by Carol A Westbrook
On Labor Day we honor the contributions of the hard-working people who helped build our nation. Many of them were immigrants who fled war, religious persecution, and poverty, who gave up their own countries to become Americans. This cycle of immigration and assimilation has been repeated since the founding of our nation, and arguably it is one of the most defining aspects of being American. Most of us have immigrant roots.
An elderly Lithuanian woman told me the story of how she moved to America at the end of World War II. Like many Europeans, her family had been displaced due to changing boundaries and Soviet annexation after the war. Though she was only five years old, she remembers this as one of the most fun and exciting times of her life. Her family was housed in a German castle for months with other Lithuanians, where there set up a church and a school; there were lots of other children to play with, and they looked forward to going to America! They had so much fun! I'm sure it was anything but fun for her parents. They had lost their homeland, and the Russians forced them to move. Theirs was an uncertain future, confined to an immigration camp and waiting for resettlement in any country that would take them in.
I nodded in understanding and sympathy.
“Like the Syrians,” I said.
“No No NO, ” she exclaimed, with a horrified look on her face. “We were not like the Syrians!” She explained that she was, after all, a Lithuanian, and is now an American. She insisted it's not the same!
But isn't it? Resettled World War II refugees like her faced hostility and resistance in the US. They were insultingly called “DPs” (Displaced Persons), and ridiculed for their strange language, peasant clothes, and unpronounceable names. Yet today, they are as American as anyone else. As a matter of fact, almost all of us have immigrant roots — even the founding fathers.
Today's Middle Eastern, Latin and South American immigrants are refugees from war and oppressive governments, or fleeing soul-destroying poverty. We fear their strange customs and clothing, their alien religions, and the threat of terrorism. Yet it's not much different today than it was in the past.
Take, for example, religious hostility. In the early 1800's many Europeans were encouraged to come to the US to work, as they fled poverty, famine and unstable governments. Many of these Irish, Italians and German immigrants were Catholics. American feared this strange religion, and rumors began to fly that there was a Pope-inspired conspiracy to subvert religious and political liberty in the US. This led to violent anti-Catholic protest. “Nativist” political parties sprang up, including the “Know Nothings” who were strongly anti-Catholic. They worked to limit the rights of foreign-born people, withhold citizenship and curb immigration. As the Know-Nothings gained in popularity many were elected to political office and sought to enact anti-immigrant legislation. Levi Boone, the Know-Nothing mayor of Chicago, even barred all immigrants from city jobs.
In 1854 the Know-Nothings controlled a majority of the Massachusetts state legislature. Ironically, at the same time, a Catholic named Patrick Kennedy immigrated to Massachusetts from Ireland, the same man who became the great-grandfather of President John F Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy. Who could be more American than that? Collectively we've completely forgotten the “problem” of Catholicism!
Funny food and customs? It is hard to imagine that at one time Italians were despised in part for their distasteful food. Yet Americans have embraced Italian cuisine, and some of our most celebrated restaurants cook in this tradition.
Every immigrant group has been accused or harboring terrorists. In the late 19th century, German immigrants were though to be anarchists and socialist, and were blamed for the labor unrest that led to the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in May 1886. Russian immigrants of the early 1900's were feared for socialism. In retrospect, these threats disappeared as assimilation occurred, and these foreign terrorist threats are hardly worth a mention in American history.
From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the US–almost as many as the entire population! They provided cheap labor to create our canals and railroads, to mine coal and iron ore. Conditions were harsh, wages were low, yet they persevered, making a better life for their children, while at the same time building the infrastructure that made our country into the strongest economy in the world. Americans pushed back with anti-immigration political movements, anti-religious sentiment, harsh immigration policies and tremendous hostility, but in the end both the immigrants and the US benefitted. After only a few generations we forgot what the fuss was all about, and embraced these new cultures as being fully American. Pizza anyone? Want egg rolls with that? Where are you going to celebrate St. Patrick's Day?
This story has been repeated for every immigrant group, but what is remarkable to me is how short our collective memory is. By contrast, there are so many places in the world where immigrants and refugees are hated, and the hate persists for centuries, spawning genocide, persecution and war. Here we don't hold a grudge for that length of time. Sure, we are wary of diversity, and fear it as much as anyone, but we are also intrigued by it. We are quick to embrace it and call it our own.
Sadly, history repeats itself. It is disappointing that we are now seeing a resurgence of anti-immigration sentiment, which is coming to overwhelm our popular press and our politics, as it did in previous centuries. We fear these unfamiliar cultures, languages, religions, unusual food and clothing. We accuse them of harboring terrorists. We've seen all this before, and our response is the same as it was with the Know-Nothings, a political party which rose up in response, hoping to enact anti-immigration legislation. For myself, I am sympathetic to these newcomers, who have left everything familiar behind, facing hostility at every turn while trying to start a new life for themselves and their families. I am sympathetic because I know what my Polish immigrant forefathers had to go through–yours probably did, too. Yet if history repeats itself, it is likely that the immigrants of today will find a place for themselves, make a better life for their family, and contribute to the growth of our economy. And in a few generations we will forget what the fuss was all about.