It amazes me to see the amount of division in our country over the last few years. We have just finished the first 100 days of quite possibly one of the most controversial administrations in history. With terrorism throughout the globe and attacks on our own shores we struggle with fear and wonder how we make nation secure for our families. “Build a wall!”, some shout “Ban Muslims!”, others cry. There seems to be a thought that the secret to our security as a nation lies with immigration control and keeping undesirables out, ensuring our national purity is not diluted by the invading hordes.
It is odd, and rather disturbing, how the same rhetoric has persisted throughout the years. In the mid 1800’s Irish immigrants flooded the country trying to escape the famine that had desolated their homeland. Political groups such as the Know Nothings fought against immigration claiming that the Irish hordes were drunkards and thieves, less than human. They not only persecuted immigrants, but also despised Catholics.
In 1844 violent riots broke out in Philadelphia, often termed the Bible Wars. Over the course of the events several Catholic churches were burned to the ground. In 1854 Rev. John Bapst was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail in Ellsworth, Maine. Tension among Protestants and Catholics resulted from disagreements in the use of the King James Bible in the school system. The Catholics were seen as an outside religion loyal to a foreign Pope who couldn’t be trusted. Distrust and hatred was prevalent with some groups calling the Pope the anti-Christ and the church the Whore of Babylon. Rumors spread of a conspiracy to bring all of the world under the control of the Roman Pope.
In 1849, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was formed. The order was a secret society formed to protest the rise of Irish, Roman Catholic, and German immigration into the United States. They worked off a promise to return America to the land of, “Temperance, Liberty, and Protestantism”. In their minds I’m sure they felt they were working to, “Make America Great Again”.
Also in 1854, the Know Nothings won their largest political victory when they captured all state offices, all Senate seats, and all but a handful of House seats in Massachusetts. After their victory, they mandated the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in schools, disbanded Irish militia units, and deported nearly 300 poor Irish back to Liverpool claiming they were a drain on the public treasury. The Know Nothings began to lose power after their failed presidential bid of 1856 with Millard Filmore as their candidate.
While quite powerful for a brief period of time, the politics of the Know Nothings lost favor with many Americans, including our 16th President. In an 1855 letter President Lincoln expresses his concern with the Know Nothing Party. “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Later in the 19th century the Irish became more accepted in society as our anti-immigrant focus turned to Asian immigrants. Ironically, the anti-Chinese movement was led by Irish Americans in San Francisco protesting cheap Chinese labor. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant piece of legislation limiting immigration in the United States. The Act placed a 10 year moratorium on Chinese immigration. The Act was renewed for an additional ten years in 1892 and in 1902, the restriction against Chinese immigration was made permanent (at least until it was repealed in 1943).
Not long after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, Congress passed laws prohibiting immigrants who were paupers, insane, or who had contagious disease. In addition, Congress raised the immigration tax to $0.50 per person. All at the same time that Emma Lazarus was writing “The New Colossus”, the often-quoted poem most often associated with the Statue of Liberty. I doubt the congressmen at the time were inspired by the famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .” I suppose we can’t blame them, the poem wasn’t attached to the Statue until 1903.
Even with Lazarus’ inspiring words, immigration policies continued to become more restrictive and more focused on excluding specific racial and ethnic groups. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act placed a limit on the number of immigrants that could be allowed into the country from Eastern Europe. As the quota laws evolved they continued to favor Western European Countries. Interestingly enough there were no restrictions placed on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere, immigration from Mexico was not a concern.
During the Great Depression and World War II immigration slowed considerably. However, we still had the need to demonize different groups. Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President F.D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order required the evacuation of all Japanese living on the west coast of the country. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were uprooted and placed into internment camps with families being divided. These Americans were made to sell all their belongings often at a significant loss and herded into locations where the Government could ensure that they were not a threat. Many of these individuals were born in America and had never been to Japan, but the paranoia was still there. They were of Japanese descent and therefore they could not be trusted. It wasn’t until 1945 that these people were allowed to return home and the last camp was closed in March of 1946. While the Supreme Court upheld the injustice as being constitutional, the Government decided to make things right by compensating each inconvenienced family with $20,000.
Throughout history, we as a nation seem to have a need to demonize those different from us. We seem to have a need for an enemy in order to prove our patriotism. Of course, it makes sense, how can you be the good guys if you don’t have evil to battle. Looking back at history, it is disturbing how we repeat the same pattern continually. In the 1800’s the covert religious cult attempting to take over the country and destroy our way of life was the Roman Catholics, now we have been told it is Muslims. There is good and bad in all cultures, religions, and countries. Our failing has been that we paint these groups with a broad brush throwing them all into the same group fearful that they want to destroy our way of life. At what point do we realize that most people are good and aren’t out to get us, but simply want to live their lives? At what point do we live and let live rather than attempting to force our beliefs and customs on others?