A Tale of Two Tales
After an obligatory nod to Native Americans we proudly declare that we are all descended from immigrants and that America is a nation of immigrants. We say it with pride because behind the claim is the conviction that millions of folks from around the world freely chose to leave their native lands, attracted by the promise and opportunities offered in the United States, the land of liberty.
We’ve elaborated upon that story in a variety of ways. North America, after all, a virtually empty continent, needed to be filled in, settled, and so waves of immigrants were essential to the peopling of this vast territory. But land without labor could not be properly productive, so hard working immigrants were necessary to capitalize on the enormous potential of America. They built this country by constructing the canals, the vast railroad network, later the tunnels, bridges, roads and skyscrapers of America. They entered the mills, mines, factories and workshops and helped make America an impressively productive economy, the envy of the world. Industrious immigrants blessed with talent and ambition found America to be just the place to fulfill their potential and they prospered mightily.
America welcomed them, and they in turn became loyal citizens. They enlisted in our armies and died for their adopted country. In time they shed their foreignness and became indistinguishable from native-born Americans. The process of assimilation proved remarkably effective. They assumed “American” names, accepted American ways even as they retained warm memories of the “old country” along with treasured customs and practices, which served to enrich the American social tapestry. The United States congratulated itself on its diverse populations, noting that much of the hostility long harbored by one group against another overseas appeared to dissipate in the free and open society that was America. To believe that the United States was the greatest country in the world, a conviction most Americans shared, meant that much of the credit was due to the tens of millions who had thrown in their lot with the U S of A.
That we celebrate America’s immigrant past is but a part of our national narrative. Who doesn’t thrill to the Statue of Liberty, enjoy a colorful St. Patrick’s Day parade and take pleasure in consuming a bagel? But it’s time now to look beneath the surface, move beyond immigration in the abstract and remind ourselves that while many immigrant groups arrived long ago, settled in and were, over time, accepted, it was not without a struggle and, at times, open conflict. They had to run a fearsome, seemingly unending gauntlet, an experience perhaps forgotten but very much part of America’s story.
Immigrants rarely made or left a good first impression. Almost always they seemed strange, alien, spoke an unfamiliar language and understood little or no English. They were poor, maybe not destitute, but just short of desperate. They stuck together, were clannish, frequently seemed little interested in joining the larger American community. Throughout a good part of the 19th century, for example, the Germans appeared to be people apart, incurring the wrath of Americans by insisting upon retaining their language and maintaining their own schools (as well as their beer gardens where on Sunday they gathered to drink).
There was much Americans (as distinguished from recent immigrants) didn’t like about nearly every immigrant group, almost without exception. They viewed them as irredeemably inferior, a lower order of human species (in the 1840’s and long thereafter the Irish were frequently pictured in the popular press as monkeys) who would debase American stock. Too many, it was said, took to begging and an equal number to criminal activity. Protestant America feared the influx of Roman Catholics, charged them with conspiring to undermine American values, even American democracy. The Jews did not fare much better, widespread anti-Semitism producing broad patterns of discrimination and exclusion. Fury against the Japanese and especially the Chinese was widespread, open violence against the Chinese frequent. The U.S. would eventually bar the nationals of both nations from entering the country.
Scapegoating immigrants for one reason or another was common. Some were charged with importing radicalism (Communism, Socialism and Anarchism) into the country. Others faced the wrath of American workers when they were recruited as strikebreakers. Elites were concerned about the massive influx of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, fearing their higher birth rates could in time threaten the WASP Establishment. When major immigration legislation was enacted in the 1920’s its quotas deliberately favored those arriving from Western Europe.
Once again the debate over immigration has been joined as it has so often in the past. We can readily recognize how familiar it all seems now, how America remains of two minds on the subject. Once more we are reminded that immigration is inseparable from our national identity and that millions still are drawn to the United States, both as a refuge and a land of freedom and opportunity. Immigrants work hard, accept jobs Americans reject, pay taxes, start new businesses, restore blighted neighborhoods and enlist in the Armed services. Without immigrants, who typically are young, America would have a population aging even more rapidly than at present, with all its attendant problems.
The current indictment against immigration recapitulates familiar themes. Millions, we’re informed, have entered illegally, large numbers smuggled across our borders. They should be apprehended and deported. They rapidly form gangs and engage in widespread criminal activity. The jobs they hold could better be filled by Americans. Supporting them in a variety of ways represents a severe drain on community budgets. They keep to themselves, make little effort to learn English and instead insist that official documents include their language. Some are carriers of radical ideas (Muslim Fundamentalism) and are intent on violence. As a consequence most Muslims should be kept from entering our country. Indeed the United States must have the absolute right to determine what is in its best interests when deciding who may enter our country. If the current uncontrollable influx continues it could well alter who controls this country as well as threaten our cherished traditions and values.
There has, it is now clear, always been two sides to the immigration story. Invariably we’ve witnessed heated debate, conflict, and violence. Immigration has repeatedly brought out the best and the worst in America. That appears likely to continue.