Immigration Fear Mongers Ignore History

Fear of immigration in the United States is unfortunately nothing new.
Panic over immigration in the United States is unfortunately nothing new. (Wayne Hsleh)

By Zack Yost

If you are paying attention to US politics, it is hard to miss the ongoing immigration debate, long centered around the flow of illegal immigrants across the US-Mexico border.

This debate was recently reignited by Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments about Hispanic immigrants. “They have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us,” he declared during his campaign announcement. “They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

The conclusion to this point was that the US government must build a wall across the southern border, and enact various other measures to stem the tide of illegal immigration. This statement provoked both agreement and disgust from across the political spectrum.

But these ideas are not new. Opponents of immigration have existed since the United States was first conceived. Each new generation of immigrants provoked the same predictions of doom and disaster, and the end of current inhabitants’ way of life.

We are told that Hispanic migrants who come to the United States illegally have already demonstrated their lawlessness by doing so. We’ve been told that they’re unskilled, and as Donald Trump put it, “have lots of problems.”

They are derided for not speaking English, and we’re told they will become a danger to US politics if they ever acquire the ability to vote. On top of all of this, we are told that they can’t integrate and will refuse to become “Americans” like the rest of us.

But, again, all of these issues have been raised before. They are the same arguments used against almost every other ethnic group that has immigrated to the United States in large numbers. Yet every time these concerns have been raised, they have been proven to be unfounded.

Each generation of immigrants has, instead, ended up greatly enriching US culture, creating benefits for all residents by pursuing their own well-being.

The influx of German immigrants in the mid-18th century is a perfect example. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow colonists of the impending crisis that would result if German immigration went unchecked. His concerns echo many of those expressed today.

According to Franklin,”those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.… They will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Franklin’s views about German immigration could easily be mistaken for Trump’s views about Hispanic immigration today.

Early Irish immigrants were viewed no different. Until only 100 years ago, they were widely considered to be lowly foreign trash.

Take the words of John Pintard, a prominent New York businessman from the early 19th century, who claimed that “the vice and drunkenness among the lowering laboring classes is growing to frightful excess, and the multitudes of low Irish Catholics … restricted by poverty in their own country run riot in this.”

“As long as we are overwhelmed with Irish immigrants, so long will the evil abound,” Pintard continued.

None of these concerns about German and the Irish immigrants proved to be correct. No one seems to notice that Germans supposedly have a “swarthy complexion,” as Ben Franklin would say, and no one gets bent out of shape if people with an Irish last name move next door. Far from being demonized, US culture has absorbed and added parts of German and Irish culture to its own.

People rarely seem to notice these ethnic distinctions anymore, because they have become so ingrained in US culture. It seems likely that Hispanic culture will become just as “American” as St. Patrick’s Day or Chinese takeout. This is going to happen more and more until the point where no one thinks being from Guatemala, Mexico, or any other Latin American country, is any different than being of German, Irish, or Chinese descent.

This is what keeps US culture vibrant and exciting.

Nativist concerns have been around since the inception of the United States, and they have been proven to be unfounded and ridiculous. Let’s not make the same mistake our predecessors made every time a new group of people who are a little different come to the land of opportunity.

Zack Yost is a Young Voices Advocate who works in the DC area.

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