. Jews, for example, inherited crass materialism, parochialism, small stature, a lack of spirituality, and stinginess.

The dire fears and predictions regarding those coming to our shores for freedom and a reversal of fortune have not materialized. They did not take away the jobs of the earlier comers, the natives. Rather, they (this includes present-day Mexicans and Hispanics) increased job opportunities, and American prosperity. Population increases the need for goods and services. The immigrants have enriched us by their industry, art and science, greatly making America the most powerful nation on earth. Very often, newcomers have taken jobs unwanted by natives, hard back-breaking labor or in domestic service. Their rate of integration and assimilation has been remarkable. True, the first generation tends to keep the original language and customs; the second and third generations do Americanize very well. Nordicists and nativists should take heed of the lessons of American immigrant history.

Dr. Philip Rosen received his degree from Carnegie Mellon University in American history. He is the author of The Neglected Dimension: Ethnicity in American Life and the Dictionary of Anti-Semitism.

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