I’ve been thinking about things in Washington lately. Generally speaking, this is not good for your mental health.
Specifically, I have been thinking about immigration. We act like this is some kind of new disagreement in America. It is not. Just ask members of the Powhatan tribe who watched the first ship show up at Jamestown. I bet they were wishing they had some immigration quotas in place at the time.
Battles over who should be allowed in and who should be kept out have been going on ever since. Back in the 1850s, there was a widespread movement that was against immigrants in general and Catholics in particular. It was called the Know Nothing Party, because it started out as a kind of secret society whose members would admit to know nothing. I think that would be a pretty accurate name for our political parties today, but that’s for another day.
Anyway, the Know Nothings were a bit like lightning in the sky – they attracted a lot of attention but didn’t last long. For a short time, there was even Know Nothing candy and Know Nothing tea, which just goes to show that when it comes to politics Americans often are divided but when it comes to making money we’re all pretty much on the same page.
So the party died out just before the Civil War but the disagreements over immigrants didn’t.
In the early 1880s, politicians started worrying about the “Yellow Peril.” A bunch of Chinese had come to the U.S. to help build the railroads and work in mines and once the railroads were built someone looked around and said, “Hey, there are a lot of Chinese guys here all the sudden.” So Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which literally said no more Chinese could move in. This happened in 1882 and the law remained in force all the way until 1943.
No one said anything about building a wall because apparently the Pacific Ocean was a pretty effective barrier.
During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover decided there were too many Mexicans hanging out in America and said some of them ought to be sent home. Everyone agreed and a nationwide program of deporting Mexicans took place. Well, actually, a large number of them actually were Americans of Mexican heritage. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, were shipped back to Mexico. Apparently most of them were here legally although it’s hard to say exactly since no one back then paid a lot of attention to things like that.
If you’re looking for me to have some kind of answer to this debate, you’re going to be looking for a long time. All I know is it has been a point of contention in one form or another for hundreds of years. After the potato famine, the Irish started showing up and the people who were already here didn’t like it. When the Italians started arriving, it was the same story. I already told you about the Chinese and much the same story was true for Japanese and Indians. These days, it’s the Middle East and Central America that arouse suspicions.
Of course, looking back it’s easy to see how all these different groups have made huge contributions to American society. I guess it’s easier to understand the past than it is the present.
What should we do now? Beats me. Maybe we should ask the Powhatans how they feel about it. If anyone deserves to have an opinion on immigration, it would be them.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.