Text by K. Cecchini
“When has America ever, ever been welcoming to immigrants?!” Bill Maher poised this rhetorical question last week on his HBO show, Real Time.
Couldn’t tell ya, Mr. Maher. Here are a few examples of the immigrant experience gone wrong in the States:
Genocidal Tendencies The first peoples in the Americas likely migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge during an ice age. When the next wave of immigrants began coming ashore from Europe in 1492, genocidal tendencies abounded towards the natives.
Whips & Chains African-Americans were forced to immigrate as slaves up until the mid-1800’s. They were processed as property rather than humans.
“Yellow Peril” Chinese-Americans, although instrumental in developing the Western frontier, were discriminated against with poor pay and abhorrent working conditions. An anti-Chinese movement impeded assimilation while they were criticized for not assimilating. They faced violence and were the first group to be barred by law from immigration: Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (“Yellow Peril” was a racial epithet hurled at people of Asian descent.)
Nisei During World War 2, Japanese-American citizens were demonized and corralled into internment camps under the soft term of “relocation”. Many were Nisei, or American born people of Japanese ancestry, and some had even fought for the United States in the first World War.
“No Irish Need Apply” After the economy slowed in the mid-1800’s, the refrain, “No Irish need apply,” was written in employment ads and boldly placed into shop windows. Along with other immigrant groups of the time period, the Irish were blamed for taking American jobs. Sound familiar?
Xenophobia remains a constant in American culture; the faces to fear have just changed. Central Americans are the latest targets; whether they arrive legally or not, they are assumed to be illegal and charged with stealing American jobs, not assimilating and are treated as criminals. Many of these folks carry the same dream, and not much else, like many of our own ancestors – yet many of us seem to lack empathy.
So, while we can debate the prudence of executive actions, perhaps we can at least appreciate the fact that there was an action to roll out a welcome mat. Click here for “7 Questions About the President’s Immigration Plan Answered”.
If you are familiar with any other immigration stories – particularly of mass immigration periods – positive or negative – please add to the comment section.
4 thoughts on “Living in Limbo: Immigration”
My parents both immigrated from Latin America in the 1960s. Neither of them spoke English and they were both teenagers. They worked crazy hour, went to college and saw their three children grow up in the US and become professionals in a relatively peaceful and stable environment. My parents did not have it easy, but both of them think the ability to “make something” of oneself from very little is far greater here than in their home countries. They are citizens of the US now. They love this country. They have been welcomed and helped by many Americans along the way. Racism and classism is a part of EVERY culture and not unique to Americans. It has been the experience of my entire family that the people of this country are overall welcoming and helpful rather than xenophobic or cruel.
I work in immigration law now and I see the need for tremendous reform in our policy. We need a holistic approach that keeps families together and recognizes the need for unaccompanied minors to be treated very differently than others. Currently, there are over 60 thousand children in detention in (mostly) the southern border states. They do not have an immigration “status”, therefore they have no right to counsel or even a guardian ad litem. The recent action by Pres. Obama did absolutely NOTHING to address the humanitarian crisis. I think the most productive thing Americans can do is not focus so much on people’s attitudes and focus more on the human rights issues at hand. There will always be racism. There will always be xenophobia. People do have a right to feel unsettled when they pay taxes and others who enter illegally may not. The provision to bring folks up to date on IRS status is a wise move to help quell those fears. Keep in mind the action is only one to prevent deportation for a few more years. The order is a far cry from holistic reform. When the US State Department declares Honduras the “murder capitol of the world” yet our policy is to deny those fleeing such violence asylum, we speak out of both sides of our mouths. So, it is a complex issue on one hand but not so complex on the other. Do we really believe this is a land of opportunity where hard working, peaceful people can live and work without fear or don’t we? That is the first question we should ask those who govern us and then push for the reforms that logically must flow from their answer – providing that answer is yes.
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful reply and for sharing your personal and professional experiences. I would love to interview you further about the current issues; please email us at Tonightatdawn@gmail.com.
I agree that xenophobia is part of the human condition; I just want to remind our fellow Americans that we need to be more reflective before we pass judgements on current immigrants.
I look forward to hearing from you.
“Both contadini and tradesmen faced economic as well as ethnic prejudices upon entering the labor force in America. The economic-caused hostility derived from Italian immigrants’ roles as “strikebreakers” and “wage cutters” from 1870 onward. American workers feared the new machinery introduced to multiple industries, therefore they held strikes and the Italians filled their jobs as scabs. Prejudices were especially aimed at Southern Italians who became scabs during strikes in construction, railroad, mining, long shoring, and industry. Often times these southern Italian workers were called derogatory names such as “guineas” or “dagoes” and were the only workers to work along side black people.
Employees often preferred Slovaks and Poles to Italians; railroad superintendents “ranked Southern Italians last because of their small stature and lack of strength” (Vecoli 262). In the mining industry especially there was an ethnic hierarchy: English-speaking workers held the skilled and supervisory positions while the Italians were hired as laborers, loaders, and pick miners. Even educated and skilled immigrants could not obtain other jobs besides labor. It was not until the 1920s that Italians became more integrated into the American working class. More immigrants started to work semi-skilled jobs in factories as well as skilled positions. However, one-third of the population remained unskilled.
Even the tradesmen faced prejudice in the workplace where they were subordinate members in trade unions. Meetings were held in English and Italians were not elected to official positions.”
Thank you for sharing! I am actually of Italian, Polish, and Slovak ancestry-among others