Saturday, January 28, 2017

Xenophobia in American History

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, in part, because he expressed the thoughts of millions of Americans who fear immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and south of the Rio Grande River. Within a week of his inauguration President Trump is giving his supporters some of what they demanded by implementing restrictions on accepting refugees and announcing that his administration will construct a wall between the United States and Mexico. For those of us who believe in an open, tolerant, and welcoming society, this is very disappointing to say the least. It rejects the vision President Ronald Reagan expressed in his first inaugural address about the United States being the "exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not have our freedom."(1) Instead, the current administration is turning its back on the Reagan vision, on American exceptionalism, as Charles Krauthammer points out here, and the promise that the United States offers the rest of the world. It may be unfashionable to admit this, but I do believe that the United States is an exceptional nation with a global mission; it is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "the last best, hope of earth." (2)

My own personal opinions aside, the United States has a long and ugly history of xenophobia, regardless of what may be carved into the Statue of Liberty. There is a large gap between our ideals and reality. Americans may agree that past generations of immigrants built this country, but they were often no more welcome than those fleeing to our country in our own day. The current xenophobic turn, however disturbing, is just as much a part of American mainstream history as immigration itself. Here are some examples. There are many more.

  • Even before independence, there was a suspicion against German immigrants in certain colonies, as represented by the writings of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. 
  • 1798 Immigration Acts to limit the freedoms of of French and Irish immigrants who were thought to harbor revolutionary ideas or to be the agents of foreign governments. 
  • Before Muslims were unpopular, Catholics were considered to be the most dangerous group to the United States. This became a political movement with the rise of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, but anti-Catholicism long preceded it. Irish Catholics were thought to be especially dangerous because they were hungry, impoverished, single, and largely illiterate. At least the German Catholics, in the minds of American nativists, tended to come as families and were more educated. 
  • An influx of Chinese immigration in the years after the Civil War was met with brutal hostility that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although it was initially for a period of ten years, it was faithfully extended every decade. 
  • Fears of "new" and strange immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, including large numbers of  Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, and Russians led to a renewed xenophobia in the late 1890s through World War I. This included more stringent testing of immigrants, attempts at restriction, and patriotic societies. Even progressive institutions, such as settlement houses and public schools, considered assimilation of these new immigrants to be among their most important objectives. Not that there is anything wrong with a common culture, but these efforts could be cruel and heavy-handed attacks that completely delegitimizing the culture of the immigrants, casting them as backwards, dirty, ignorant, and lazy, among other unattractive qualities. 
  • Fears of immigrants during World War I led to a second series of Alien and Sedition Acts that targeted German immigrants and those with socialist or anarchist leanings as disloyal. This peaked with the Red Scare of 1919. 
  • The anti-immigrant sentiment peaked in the 1920s with the National Origins Acts, which instituted a visa system and greatly curtailed the the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Furthermore, the quotas allowed from each nation were set to 1890. This tilted the flow away from eastern and southern Europe and back towards northern Europe. 
  • Changing the law was not good enough for many Americans who were were concerned by perceived threats from immigrants in their own neighborhoods who would not assimilate. Nativists bound together in the KKK, sometimes referred to as the second klan to distinguish it from the earlier version active during Reconstruction. This second klan was largely a northern, urban phenomenon that attacked Catholics, Jews, and other groups that they considered "undesirable."
  • With fewer Chinese to kick around, Japanese immigrants attracted the xenophobic sentiment on the west coast. They endured much discrimination, including segregation. Like the Chinese, the Japanese were believed to be resistant to the charms of Americanization. Fears that these unassimilated immigrants and their children who were born and educated in the United States would act as a fifth column after the Pearl Harbor attack led them to be interned (i.e. deprived of their rights, stripped of their businesses, homes, wealth, and property and placed in concentration camps isolated from any interaction with the larger community) during World War II. 
  • The National Origins Act was adopted to the Cold War with the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. 
  • Although the National Origins system was overthrown with more open Immigration Act of 1965, discrimination persists as is evident by the experiences of migrant workers. 

(1) Paul Boyer, ed., Reagan as President: Contemporary Views of the Man, His Politics, and His Policies (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990), 33.
(2) Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 364.

No comments:

Post a Comment