Strangers in the land: An old theme replayed

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The immigration issue is not new. Many of those who most oppose immigration are themselves descendants of people abused as immigrants.

The United States begins the 21st century just as it began the 20th, by revisiting the debate on immigration and its effect on American cultural identity. The general boycott highlighting the plight of illegal immigrants on May 1, 2006, posed the question of what it means to be an American, a question that continues to polarize all Americans. Despite the hysteria concocted by cable news networks, this issue is as old as the republic.

While the topic of immigration reform is one that deserves candid discussion, all serious dialogue inevitably gets hijacked by demagoguery that stokes the old fears of being overrun by alien peoples. What is ironic is that those who say that immigration threatens to destroy the fabric of our society are themselves the descendants of people abused as immigrants. Historically, such rhetoric has resulted in policies that betray the promise of the American dream, so central to our heritage.

With the founding of the United States, the question of immigration began to bedevil its fledgling society. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 not only attacked free speech; they lengthened the naturalization process from five to 14 years and provided for the deportation of those aliens deemed a threat to national security.

By the 1840s, anti-immigration sentiment resurfaced as Irish immigrants flooded into New York and Boston, escaping the horrors of the Irish potato famine. The nativist movements incited anti-Irish sentiment on many fronts. By defining American society as Protestant, nativists raised fears of being swamped by Catholics, whose political allegiance would always be called to question by their loyalty to the pope.

Nativists used ancient English stereotypes of the savage Irish to argue their inability to assimilate to American culture. Economics became a tool for nativists as they argued that Irish immigrants would drive down wages and drain limited public resources, a theme introduced recently to gain support for cracking down on illegal immigration.

The economic expansion that the United States experiences in 2006 owes a great deal to immigrant labor, as it did more than a century ago. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as large scale industrialization got underway, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe provided cheap and abundant labor for the American industrial machine. The numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe pouring into Ellis Island were the largest the United States had ever known. The same reactions resurfaced.

Notable figures such as Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt questioned whether the United States, built on its Anglo-Saxon heritage, could accommodate large numbers of Slavs and Italians whose birthrates were outstripping those of old stock Americans of Northern European descent.

These sentiments culminated in the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1922, which severely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, creating ominous consequences for Eastern European Jews during the Second World War.

Nor has the East Coast been the only source of cultural tensions surrounding immigration. The West Coast was the flashpoint for vehement actions and policies against Asians. Chinese immigration, which was crucial to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, raised similar fears that Western states like California would be overwhelmed by an alien and inassimilable people who would bring down wages and threaten the American way of life. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first American law designed to restrict immigration, ended Chinese immigration and condemned generations of Chinese men to lead lives of enforced bachelorhood because they could not send for brides from China.

Similar measures were proposed for Japanese immigrants, leading to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1906 by which the Japanese government voluntarily restricted the number of its citizens emigrating to the United States. Thirty-five years later, Executive Order No. 9066, signed in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, relegated Americans of Japanese birth or descent to internment camps because they were deemed threats to national security. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that were it not for the discredited precedent of that internment, a similar fate might have awaited Arab-Americans after September 11, 2001.

Anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have a long history in our country. The same fallacies and arguments about the dilution of national identity and quality of life have been continually repeated, whether applied to Irish or Mexican immigrants. At the beginning of the 21st century, we Americans have the opportunity to break the cycle of hysteria and draft imaginative new policies that realize the untapped potential of all immigrants and further enrich our nation. Let’s not continue to fall prey to the siren song of demagogues.

Dino E. Buenviaje writes for the History News Service and is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, Readers may send him e-mail at dino.buenviajeemail.ucr.edu.

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