My Turn

Opinion: Immigrants have always been feared in America

By Daniel A. Brown, Arroyo Seco
Posted 11/28/18

The recent obscene images of immigrant children being tear-gassed at our southern border should turn the stomach of every conscious American. Equally disgusting are the blatant lies spewing from our …

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My Turn

Opinion: Immigrants have always been feared in America

Posted

The recent obscene images of immigrant children being tear-gassed at our southern border should turn the stomach of every conscious American. Equally disgusting are the blatant lies spewing from our so-called president about these women and children, now fleeing the violence that past administrations helped to create.

American involvement in Central American countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, is a century-old story. It is a story of the United States supporting murderous right-wing dictatorships and protecting the interests of wealthy landowners and exploitative American corporations. Now that iniquitous bill is coming due.

The terror of immigrants coming to North America is nothing new as the millions of Native peoples doomed to die from the arrival of Europeans could tell you were they alive. White American supremacists, however, have warned about the danger of immigration for nearly 300 years.

The first recorded case came from none other than Founding Father Benjamin Franklin who was aghast by the appearance of Germans disembarking on our shores. Since they were settling mostly in his home colony of Pennsylvania, Franklin worried that the Anglo-Saxon purity of the future Keystone State would be defiled by "swarthy" Germans, alleging that "those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort." Franklin also feared that the world didn't contain enough white people.

Those "swarthy" Germans would eventually become the most productive farmers in America and, in Pennsylvania, come to be the pious and industrious off-the-grid Amish.

The Irish, a million of whom fled the Potato Famine of 1845-1849 (another million would starve to death in Ireland,) hold the dubious distinction of being the most despised immigrants ever to land in America, an inconvenient truth that immigrant-haters with names like Limbaugh, Hannity and Ingraham would do well to remember.

Contemporary accounts from "nativist" citizens of the time considered the Irish lower than African slaves and feared that they were agents of a papist plot to take over the nation. Signs reading "No Irish or dogs allowed" were common in the Northeast where the Irish settled, and newspaper illustrations commonly portrayed them as brawny, thuggish brutes.

Next on the list of the wretched refuse on our teeming shore were hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution from Eastern Europe in the 1880s. Never popular anywhere, secret Jews first came to America with the Spanish in the 1500s, and New Mexican historians have speculated that out of the first Hispano families who founded Santa Fe, a majority of them had crypto-Jewish roots. They were, however, a minority.

The great wave came from Poland, Rumania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or, like my maternal grandfather, czarist Russia. Russia at the time was the most anti-Semitic nation on earth. Ironically, Germany was one of the more progressive. It was customary to draft Jewish boys into the Russian army for 20 years in order to "Kill the Jew and save the Russian" although the dismal quality of the czarist military often denied such saving.

When my grandfather Lehrman was 16, his mother gave him a tiny bit of money and told him to scoot. He walked 800 miles to Hamburg, Germany and sailed to Ellis Island. From there, he settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sold goods from a horse and buggy and eventually became a respected civic leader whose prosperous business employed thousands.

His success story is one of millions shared by Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Colombian, Cuban, West Indian and so many other immigrants who came to America and made it great long before a cheap campaign slogan denigrated its meaning. Every wave of immigration has first been feared, then assimilated and eventually shown to have enhanced our national character. All these cultures, which include indigenous, early and late arrivals are intermingling and creating a unique stew of creativity and vibrancy that, at its best, is the true shining city on the hill.

Such a vision, unfortunately, can change. If Trump and his minions continue their racist hatred of dark-skinned immigrants who come here to flee oppression, then maybe it's time to tear down the Statue of Liberty. After all, our current policy is a violation of what she stands for. If we want to spit on those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then let us as a nation cease to be hypocrites and admit that we've surrendered to our lowest and most impure fears and prejudices.

Daniel A. Brown is an artist, writer and former public school teacher living in Arroyo Seco.

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