Joanna Weiss: U.S. needs a history lesson on immigration

07/31/2014 12:00 AM

07/30/2014 5:11 PM

What if the Irish potato famine had happened today?

It’s something to think about, in light of the current immigration debate, when appeals for compassion collide with pronouncements about the law.

In the 19th century, Irish immigrants were called many of the things you hear hurled at Central American immigrants today: a scourge on public health, a drain on the economy, a threat to American culture.

One thing they weren’t called, though, was “illegal,” because that term hadn’t been conceived yet.

“People are shocked when I say before World War I, there were no green cards, no visas, no quotas, no passports, even. Really, you just showed up. And if you could walk without a limp, and you had $30 in your pocket, you walked right in,” said Mae Ngai, a legal and political historian at Columbia University whose studies focus on immigration.

It’s worth remembering how malleable the rules of immigration have been as each wave of foreigners has come across the border, drawing resistance from those who came before. And that mid-19th-century wave is especially noteworthy.

At the time, white Protestants made up the majority in states such as Massachusetts, said Mark Hubbard, a historian at Eastern Illinois University. After 1845, a huge wave of Irish came in, fleeing the famine. So did a wave of Germans, escaping political unrest.

These newcomers were Catholic, sparking fears about allegiance to a foreign pope. Their culture of drinking collided with the Yankees’ Puritan strain. They arrived at a time of economic unrest, as artisans were losing their jobs to mass production, while immigrants were willing to work hard, for little money, in the factories.

That these Irish were “more than desperate,” Hubbard said, barely mattered to the public at large.

“They are fleeing a terrible situation. But there just wasn’t much empathy for that,” he said. “It was more about how this wave of foreigners is going to irrevocably change America.”

And yet they could come – with no paperwork issues or quotas or restrictions or immigration courts. Political backlash followed in the form of secret societies that coalesced into the Know Nothing Party, which pushed for prohibition laws aimed squarely at Irish and German culture.

The Know Nothings also supported an effort to extend the naturalization period to 21 years. At the time, the debate centered not on sending immigrants back, but on denying them the right to vote.

The Know Nothings disintegrated almost as quickly as they formed, their national wings divided on the issue of slavery. Before long, the country was distracted by the Civil War, which helped the Irish and Germans assimilate.

But other immigration laws would come, driven by economic forces, buoyed by racial stereotypes. In the late 19th century, Congress passed “moral turpitude” laws aimed at Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act, which imposed country-by-country limits based on immigration patterns in the past. In 1965, Congress changed those rules to allow an equal number of visas from every country – which means, as Ngai points out, that Mexico gets the same number of visas as Belgium, and that there are absurd discrepancies in the length of the oft-cited “line” to enter America legally.

The law can change again. It probably will. Polls suggest that the majority of Americans support a path to amnesty. But we also need a history lesson. Some of us more than others.

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