The very most specific reasons for immigration vary year-by-year and generation-by-generation, but there are two basic themes which remain constant: Flight from violence, and flight from destitution. It’s sadly evident that we can expect anti-immigrant sentiment to manifest generation-by-generation as well.
We learned, I learned anyway, growing up, that the infamous “no Irish need apply’ signs were wrong, discriminatory, even primitive — of a less-understanding and less-enlightened society. So was it wrong to turn back the boats of emigres from Europe in the 1930s and 40s, many of whom went on to see their deaths at the hands of the fascists.
The Germans came here in mass in the early- and mid- 1800s because they couldn’t find work in the cities — as machines reduced the need for labor — and because of political upheaval in the 1840s and 50s. The Anglos weren’t happy.
Ben Franklin wrote of his new neighbors:
“Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.”
Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
The Irish came to avoid famine, disease, and British oppression. Many of the Protestants weren’t happy — hence those famous “no Irish need apply” signs.
But most of the above did indeed come here legally — because there were almost no laws against immigration. (Unless you were Chinese, but not also among the indentured servants who built our railroads.)
Then the Italians and Portuguese and eastern Europeans started coming — legally, at first, even “With Out Papers” (whose acronym became an infamous prejorative). But sadly, the so-called ‘Know Nothings’ — many of whose own families had only recently entered the country — wanted to keep the prize to themselves. And so for the first time, we saw broad restrictions on European immigration.
With the First Quota Law in 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, the anti-immigrant forces clamped down on immigration from southern and eastern Europe, in favor of immigration from the north and the west — the ancestral lands of the American political class of the era.
Make no mistake about it: Immigration law began to change because longer-standing Americans of the early 20th century didn’t like people with names like DaSilva, Segal, and Ruggiero. We were swarthy, unskilled, dimwits.
The laws worked — drastically reducing immigration, and tragically forcing those aforementioned boats to return to Europe, leaving millions without escape routes as the continent went to hell. My grandfather made it over legally — bar mitzvahed on the boat from Poland in 1921. His future wife came fifteen years later. And I damn well wish their brothers and sisters had made into our country too — illegal as it might have been for them to do so.
With rare exception, the laws have only grown tighter and tighter: Now it’s almost impossible to come to America legally if you don’t already have relatives here.
But all the while, the reasons for immigration have remained the same: Flight from violence, and flight from destitution. Today in Rhode Island, it’s largely severe poverty in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, recent civil wars and ethnic cleansing — sometimes, sadly, funded by our tax dollars — that drive people to come here in desperation and without appropriate documents.
And so I ask myself, do I want to uphold this legacy? Do I want to put a “no immigrants need apply” sign on the state of Rhode Island — understanding that today’s undocumented immigrants would be here entirely legally if they had come under the same regulations that were in place when the bulk of the Germans and Irish came, and when the first southern and eastern Europeans came? Do I want to strengthen pernicious regulations, born of hatred of my ancestors, and those of so many of my friends and colleagues?
Hell. No. Let’s put an end to this terrible cycle. Let’s welcome our new neighbors with open arms — even the 2% of the population that’s here without papers. Let’s allow them to integrate, and allow them to work and to feed their families.
3 thoughts on “On Immigration”
How dare thee be guided by history and reason!
Segal for Governor!
Immigration control has been and will always be an issue in a world where adjoining nations have such disparity in wealth.
I’m certainly no fan of throwing the doors wide open and saying ‘hop in!’, but I don’t think our expensive and overbuilt system of enforcement has worked either.
I’d be interested in seeing how much we spend on immigration control, how -little- we -can- spend and get the same effectiveness, and how the difference in investment could be applied to better assimilating our inevitable ‘new neighbors’.
There has to be a way to statistically evaluate the effectiveness of a dollar spent on enforcement vs. a dollar spent on on assimilation strategies. We should do that and act accordingly.
I’m of the mind that we should be allowing more people in legally, and we should be taking young, educated, ambitious people in to help transition the country over into the new century. I’d -like- to say that we could help everyone equally and take in more people, but we’d have a -billion- people on our doorstep; it’s a different world than it was when those ships got turned back in the 1930s.
We should be compassionate, but for our mutual benefit, not just for compassion’s sake. Let’s find people who -want- to vote, who -want- to work, who -want- to pay taxes to have the nice services that we enjoy, and welcome them.