If History Is a Guide, The Immigration Debate Is Going to Get Ugly Very Fast

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Dr. Naison is Professor of History and African American Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression, White Boy: A Memoir, co-editor of The Tenant Movement in New York City, and over 100 articles on African American politics, social movements and American culture and sports. Dr. Naison is the Principal Investigator of the Bronx African American History Project.

As someone who has spent his adult life studying American labor history, I watch the unfolding of the current immigration debate with growing trepidation. As conservative demands for sealing of borders clash with the newly awakened immigrant community's demands for amnesty and liberalized migration rules, I can't help but think of a time after World War I when a nation panicked by the growing visibility and assertiveness of Southern and Eastern European immigrants passed the tightest immigration laws in the nation's history.

The parallels with the current situation are almost eerie. Between 1890 and 1919, Southern and Eastern European immigrants, almost none of the them English speaking, flooded into the nation's cities and factory towns by the millions, becoming the nation's major labor force in steel, mining, food processing, and garment production. It was their skill and labor that sparked the United States emergence as the world's major industrial power, yet to most Americans, they remained virtually invisible. Confined to ghettoes and "hunkietowns" where they could speak their own language, spawning a host of immigrant enterprieses, often returning to their own countries when they accumulated a nest egg, these laboring men and women,even when they became the majority in urban areas, had virtually no daily contact with English speaking Americans By the time World War I broke out, large expanses of metropolises like New York Chicago, and Pittsburgh, or cities like Patterson and Akron, were places where no English was spoken, and resembled European peasant villages more than New England country towns

World War I ended the immigrants invisibility, and with it, the atmosphere of tolerance for their presence. First came a three year debate over American entry into the war, which revealed a powerful immigrant presence in the ranks of anti-war activists, especially those motivated by Socialist ideals; then came the drive a constitutional amendment banning the sale and alchohol beverages, which found its strongest opposition in immigrant neighborhoods, and finally came the nationwide strike wave of 1919 which showed the power of immigrant workers to shut down entire industries and in a few cases, entire cities.

By the time of the 1920 Presidential Election, large portions of the electorate had become convinced that Southern and Eastern European immigration had to be stopped in its tracks. This reaction was fueled by a fear of crime as much as fear of labor unrest and political radicalism. The widespread defiance of national prohibition in immigrant working class neighborhoods and the rise of powerful crime syndicates, seemed to particularly enrage nativists and helped spark a revival of the Ku Klux Klan as a nationwide movement Like the Minutemen of today, the Klan of the 20’s took the law into to their own hands, attacking bootleggers, blacks, Catholics and Jews, with tactics that ranged from cross burnings to lynchings.

By 1924, immigration restriction had become the dominant issue of the national Republican Party and the result was a passage of immigration codes, based entirely on country of origin, that changed the face of America for two generations. Immigration from the nations of Eastern Europe, which exceeded 400,000 in 1919, was cut to under 40,000. Immigration from Italy was restricted to 4,000. The working class immigrant ghettoes of scores of American cities were deprived of new arrivals that would keep ethnic business districts alive and assure the preservation of European languges. Over time, with the aid of a public school system that used English only and a powerful and seductive popular culture that reached people through radio and movies, residents would become Anglicized and Americanized and the multilingual urban neighborhoods of the 20’s would become a distant memory.

Could this happen again? Definitely. The movement to close off our borders and expel undocumented immigrants is becoming more strident and more powerful daily, and unlike the immigrant protesters and their allies, its partisans have the votes to make themselves a potent force in national politics. Another terror attack on American soil, or a serious downturn in the American economy, will give those forces added energy, and is also likely to add tens of thousands of new followers to the Minutemen and violent white supremacist groups determined to make immigrants targets of violence and intimidation. It is also not impossible that black-immigrant conflicts could be exacerbated in these circumstances, turning a potential alliance into ugly competition over a shrinking supply of jobs.

To be honest, nothing I see leads me to be optimistic of how the immigrant issue will unfold over the next ten years. Panic about immigration is spreading into every region and demographic groups, affecting small towns and cities as well as great metropolitan areas. And since there is no easy way to curtail immigration without a vast, and expensive, expansion of the national security apparatus we can expect to see immense pressure on the government to federal and state governments to accelerate raids and deportations, deny routine privileges to undocumented immigrants, seal off and militarize the Mexican border.

I hope I am wrong about this. But every sign I see shows the anti-immigrant movement growing as powerful, violent and effective as it was 75 years ago. Advocates for immigrant communities are going to have to fight long and hard to defend the right of undocumented people to live free of harassment and intimidation, and to secure for them the protections of the law and a realistic path to citizenship.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The parallel to the 1920s presented here is off-base.

The issue then was changing the rules to restrict legal immigration. The issue now is whether and how to enforce the existing strict rules on legal immigration. George W. Bush proposes a weak mixture of (a) more border guards, (b) legalization of some existing illegal immigrants, and (c) more deterents for employers of illegal immigrants. (a) and (b) are getting most of the play in the press. (b) and (c) are the workable realistic long term solutions for a democratic free-trade country. Neither (a),(b), or (c) are likely to be adopted in full any time soon, nor are any other major reforme likely near term, because -absent mass xenophobia, ala 1919 or 1942- most Americans are ambivalent on the matter. They want cheap labor but not the social and cultural implications of it.

