There is No New Hate Under the Immigration Sun
If we judge the similarities of past rhetoric with modern day speech we find nothing much has changed.
When President Trump tweeted out his incendiary tweets at four sitting Congresswomen, the response was swift. Many folks found it offensive, others decried it racist, and most recoiled at the idea of four American citizens being told “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The defenses of the statements, as recapped and refuted by my friend and colleague Will Truman, went something like this:
This is far from the worst thing Donald Trump has said in his political rise and tenure. It is, however, one of the least ambiguous. There is typically some nail you can hang an argument on and have some sort of not-bigoted explanation. Not that people haven’t been reaching for some.
Actually he knew it was Brooklyn and Detroit and that’s what he meant. He said “countries”
Actually he was referring to Ilhan Omar who was born in Somalia “Congresswomen” — plural.
“Somalia is a hellhole, though” Again, wasn’t that specific. And Pressley’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s roots are in the US, going back for generations.
A lot of people don’t think of Puerto Rico as the United States. Yes, including the president, which is not unrelated to the discussion we’re having right now.
People know that he means where their ancestors are from… Yes I think it is quite clear that he is arguing that they aren’t really from here by virtue of where their parents are (or aren’t) from.
The point is that they could go back but don’t and maybe they should think about that. In my 40 years nobody has ever suggested anything like that to me when I have complained about this country. “Love it or leave it” maybe but never a reference to Britain. Beyond that, Pressley is the descendant of slaves. She probably doesn’t even know where she is from because slavers, like the Trump Administration, did not keep good family records while they were separating families.
He wasn’t telling them to leave he was saying they could come back They are already here. The whole point is about them not being here and learning their lesson.
There are a lot of women in congress and he only criticized a few of them so it’s obviously not about race. Ted Bundy knew a lot of women and most of them lived long lives and died of natural causes.
And on and on. But all of this is so unnecessary.
It is unnecessary, and while Will goes into more detail and presents his take on the subject with his usual excellence, there is a very simple reason I also find it unnecessary.
“Go back” has been established to mean something very specific in the American lexicon for almost as long as there has been an America. It is self-evident when you tell someone “Go back” you are implying they are among, not of, the country. Doing so to an immigrant is established as a challenge to their very presence in the United States. Saying it to a citizen of our country is the highest of insults, inferring they should not have the rights and privileges that citizenship affords.
It was not just inflammatory, but I suspect was purposeful in continuing a feud the president and his team find politically advantageous to his base. And it will work. We know it will work because it has always worked, at least it will with people pre-disposed and of small enough mind to let it. Plying the political trade of othering is a tried and true method, enflaming base passions that override all other concerns and turning folks who may otherwise be rational beings into defenders of the one true faith of mine and mine alone. That can break down along any barrier of difference you choose, but in this episode we have the perfect storm of race, gender, immigration, politics, and true believers who feel the fight is great enough that there should be no limits to the weapons used to wage it. Like money, alcohol, and power, such fights strip the veneer and reveal what people truly are, truly feel, and truly believe.
And if we judge the similarities of past rhetoric with modern day speech we find nothing much has changed. Typeface has been replaced by Twitter, but the sentiments are not very different.
It reads “The great fear of the period that Uncle Sam may be swallowed by foreigners : The problem solved.” It’s a lithograph believed to be from between 1860 and 1869. A country still healing the wounds of Civil War and dealing with a reunified country, freed slaves, and a reconstruction that would cause scars in the nation as bad as the war itself, found time to come together and hate on the influx of immigration. There are plenty of early examples of course, but this has the East Coast (Irish) West Coast (Chinese) dynamic going on.
Only a few years later, by 1881, Europe apparently was back in favor, at least compared to immigrants from Asia.
Here we have another theme that can be found today. The “right” kind of immigrant brings ‘art’, ‘industry’, ‘capital’, and ‘politics’ to the United States, while the “wrong” kind, here depicted as Asian immigration in the form of a serpent, threatening the West coast with maladies such as ‘small pox’, ‘immorality’ and ‘ruin to white labor.’ If arguments against immigration, such as taking white folks’ jobs, bringing of disease, and immorality sound familiar, it is because they are still very much in use some 150 years later.
