Déjà vu US immigration rhetoric - an important history reminder

By Nicole Stankewicz

“We should build a wall of brass around the country” (John Jay 1750s). “It is not beyond possibility that the day might come — and may God forbid it — when an organized hyphenated vote in American politics might have the balance of voting power to elect our government” (President Warren Harding 1920). 

“Americans must rule America” (American Party slogan 1850s).

“Europe is vomiting! In other words, the scum of immigration is viscerating [sic] upon our shores” (1890s newspaper).  

A Chinese “invasion” was the talk of immigration rhetoric over a century and a half ago in the US.

A Chinese “invasion” was the talk of immigration rhetoric over a century and a half ago in the US.

Any of these inflammatory statements could be pulled from the headlines in the last few years and the debate about immigration in the US has increasingly intensified particularly since the 2016 election. Many have claimed the current immigration situation is unprecedented but in reality, the United States’ complicated relationship with immigration began even before it became a sovereign nation.  

Negative commentary about immigrants began before the United States achieved its independence from Britain.  For example, in the 1750s, founding father Benjamin Franklin lamented the large numbers of German immigrants noting that signage contained multiple languages and expressing concern that these immigrants could become numerous enough to outnumber the English settlers.  From that time to now, the United States has embraced immigrants even as it has vilified them.

Among other descriptions, the word invasion has been used to describe groups of immigrants from, among other places, China, Japan, Korea, India, Latin America, and Catholics.  

Italians, Germans, and Irish have historically been told to go back to where they came and the United States strong-armed governments in Eastern and Southern Europe to cooperate in preventing their citizens from immigrating to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Immigrants from nearly all countries have been blamed throughout American history for a collection of evils including stealing jobs, increasing crime rates, and infiltrating the United States to wrest control from its citizens.  

The immigrants’ country of origin has changed depending on era, but the rhetoric to describe them has remained remarkably consistent. SOURCE:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/immigration-waves/

The immigrants’ country of origin has changed depending on era, but the rhetoric to describe them has remained remarkably consistent. SOURCE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/immigration-waves/

The United States was, in fact, built entirely on immigration.  The oldest city founded by Europeans in what is now the United States was St. Augustine – founded in 1565 by the Spanish.  The British followed with their first (ultimately unsuccessful) colony at Roanoke twenty years later. From there, the growth of the country has been fueled by immigration. As of 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were approximately 45 million immigrants living in the United States – about 13.7% of the population.  In comparison, that percentage was 14.4%, 14.8%, and 14.7% in 1870, 1890, and 1910 respectively. These percentages changed in subsequent years after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 – the purpose of which was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.    

In truth, the more you read about the history of immigration in the United States, the more you realize it’s the same story told at different points in history.  In years gone by, immigrants made the journey on ships. Now, that journey is just as likely to be made over land. In both instances, the trips often were – and are – expensive, frightening, and perilous.  These individuals seek an escape from poverty and, with increasing frequency, from violence.  Doctors Without Borders has described the route immigrants have taken from the Northern Triangle of Central America through Mexico as the world’s second most dangerous migration route.  Despite the danger facing them, many immigrants accept the risk to flee to the shores of a country that has had an oftentimes hostile relationship with immigration. But, for those fleeing violence, the danger of the journey outweighs the danger of their homeland.  

Historically, each wave of immigration was seen as catastrophic and, over time, those fears have been unfounded.  Throughout history, each new wave brings renewed fears that the newcomers will cause chaos and threaten the very fabric of the United States.  For example, a cartoon from 1855 depicted Catholics immigrating to the US as an invading army of foreigners led by the Pope.  An 1891 cartoon depicted a man informing Uncle Sam that “[i]f Immigration was properly Restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!".  In the late 19th Century, countless political cartoons took aim at the Chinese immigrants coming to the United States including mockery of their physical and cultural traits.  The political cartoons of the past have been replaced with the memes of today. But the message is much the same.

Certainly, these grim tales do not represent the views of all Americans – either today or through history.  However, as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

People rally with flags at Brooklyn Borough Hall as Yemeni bodega and grocery-stores shut down to protest US President Donald Trump’s travel ban. (AFP Photo)

People rally with flags at Brooklyn Borough Hall as Yemeni bodega and grocery-stores shut down to protest US President Donald Trump’s travel ban. (AFP Photo)

Today’s tales of fear and discrimination are not new.  The struggles of those pursing hope for a better life are not new. Reasonable people can disagree on what form immigration laws and enforcement should take.  It’s a difficult topic with no easy answer. However, truth should be respected.

The lessons of the past should be learned from. Most importantly however, history has shown us that in the debate on immigration, one basic fact seems consistently overlooked Immigrants are not a political question or subject for a meme – they are people.

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The lessons of the past should be learned from. Most importantly however, history has shown us that in the debate on immigration, one basic fact seems consistently overlooked; Immigrants are not a political question or subject for a meme – they are people.