It’s hard to listen to the hard-line rhetoric that has killed immigration reform and not undergo a sense of deja vu. Despite the nostalgia around places like Ellis Island, America’s love/hate relationship with immigration is longstanding. Sometimes hailed as embodiments of faith, family and hard work, other times denounced as a threat to the country’s moral, physical and economic well-being, immigrants have passed in and out of favor.
The debate has waxed and waned over the last two centuries. What hasn’t changed is the temptation to substitute shrillness for commonsense and depict the most recent newcomers as lepers, terrorists and parasites whose very presence subverts our economy and threatens our democracy.
In the beginning, anyone with the stamina to get here was welcome to stay. For the most part, foreigners were courted and encouraged to come. The young nation counted on their skills, ambition and numbers to sustain westward expansion and help fuel the growth of industry. The shrill notes, however, weren’t long in coming. By the 1830s, a growing influx of German and Irish Catholics led prominent Americans like Lyman Beecher and Samuel F.B. Morse to warn of a plot to bring the United States under the sway of the pope.
Soon afterwards, the arrival of a massive wave of Irish Catholics in flight from a devastating famine in their homeland put immigration at the center of American politics. In the single decade from 1845 to 1855, Irish-Catholic immigration approached that of all groups over the previous seventy years. Native Americans — a term the descendants of previous arrivees from the British Isles expropriated to themselves –maintained that Irish poverty was a function of Irish character. The immigrants were painted as disease-bearing, superstition-ridden and violence-prone, and the demand was made for imposing severe restrictions on the granting of citizenship.
In an 1855 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Gov. Henry J. Gardner went back to classical history to find a comparison. The scale of Irish immigration resembled, the governor said, the “horde of foreign barbarians” that had overthrown the Roman Empire. Gardner was far from alone in his fear. In that same year, the American party, which was founded to curtail the incursion of Catholics in general and the Irish in particular, controlled the legislatures of most New England states as well as those of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. For a time its success made it the largest third-party movement in American history.
Amid the hysteria, there were voices or reason such as Abraham Lincoln and New York Governor William Seward who believed the best course was not to stop or discourage immigration but to find ways to channel it to the greatest advantage. Eventually, the larger crisis of slavery and civil war overshadowed the issue. If neither welcomed nor embraced, the Irish found their brawn and bravado needed, sometimes even valued.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, a flood of Italians, Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews had once again revivified nativist fears and set in motion a virulent anti-immigrant reaction. An elite cadre of eugenicists, supported by wealthy philanthropists, argued that the racial “germ plasm” of these groups was riddled with hereditary tendencies to feeblemindedness, criminality and pauperism. The subsequent revival of the Klu Klux Klan as a mass movement whose influence extended outside the South testified to the depth and breadth of anti-immigrant sentiment.
In the wake of World War I, the passage of the 18th Amendment, a constitutional change that prohibited the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, had as a prime target the cultural and social habits of wine/whisky/beer-drinking immigrants. A few years later, in 1924, with the support of eugenicists and Klansmen alike, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively cut arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe by 80 percent, a limitation that stayed in place through World War II and the Holocaust.
It remains to be seen whether we will learn from the past or repeat it. The complex issues involved in immigration can’t be resolved in just and sensible ways if we succumb to panic-driven paranoia about foreign hordes threatening our survival. We need to remind ourselves that however they arrive, immigrants are human beings entitled to a modicum of respect and fair treatment, and that if the past is any guide, their long-term potential to enrich and enliven our society is far greater than the short-term difficulties their presence can create.
Above all, we need to take back the debate over immigration from the same species of alarmists and opportunists who stoked the country’s previous outbursts of anti-immigrant fervor. For those descended from immigrants once judged threatening, contemptible and incapable of assimilation, it’s the least that we owe our ancestors.
PETER QUINN is the author of Hour of the Cat and Banished Children of Eve. His most recent book is a collection of essays “Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America.” Quinn wrote the introduction to Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang published by CounterPunch/AK Press.
This essay originally appeared in the Irish Echo.