Ever have a debate about “hyphenated Americans?” That isn’t new either. Consider this one from 1899 of “hostile immigrants voting in America.”
The idea is self-evident; a put-upon Uncle Sam turns his back as “Irish-American”, “German-American”, “Italian-American”, and others, in case you can’t see the finer print, are depicted dressed half as European and half in contemporary Americanized dress of the day. If you recall “dual loyalty” having come up lately, which it has and will again, that isn’t new either.
Skipping ahead to 1921, the debate changes from specific nationalities to any immigration at all.
This was in the aftermath of World War I, and the effects of that legislation, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and subsequent Immigration Act of 1924, would have long lasting and far reaching effects.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 established the nation’s first numerical limits on the number of immigrants who could enter the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act, made the quotas stricter and permanent. These country-by-country limits were specifically designed to keep out “undesirable” ethnic groups and maintain America’s character as nation of northern and western European stock. The final quota figures were based on the ratio of different ethnic groups existing in America in 1890, before the second big wave of immigration by southern and eastern Europeans.
To implement the quotas, the whole immigration process was changed in 1924 to the visa system we still use today. Ellis Island was reduced to being a detention center for a trickle of immigrants with problems upon arrival and for persons being deported. Parts of the island fell into disuse after 1924 or were used by other government agencies for other purposes. Eventually, the government decided it wasn’t worth keeping up the huge Ellis Island complex for that trickle of detainees, and the facility was abandoned in 1954.
When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, they showed the world the horrors that result if eugenics theories are carried to an extreme. It would take a Second World War in the 1940s to stop them, even as the US quota system prevented many refugees from escaping the Nazis. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that America’s ethnicity-based quotas would disappear and the United States would adopt a more ethnically neutral way of controlling immigration.
We could go on and on, from that 1965 legislation to Reagan’s amnesty in the ’80s, to the battles today over immigration. The policies surrounding immigration have much to debate and have never, can never, and will never be perfect. They are very complicated, involving complex law that has to cover deep concepts like personhood, citizenship, rights, and a host of other issues.
But the policies are only part of the problem right now in America. There has always been an “immigration problem” in America, as immigration is a base alloy of not just how America came to be but what America is. The issue now is rapidly going from a policy problem to a national character issue because of how we are treating each other over it. If we hold what should be a coveted and revered right — citizenship in the greatest experiment in a people self governing the world has ever seen — in its proper place, a better hierarchy of how to approach such things would naturally form.
People rightfully called out the racist connotations, but let us not gloss over the idea that a sitting president could insinuate to four citizens they don’t deserve to be so. At the core of law, order, and liberty in this nation is the idea that a citizen, any citizen, bestowed of that status the government must honor it. The rights, privileges, and freedoms that come with it are then unassailable from that government except without excruciatingly exhaustive due process. Or at least, it’s supposed to be.
I suspect many folks who scream the loudest with the worst kind of rhetoric over immigration have spent precious little time understanding, let alone respecting, what being a citizen of this country means in the first place, of the privilege and responsibilities that come with it, both to the country and to self. The times have changed much, and our country has changed right along with it, but when the hatred is cranked up over immigration, people of different backgrounds, different colors, different religions, different anything at all other than what the perpetually offended think should be included in “their” country, you get what we’ve had here for the last week. Which is the way some people want it, including the president and his most ardent supporters who are unable to denounce even this most blatant of crossed lines regardless of policy and political concerns.
When and if the four congresswomen themselves make statements that are also over the line, that can be denounced on the merits and based off what it entails. However, one party in this pathetic saga doing it does not justify the other doing it as well. Nothing they have done justifies the president’s usage of one of the oldest slurs in American politics. There is plenty of political space to attack positions, policies, and beliefs of opponents without going to someone’s right to be citizens of the country. There is no reason to get anywhere near the guardrails of decency and use racial attacks in any public discourse. There will be plenty of takers in that weaponization of hate, as there have been throughout human history, and as demonstrated by our own American history.
As a citizen, or immigrant aspiring to become one, or just as a human beings, we can and should do better. Regardless of what anybody else does.