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.