Igor Fedchunov - 5/28/2006

Like the Minutemen of today, the Klan of the 20’s took the law into to their own hands, attacking bootleggers, blacks, Catholics and Jews, with tactics that ranged from cross burnings to lynchings.

Sooo... do minutemen attack, lynch and cross-burn?! Of course they do - according to Professor of History Mark W. Naison!

Goebbels would be proud of you, Mark!

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/27/2006

Naison asks that question above in reference to assimilation of the huge influx prior to 1920 in the decades following 1920. He assumes the reader feels--as he does--that this would be an awful thing.

Of course it could happen again, and it should happen again. It was beautiful. America is different. America knows the formula to assimilate immigrants successfully, and should re-apply that formula. It should start, as before, by reducing the flow of new immigrants.

I grew up in a New England town which was 50% Italian-Americans and 50% Anglos. They lived together in different halves of the town, one side poor and the other less poor. In grade school the two groups didn't have much to do with each other and there was lots of name calling. In junior high there was sometimes organized warfare--of the old fashioned sort where "hurt" meant a cut or a scratch. By the end of high school, however, the two groups were almost one happy family, and after that intermarriage was very common.

Of course we didn't have "bi-lingual education," and the Italian-Americans learned perfect English very quickly. They were every bit as patriotic as the Anglos, if not more so. They reflected the attitude of their parents and grandparents at home who often did not speak much English, but usually had unbounded appreciation for their new homeland. Their teachers, of course, were also very patriotic in those days...

Rob Willis - 5/22/2006

Anyone who hires these people should pay a prohibitive penalty. And, that part of the equation has been brought up, many times, at least in the media I follow. And stop playing with terms, they are illegal, not "undocumented". Be intellectually honest here, please.

As far as the Minutemen go, they are not "activists", they are people trying to protect their property and that of others, a basic foundational right of American liberty and freedom. They each have more guts than any fifty academics who sit around turning this issue into some sort of metaphysical classroom discussion topic.

Craig Michael Loftin - 5/22/2006

I realize the immigration debate stirs up many hostile emotions among people, so I write fully expecting abuse from those who will disagree with me, but I do agree with Professor Naison that things will get much worse before they get better. The real question is this: what part of "illegal" do American corporations that hire these workers, and thus motivate them to cross the border illegally, not understand? Why do the corporations, businesses, and individuals who hire undocumented workers get a free pass? Shouldn't they be punished just as hard as the workers? The Republicans will be hard pressed to do anything constructive about this issue because the business community is their core base. Many businesses like, and perhaps depend on to some degree, this cheap, highly exploitable labor force. Then there's the issue of poverty in Mexcio--is it getting worse due to NAFTA or other trade policies? These questions should be at the heart of the debate, but I only here them mentioned in passing by Minutemen and other activists against undocumented workers.

John W Bland - 5/22/2006

They already have a realistic, lawful path to citizenship. America at least pretends to be a nation of law, respected by and amended as necessary to what is best for all concerned and enforced impartially but reasonably. Lets get on with it.

Peter Kovachev - 5/22/2006

Reality check No. 1:

Regarding admission of *immigrants*, the US is probably the most generous nation in the world. Opposition to *illegal migrants* should not be confused with opposition to immigration.

Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world spend the little money that they have on the arduous, exacting and lengthy application process, on upgrading their trade skills or professional qualifications, on learning English and otherwise doing everything possible to become productive as soon as possible upon their arrival. They have to have clean criminal records and to be in very good health. Consequently, very few of them become dependants of the social welfare system or wind up in the prisons. The U.S. also processes thousands of refugee claimants who, other than establishing their legitimacy as convention refugees, have to meet few of the standards immigrants need to. There is very little opposition to legitimate immigrants and refugees. Rest assured, all you Cassandras out there, that the U.S. is still a "nation of immigrants."

Reality Check No. 2:

The Minutemen are neither klukkers nor vigilantes. The real vigilantes, the people who take the law into their own hands and tear it up into little pieces, are the various "open borders groups" who assist the illegals in sneaking into the country, the self-proclaimed do-gooders who hide and feed them, the local and state governments which provide them with privileges, and the businesses and private individuals who knowingly employ and exploit them.

The so-called "advocates for immigrant communities" do not advocate for real immigrants with real communities, but for the illegal migrants, many of whom wind up as unproductive recipients of welfare services or long-term guests of state or federal prisons.

Legitimate measures to prevent the illegals from exploiting social services and the domestic economy, and to aprehend and to speedily repatriate them is not "harrassment and intimidation," but an ethical exercise of national rights and the rule of law. That is the best way to provide them with "protections of the law." And, the most "realistic path to citizenship" is for the aspiring immigrants to respect the desired nation's laws and customs and to avail themselves of the due process as millions of actual immigrants have.

Rob Willis - 5/21/2006

This same article, in essence, appeared last week. Therefore, I would offer the same response: What part of "illegal" don't you understand? This is not an immigration argument, as much as you wish it were.

R. Willis