May 30, 2008


Nativism in America: Yesterday and Today

By Mark R. Day

When the struggle over illegal immigration from Mexico began to heat up two years ago, a San Diego television reporter asked a middle-aged woman at a protest rally for her comments. “When these illegals come here it’s like they won the lottery,” she said angrily. “They drop babies all over the place. Then they go back and bring in another bunch. They murder, they rape, they steal. They hurt us.”

These harsh comments, laden with racial stereotypes, evoke the term nativism, a peculiarly American phenomenon with a long, sordid history. “Nativism as a habit of mind illuminates darkly some of the large contours of the American past,” wrote historian John Higham. “It has mirrored our anxieties and marked out the boundaries of our tolerance.”

Not too long after pilgrims landed on our shores, the cry went forth that foreigners were a threat to the character of America. This led to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, designed to rid the country of foreign born radicals who criticized the government.

Nativism struck again in the early 1800s with the arrival of nearly five million immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The Protestant majority felt that these newcomers threatened the American way of life with their strange customs, foreign tongues and allegiance to the Church of Rome.

Sensationalist rumors about the Irish led to violence. In 1834, when church authorities in Boston allegedly forced a young nun to return to the Ursuline sisters’ convent in nearby Charleston, Protestant workers burned the place to the ground.

A decade later, Bishop Francis P. Kendrick of Philadelphia petitioned public school officials to allow Catholic students use of the Douay instead of the Protestant King James version in school Bible readings. Outraged Protestant workers, angry at Irish laborers for undercutting prevailing wages, rioted. They burned two Catholic churches, a school, a nun’s convent, and several private homes. Fifteen people died in separate riots lasting over a three month period. A grand jury later blamed Catholics for instigating the riots.

Anti-Irish sentiments declined with the advent of the Civil War. Few could question the loyalty of the Irish after hearing of the exploits of the Union’s Irish Brigade. At the decisive battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg the brigade lost two thirds of its men.

Gradually, mass immigration subsided and the Irish began to assimilate. In his book, How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev argues that the Irish, in order to succeed, turned against their closest competitors, free northern Blacks.

Despite pleas from the great Irish Emancipator Daniel O’Connell that the American Irish support the abolitionist movement, most Irish Americans cooperated in the oppression of African Americans. This carried over into the Irish-led labor movement, which excluded African Americans from meaningful participation.

After the U.S. conquest of Mexico in 1847 and the annexation of more than half of the latter’s territory, nativist attacks against Mexicans and nonwhites surged in California and the Southwest. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexicans became strangers in their own land.

A year later, during the California Gold Rush, Mexicans, Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were either lynched or evicted from the gold fields by Anglo American settlers. Subsequently, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Los Angeles and other western cities resulting in the death of scores of immigrants.

Japanese Americans faced their biggest challenge in California during World War II when they were forced into internment camps. Not until 1988 did President Ronald Reagan formally apologize for this action and offer reparations to Japanese Americans and their heirs.

In the past two years, the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has unleashed an unprecedented tide of nativist feelings against undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.

The result is an upsurge in hate groups such as the Minutemen, a forty per cent increase in hate crimes against immigrants, and racial profiling of U.S. citizens of color.

Moreover, media celebrities such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan and talk radio host Michael Savage continuously fan the flames of hatred and hysteria, accusing immigrants of creating economic chaos, spreading disease and increasing crime rates.

Meanwhile, nativism has been adopted as official government policy.

Billions of dollars have been appropriated in an effort to remove undocumented immigrants by any means necessary.

This includes factory and home raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials that have divided families and sown chaos in Latino communities; and the enactment of city and state laws designed to intimidate and deport undocumented citizens and to punish those who defend them. In some places church workers can be arrested as felons for transporting undocumented immigrants to health clinics.

In addition, the government is funding overcrowded detention centers with inadequate medical care leading to 83 immigrant deaths in the past three years. Children in these privately run centers are forced to wear prison garb. And at one center in Texas, prison guards have been accused of beating and sexually assaulting several children.

Finally, U.S. taxpayers are financing a $62 billion fence on the U.S. Mexico border which disrupts border communities, creates environmental havoc, insults our neighbors to the south and has a dubious chance of stopping the flow of illegal immigrants.

These policies show that nativism today is no different than it was in the early 1800s: racial stereotyping, fear mongering, disinformation, and the targeting of vulnerable working class people.

The U.S. Catholic bishops staunchly defend a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Their pleas were reinforced by Pope Benedict XVI who spoke out recently on behalf of immigrant children and family unification. What remains is for all of us to take action on this important issue.

After all, an injury to one is an injury to all.

Mark Day can be reached at:

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