Point of View Columns

The Rise of the Know Nothings

About 150 years ago the Know Nothing Party had a (thankfully) brief fling with fame and popularity advocating the “purification” of America by limiting the influence of immigrants. How ironic is it that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the descendants of targets of the Know Nothings have become Know Nothings themselves, treating American citizenship as some kind of divine gift that should be sparingly granted to immigrants to this country.

The current debate over immigration reform carries the unmistakable scent of collective national amnesia. Except for Americans who have only Native American ancestors, every single living American citizen is the descendant of immigrants. African Americans can rightly claim that their ancestors were unwilling immigrants but they were immigrants nevertheless. If one wishes to argue the existence of American exceptionalism, one can begin with the notion that being an “American” is a concept more than a genotype.

A time traveler from the 19th century would be amused and then appalled to see the descendants of Irish immigrants braying about the unfitness of the immigrants of today. In the not too distant past Irish immigrants were portrayed as barely human with bestial traits that should automatically deny them the glories of American citizenship.

And it was not too long ago that immigrants from Italy and from Eastern Europe were considered to be inferior and absolutely unfit for American citizenship. Into the twentieth century more “senior” Americans thought of the new citizens as diluting and demeaning the very core of this country.

And the so-called “blue bloods” of American society, those who trace their lineage to the Mayflower or some long ago entry into this country should be reminded that the overwhelming majority of early immigrants to the American colonies were former prisoners, indentured servants and fugitives from bankruptcy who were generally thought of as the miscreants of European society. The immigrants of that era who were fleeing religious persecution would certainly be thought of as odd, if not dangerous, cultists.

The point of this bit of historical perusal is that, with very few exceptions, no one is in a position to take the high and mighty high ground when it comes to immigration. It is almost, almost laughable to hear the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio adopt a “hard line” when it comes to immigration when Cubans were not exactly welcome in Texas, Florida or anywhere else until after the ascent of Fidel Castro.

One does not have to look far into anyone’s family tree to realize that it is beyond hypocritical to advocate harsh restrictions on immigration or to propose such painful paths to citizenship. If the citizenship process advocated in many Teapublican proposals were in place in the early 1900’s millions of Americans today would still be living in Italy, Russia, Germany, Ireland…..you get the idea.

It should be clear that the anti-immigrant and anti-immigration movement is fueled by the fact that today’s immigrants come mainly from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Today’s immigrants are truly people of color and white Americans continue to be terrified by the notion that they will one day be the minority in “their own country”.

The fact is that most of the hardliners on immigration are white Americans along with their Latino sock puppets like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The fact is that if most of the 11 million undocumented residents of this country were blue eyed blonde émigrés from the Ukraine and Germany and Scotland and Ireland and Sweden there would not be this hue and cry regarding so-called illegal immigration.

The fact is that this country, indeed this planet, has always been about change and evolution. Countries change; cultures change and the way we live will always change and will never stay the same.

Legend tells the story of the Danish King Canute who had his throne put on the shore so that he could show his subjects that there were things, like the tides of the sea that even a king cannot command.

So it is that there are tides of change that the Teapublicans and the hardline opponents of immigration cannot command no matter what.

 

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