At what point, in this great nation of immigrants, did calling someone an “immigrant” become such an insult?
Recent weeks – on the campaign trail and elsewhere – have been filled with ugly rhetoric about immigration status or other ethnic impurities, even when the target of such attacks has entered the country legally, is a naturalized American or is even an American by birth but descended from the wrong kind of parents.
Witness Donald Trump’s proposal to deport first-generation Americans whose citizenship is conferred upon them, constitutionally, by birth. Even presidential contenders who are themselves the children of immigrants are denouncing the uncontrollable invasion of foreigners.
To this crowd, anyone who doesn’t look sufficiently white or sound sufficiently Anglophonic is presumed illegal until proven otherwise.
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What happened to the good old days when we valued the talent, drive and eclectic perspectives that scrappy émigrés brought to America?
Alas, those good old days – like most other good old days – probably never existed.
You know Ellis Island, the place textbooks portray as the welcoming ward for generations of dreamers?
“We think of Ellis Island as this great monument to immigration. It’s really the monument to border control,” says Morris Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which painstakingly reconstructs the squalor and ambition of 19th- and 20th-century immigrants. Ellis Island was, Vogel notes, “the first wall,” often used to repel undesirables.
What about the European immigrants welcomed in decades prior, when they fled poverty, persecution or potato famine?
Well, in the mid-19th century, an entire national political party – the Know Nothings – was predicated on perceived threats to Protestants from morally and racially inferior German and Irish Catholic immigrants.
Even earlier, some of our most venerated Founding Fathers exhibited frighteningly nativist tendencies. Benjamin Franklin denounced the scourge of “swarthy” German immigrants who refused to speak English, for example.
We may be tempted to believe it was silly for our ancestors to fear newcomers who in retrospect added so much to this country and its economy, yet simultaneously believe it’s imprudent for us not to react the same way today. “After me, no more, please” is, unfortunately, a persistent refrain in American history.