Reflections on Immigration History

Immigration has been described as a “third rail” issue meaning that it is comparable to the third rail of an electric public transportation system (i.e. the subway) – very hot! It has been difficult to get the facts out on this issue and have a rational discussion of immigration policy because the topic itself generates so much heat.

Immigrants have been the life-blood of the US throughout our history. Even today, and even in the current economy, immigrants fill many jobs where there is a shortage of workers. They harvest our crops, care for our animals, tend to our elderly, our sick and our young, and work as gardeners, construction workers, and cleaners of houses and hotels. Immigrants also fill an important niche at the high end of the market. They play an important role in the high tech industry, engineering, medicine, and other sciences. In addition, they invest in small businesses in an amount far out of proportion to their numbers in our population.

Many of us have family stories of ancestors who came to the US and made their way through hard work and pulling together. Immigrants come to the US today for the same reasons they have always come, to join family members, to make a better life for themselves, and to escape persecution. The difference is that now we have more restrictive laws than we did 50 or 100 years ago. Under current laws, many of our ancestors would not have been eligible to immigrate to the US.

In reviewing our history and the waves of immigrants that have come to our shores, we see a similar pattern emerge with each new group that arrives. As the number of newcomers increases and reaches a critical mass, the fear of loss of our national identity grows. There has been a backlash against each new group that has arrived, from the Germans to the Irish, to eastern and southern Europeans, to Asians, and to those from Central and South America. A statement by Ben Franklin provides an early example of this fear. In 1751, Franklin wrote, “They [Germans] will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us rather than us Anglifying them.”

When we look back at the virulent debate in the mid-1800’s about the threat posed by Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy, it is hard to believe that these groups were perceived as so dangerous. Some of us may remember slogans such as “No Irish Need Apply,” the dangers posed by Irish immigrants described as “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” or the anti-Italian sentiment expressed in a political cartoon of the day showing pirate ships carrying “Disease, Socialism and the Mafia.” Today, we are all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day and we savor Italian food and culture. American identity has expanded to include each new group that arrives. The point in reviewing the history of immigration is that every group that comes through eventually assimilates and becomes part of the fabric of our society, benefitting our economy and enriching our culture.

In addition to reviewing our history on immigration, we also need to think carefully about the language we use to describe immigrants. For example, the term “illegal alien” is not only legally incorrect; it is socially irresponsible in that it creates a kind of menacing, criminal image when used to describe an undocumented immigrant. It is legally incorrect because it is not a crime to be in the US without documents. Immigration law is a civil law, not a criminal law. While being present in the US without documents is a violation of the civil law, it is not a crime. Harsh laws and harsh language dehumanize immigrants. They create a climate that gives permission to treat newcomers as somehow dangerous or “less than” those already here. This was especially true after 9/11 when we saw attacks on immigrants by individuals who took the law into their own hands.

For further information on these issues, see the articles below.

“Opportunity and Exclusion: A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy”, by Walter Ewing.

“Pew Analysis Highlights Immigrant Integration and Economic Contributions”, published by the Immigration Policy Center – American Immigration Council.
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