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Immigrant bashing long a part of U.S. history

NCR Staff

Despite the image of the United States as a "melting pot," U.S. society has historically "welcomed immigrants in periods of expansion and optimism and reviled them in periods of stagnation and cynicism," wrote James Crawford in an issue brief distributed by the Washington-based National Immigration Forum.

In a several periods in American history, prejudices have produced powerful, nativist, anti-immigrant movements. "Typically, these periods feature a political or economic crisis, combined with a loss of faith in American institutions and a sense that the national community is gravely fractured. Hence a yearning [develops] for social homogeneity that needs an internal enemy to sustain itself: the 'alien,' " he wrote.

The following is a summary of Crawford's description of these historical backlashes.

  • During the administration of John Adams, the arrival of a small group of European radicals prompted fears among members of the Federalist Party. These politically active immigrants were pegged as subversives, and fears that they represented a threat to "property and stability" prompted the 1798 passage by Congress of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the president power to deport foreigners deemed dangerous and to prosecute anyone who criticized the government.
  • A rise of Roman Catholic immigration (waves of Irish and Germans) in the 1830s and '40s coincided with a period of economic change and insecurity. Amid a Protestant revival, newly arrived Catholics were called "papists" and were said to follow authoritarian leaders, bring crime and disease into the country and live morally depraved lives. In 1844, these tensions led to the burning by Protestants of the Ursuline Convent near Boston and to riots in several cities.
  • The growth of the American Party (know as the Know-Nothing Party) in the mid-1850s led to the enactment of laws to harass and penalize immigrants as well as Mexicans living in newly annexed lands in the Southwest.
  • Chinese immigrants were targeted for violence and legalized discrimination in the late 1800s. Chinese were banned from employment by corporations or state governments and segregated into Chinatowns. A delegate from California to the constitutional convention declared at the time: "This state should be a state for white men. We want no other race here." Pressure from Western politicians led to the restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
  • Anti-Catholicism returned during the Civil War era, a time when the gap between rich and poor exacerbated conflicts between unregulated capitalists and a largely immigrant, militant labor movement. Strikes in the 1870s and '80s led to violence. The American Protective Association formed as a secret society that aimed to eradicate "foreign despots" -- especially Catholics -- that were equated with European Socialists who sought to ruin American democracy. Attempts were made to adopt measures like the banning of German language instruction as a way to harass parochial schools.
  • A government-led "Americanization" campaign sought to change the cultural traits, civic values and language of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who replaced waves of Irish, English and Germans at the turn of the century. A U.S. government study from 1911 claimed these "new immigrants" were not as skilled, educated or capable of learning English as the "old immigrants." Many states prohibited the study of foreign languages in schools.
  • In 1921 and '24, Congress established restrictive national origins quota systems. These laws resulted from a backlash against immigrants following a wave of labor protests in which foreign-born activists played key roles. During the 1921 Palmer Raids, the FBI deported "alien subversives" without trial. Arguments circulated that Eastern and Southern Europeans were genetically inferior to Anglo-Saxons.
  • The present anti-immigrant backlash includes harsh measures like California's Proposition 187 (which would exclude undocumented persons from public social services and publicly funded health care and undocumented children from public elementary and high schools), disproportionate cuts aimed at immigrants in welfare reform laws, augmenting of border policing and penalties, more legal room for government workers to report allegedly undocumented persons based on "suspicion," and the adoption of antiterrorist legislation measures that allow for expedient deportations.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996