If that statement sounds familiar, it has been the credo of much of the history of immigrant groups in our country. The recent anti-Muslim feeling by many supporters of one of our presidential candidates, has resurrected much of what was thought of immigrant groups since the founding of the United States.
The current anti-Muslim feeling has been exacerbated by events in the Middle East and by the tragedy of 9/11. In searching for solutions to these kinds of problems, an enemy is needed to satisfy the vengeful feelings of a portion of our population.
The hatred for recent immigrants has a long and tarnished history that encircles every ethnic group that has come here in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. I guess if we went back to the 17th century, we could probably point to the discrimination based on religious differences within the colonies. Although the Constitution tried to create a more harmonious country, even the original document had discrimination based on race.
News clippings from the late 1800’s, when impoverished Italians came to this country were described as “sub-humans.” They were feared because they came from a country where radicalism, socialism and anarchism were part and parcel of everyday political life. Their religion also played a role in their discrimination. Catholicism was not viewed positively by the founding Protestant groups.
As a result of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840’s, immigrants came to the east coast of the United States in droves. It wasn’t too long as the Irish came to the cities, that they were seen as a threat to the status quo. Riots took place in Philadelphia. Catholic churches and schools were burned. Anti-immigration forces battled with Irish immigrants. Threats were made that St. Patrick’s Cathedral, originally on Mott St. in New York City was to be set fire to. Heavily armed Irish immigrants protected the church and nothing happened.
Jews, who came in small numbers from Germany, in the early part of the 19th century, were not seen as threats. However, when Eastern European Jews came in large numbers to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, they suffered the same kind of ignominy as did the Irish and Italians. There were businesses that would not hire then. Signs sometimes read, “No Jews, Negroes or dogs” may apply. Anti-Semitism still is extant in our country today. Hate groups spend a great deal of effort to demean Jews and tell the same old lies about world domination. Certainly, the Holocaust is the prime example of discrimination on a large scale.
Chinese immigrants were used by the railroads to lay track across the country. They were not treated as human beings. Their appearance in differing parts of the country kept them from being a part of local communities. Their Asian ways were not accepted as mainstream and therefore they remained as “other.”
The most obvious parallels with today’s situation are what happened to Japanese-Americans. You probably recall during World War II they were seen as a threat to the security of the country. Their ethnicity stamped them as people who would not defend our country, but those who would be a fifth column and try and do away with the United States. As the war progressed, they were interned in camps in the western part of the United States. They also performed valuable military service in defeating our enemies in Europe.
The story of African Americans is well documented. The Civil War created an even more difficult problem in the South. The nature of what happened during Reconstruction is a sordid part of our history. In some places, the African American was seen as a threat. There have been many called to; “Send them back to where they came from.”
Apropos of that statement, the creating of the Know Nothing Party mirrors our current situation. As immigrants arrived in the United States, there was constant agitation by such groups as; The American Republican Party, The Nativist Party, Order of the United Americans, the Star Spangled Banner. As the 1850’s approached they began to be known as the “Know Nothing Party,” because they refused to tell others about who their leaders were or what they were doing.
They became the American Party in 1849 and pledged to stop immigration, make a requirement that to be a citizen and be able to vote, they would have to be residents for 25 years.
Abraham Lincoln once said that if the Know Nothings took power we would have to amend the Declaration of Independence to exclude Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.
The plight of the Mariel boat people comes to mind. In 1980 Castro allowed anyone who wanted to emigrate to show up in Mariel Cuba and has long as they had a way of getting to Florida and had someone waiting for them, they could leave. 125, 000 Cubans did come here and provided skilled labor for the areas around Miami and in Florida. The people Castrol sent from prisons and mental institutions were only a very small part of the boat people and were identified as they arrived.
All of this is so familiar these days. It is déjà vu. We seem to be recreating the Know Nothing Party. Fortunately, the majority of the country, as it was then, was appalled by the nativists. That is comforting today.