Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Immigrants need not apply

I'm sure few people other than a handful of historians remember the Immigration Restriction League. I'd never heard of it before turning up a letter now housed at Harvard University's Houghton Library while doing some genealogical research. Dated 1910, the letter offers support for the League's anti-immigration stance which when compared with the foam flecked, hydrophobic hysteria of today's anti-immigration rhetoric, seems rational and restrained. In the 1890's when that organization was formed, the US was experiencing a large influx of immigration and Americans, being the kind of people they are, were nervous about losing low paying jobs, about disease, about foreign languages and about the "changing complexion" of America.

The letter talks about a $10 head tax and about denying entry to illiterates; something that President Cleveland had vetoed 13 years earlier, calling it "illiberal, narrow, and un-American." Open immigration, said the letter, was acceptable when the nation was sparsely settled, but not now in 1910 with just over 90 million citizens. Only 10 years earlier, the US population was slightly over 74 million, an increase of 16 million -- well over a 20% increase. That's enormous.

Although Congress eventually managed to institute literacy tests by 1921 and only after several presidential vetoes, had they been successful back in 1894, one half of my family would have remained in Europe as my maternal grandfather's mother never did learn to read. Her many many descendants however have acquired some skill with letters over the years and have done as much as anyone to build this country. New York in her day, was a stewpot of languages, something that made nativists very nervous. It still is and it still does, to the point where soulless mediocrities like Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, want to close the golden door altogether.

The IRL's fears never came true. Even with another decade of influx of the huddled and not too literate masses arriving in America, English remained a viable means of communication and the children of these very immigrants made the USA into the greatest industrial powerhouse the world had ever seen, finally broke the back of Jim Crow and became known as the greatest generation our country has had. When people insist that today's immigrants are different, they mean that today's immigrants have better tans. They may, in a generation be more American and indeed better Americans than the rednecks and Republicans who fear them, but that's not what it's about. It's about race. It's about color.

As with the Know Nothing Party, an anti immigration predecessor of the IRL, a good portion of the anti-immigrant sentiment is based on not knowing much and by believing this gives us some sort of prescience and insight, we continue that tradition of being the worst that we can be.


d nova said...

of course, the know-nothings' official name was american party. more evidence that scoundrels don't need a last refuge b4 they resort 2 patriotism.

n b4 them was george iii.

n don' 4get the kkk...

Capt. Fogg said...

Those are brilliant posts - thanks for the link.

d nova said...