By LAURIE MUELDER
GUEST COLUMN -- It is a given in human history that governing is simplified by identifying and blaming an "other."
The word barbarian comes from a Greek word for those who didn't speak Greek. Any time a society is struggling, whether from the heavy hand of the powerful, from rapid change, or from economic distress, the rulers/leaders can distract their subjects/citizens by raising fears of some group they describe as different. For the Russian czars and Hitler the others were the Jews. Here in the United States (in addition to African Americans) the others have been, successively, those whose ancestry was not English, not northern European, not western European, and, finally, not southern or eastern European, which for nativists is where we are today.
In the 1700s colonial population grew rapidly as Scottish, Irish and German immigrants joined the English settlers and African slaves. Between the 1840s and the Civil War Irish immigrants were increasingly maligned; the Know-Nothing Party formed to resist continued German immigration and the sudden rise in Irish immigrants after the potato famine in Ireland. The Know-Nothings promised to stop what they described as a "cultural invasion" by the Catholic Irish who were portrayed as lazy, promiscuous drunks whose first loyalty was to the pope.
Before 1880, Germans, Irish, English and Scandinavians made up 85 percent of immigrants arriving in the United States. After 1880 there was a dramatic shift — by 1896 Italians, Hungarians, eastern European Jews, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Russians, and other Slavic people accounted for 85 percent of all immigrants.
Prejudice also shifted from the Irish to southern and eastern Europeans. Then, as now, politicians were able to use resentments and suspicions of immigrants to divide and govern. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, nativists passed immigration restrictions they claimed would preserve the purity of the nation's "racial stock." Under the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, immigration from southern and eastern Europe was choked off and the immigration of Jews trying to flee Germany was blocked. The perception of racial difference also hurt Chinese immigrants in the west. Recruited to work on the railroads in the 1860s, they became the target of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Cheap, or free, immigrant labor built the United States economy into the most powerful in the world. Our immigration has been both voluntary and forced. We had forced immigration both in the slave trade and in the annexation of half of Mexico by the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War. This, far more than traditional immigration, is the reason that a significant number of Latinos in the Southwest live in the United States rather than Mexico — we absorbed the land they lived on.
Periodically in the 20th century, we initiated guest labor programs, bringing Mexican workers into the southwest as non-citizen farm workers. In the 1990s, we imposed the NAFTA treaty, which devastated the Mexican economy. More than a million Mexican jobs were lost in the first year of NAFTA; more than a million peasant farmers have lost their land. Some of these people are heading north to save their families from starvation.
The lies told about earlier immigrants are now aimed at Mexicans and Central Americans. Anti-immigration groups must endorse historical immigration because nearly all citizens are descended from immigrants. Their objection is to the source of today's immigrants. In 1900, the overwhelming majority (85 percent) came from Europe, and only 2.5 percent from Latin America and Asia combined. By 1990 Latin and Asian immigrants accounted for two-thirds of all immigration.
Demagogues like Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh misrepresent reality, railing against immigrants as "them," describing them as an economic drain and a cultural threat. Dobbs sounds as if hordes of brown people are pouring across our borders daily. In fact, the Census Bureau says less than 1.5 percent of the population is undocumented and most didn't sneak over any border, but came on a visa staying when it expired. Dobbs rants about the cost to U.S. taxpayers, but according to Business Week, immigrants receive about $5 billion in welfare benefits and $11.5 billion in primary and secondary education benefits, but pay more than $70.3 billion in taxes. Our new immigrants are learning English and assimilating just as our relatives did. Those who fulminate about immigration are hypocritical.
One part of the Republican coalition (and some Democrats) wants an ongoing supply of cheap, easily exploitable labor while another wants to keep the U.S. safely Anglo. The president wants permanent status for those here illegally because they contribute so much to the economy, and simultaneously says they are so dangerous we need to fence our southern border to keep them out. As former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan suggested, we need to honor our mottoes, act as an accepting and caring people, and deal reasonably, rationally, and fairly with the real issues of immigration.
Laurie Muelder of Galesburg taught English and social studies for 20 years at Churchill Jr. High and now substitute teaches for the Galesburg School District. She's a former writer on the Community Roundtable.