‘Anti-immigrant’ is an American tradition | Rich Elfers

“This refugee stance is so un-American,” wrote Karen Morris in a News Tribune letter to the editor on Nov. 12, 2015.

“This refugee stance is so un-American,” wrote Karen Morris in a News Tribune letter to the editor on Nov. 12, 2015.

Actually, Karen Morris is wrong. Being anti-immigrant is very American, though bigoted and wrong-headed.

All of us, including Native Americans, migrated to this continent. We are a nation of immigrants. To be anti-immigrant is to deny our collective history.

However, at times of great stress in our past, political movements have formed with the single focus of being against immigrants. Some time periods saw hatred of Jews, or of eastern and southern Europeans like Russians, Bulgarians and Serbians, and at other times some Americans focused their hatred and fear on Asian immigrants the Chinese in the 1880s, and later, during World War II, on Japanese-Americans.

The first American anti-immigrant political movement was against Irish and Germans who came to America between the 1820s and the 1870s. They were mainly poor and Catholic. The Irish came as refugees to escape the Irish Potato Famine and British economic exploitation on their native island. The Germans came to escape political oppression and hoped to find free and cheap farmland. Many of the Germans, like the Irish, were Catholic, and were viewed with fear and suspicion as a result.

The first “nativist” (anti-immigrant) political party was called the “Know Nothings” and was active between 1854 and 1856. The official title was the Native American Party, an ironic twist of history in light of the modern meaning of the term. These Know Nothings wanted to “keep America for Americans,” in this case to protect America from Irish and German Catholics.

The origin of the name “Know Nothings,” an oddly appropriate title, arose because when asked what they believed, their answer was, “I know nothing.” This group worked to curb immigration and naturalization. However, they largely failed at both goals.

During World War I in the early 1900s, suspicion against a later group of German immigrants reached its peak. Teaching German in schools was banned, hamburgers were renamed “liberty steaks” and frankfurters were called “hot dogs.” Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage,” so strong was our antipathy for anything German.

Our hatred was black-and-white; as a nation we had trouble discerning the difference between loyal German-Americans and our German enemies.

We just celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday we commemorate each year to show our thankfulness to God, and to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims survive their first years in Massachusetts. I’m grateful the true “natives” did not take up an anti-immigrant stance and then massacre all of the early English settlers to this continent. Had they done so our history would have been very different.

Every March we all become Irish and wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. How paradoxical it is that on one hand we celebrate a mass of desperate immigrants coming to America who were escaping famine, war and oppression to now decry immigration from the war-torn Middle East for similar reasons.

We Americans are sometimes double-minded about immigrants. At times immigrants have been hated and feared, yet the Statue of Liberty stands as a beacon to the world of hope and opportunity. This attitude is of welcoming is found on the 1886 statue’s base. There we read the inscription:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Author: Emma Lazarus

Karen Morris was wrong when she stated, “This (current) refugee stance is so un-American.” Historically, anti-immigration is part of America’s DNA. It’s as American as apple pie.

What Karen meant was that the anti-immigrant position we are hearing today from a few Republican candidates is against the ideals and shared values of this nation.

She is right about that. Hopefully, the vast majority of Americans can see that this anti-immigrant stance held by a few is based upon fear rather than reason. As in our history, good sense will prevail in the end.

 

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