The Recurring Politics of Immigration (REPOSTED)
The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded as a secret society in 1849 to support political candidates opposed to the “infestation” of America with Irish Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, German Catholics), spread like wildfire. In the aftermath of the Mexican War and the impending debate over the extension of slavery into the Mexican Cession, disaffected Whigs changed the national political subject to one that could unite, rather than divide, them: immigration. The slave question seemed poised to unite Democrats (in its defense) and to divide Whigs. The other great distraction – prohibition of alcohol (known then as the “Maine Law” in honor of the first state to ban the production of alcoholic beverages) – proved quite fleeting as a political issue. Immigration had more staying power. Deeply held anxiety over Roman Catholicism’s cultural “assault” on America’s Protestant heritage, the desperate and violent Irish gangs drawing recruits from the ongoing potato famine, and economic anxiety in an industrializing nation, conspired to give unprecedented political power to the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. When pressed on its priorities, secrets and positions, members repeatedly said, “I Know Nothing.”
The Know Nothing movement sought major Constitutional changes to limit immigration and prevent immigrants from participating in the political process. Surely, the immigrants were lured to America for the sole purpose of providing machine votes for Democratic politicians, the Know Nothings argued.
It was a desperate argument that contained no more than the tiniest sliver of truth. It persisted until 1854 when, almost magically, the issue disappeared, only to be replaced again by the far more substantive debate over the slave question.
Then, as now, the immigration debate thrust itself forward as a sort of stand-in for more substantial anxieties about economic change.
The same story repeated itself in the 1890s as Southern and Eastern European immigrants flooded America’s shores. Especially after the Depression of 1893, it was the charge of the Jewish pimp, the Italian mafioso, and the Polish radical (confirmed with the assassination of President McKinley) that fed anti-immigration sentiment. Unlike the Know Nothings, the 1910s witnessed real restrictions on immigration, culminating with the 1924 act effectively shutting America’s doors to the world for 40 years. Even the shiploads of Holocaust evacuees could not overcome the isolationist tide.
Again, the real driver was not culture, but economics. The Second Industrial Revolution introduced large-scale labor conflict to mining and timber districts in America’s interior, and to small industrializing cities in the West and South. Cheap labor drove wages down across the board.
Since 1965 and the reopening of immigration – this time to the non-white corners of the world – the immigration debate has ebbed and flowed according to economic anxieties. The early 1990s recession witnessed a massive push for restrictions against immigration – legal or illegal. The passion died down again, only to be revived again with the Great Recession. It’s Mexican drug gangs instead of Irish ones this time. It’s Mexican “anchor babies” instead of sweatshops and political machines. It’s all the same.
America loves its immigrants…when prosperity reigns.
And when hard times cometh, woe be to the immigrant.
So what of the politics of immigration today? Nobody should be surprised that the Arizona law is broadly popular. In fact, reactionary social legislation is ALWAYS popular during hard times, which is why politicians keep pressing for it.
But does that make it right? Proposition 187 was extremely popular in California and the nation as a whole when it was passed.
But within a few years it was seen broadly as a bigoted and useless ordinance that did nothing but drive California’s Latino population to the Democratic Party for good. Nobody should be surprised if that happens in Arizona too.
But, like with Prop 187 and the 1924 act long before it, the proof will be in the results.
Four possible scenarios exist:
1) Courts prevent the law (or portions of the law) from taking effect and the political fallout reflects the intentions – not the results – of the legislators. This is what happened with Prop 187 and the long-term consequence was toxic for conservatives.
2) The law passes and illegal immigrants flee Arizona while legal Hispanics are unharassed. Liberals look like exploitative Cassandras and other states quickly follow up with their own versions of the Arizona law. Needless to say, conservatives are counting on this.
3) Legal Hispanics are harassed, and stories reach nationwide exposure of even conservative Latinos being wrongfully imprisoned and placed in a Kafkaesque hell. Conservatives are blasted as racists, other states shy away from the law, Congress passes some version of amnesty, and Latinos reward the Democratic Party for decades.
4) The law does nothing to stop illegal immigrants, a black market in birth certificate papers emerges, everything continues as before…and legal Latinos are generally unharassed.
My guess is that #4 is most likely. Why? Because illegal immigrants are here for the same reason the Germans, Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and others came here: jobs. As long as potential employers exist, Mexicans will come to America – legal or not.
In fact, the only thing that will end illegal immigration from Mexico is the completion of Mexico’s own economic transformation begun with NAFTA. When Mexico ended its decades-long program of subsidizing bean and rice farmers – especially in the Michoacan region – millions of Mexicans lost their family farms and headed El Norte. And now with borderland Maquiadores giving way to even cheaper labor overseas, desperate workers simply slip over the border.
The fact of the matter is: commercialization of agriculture and large-scale industrialization has fueled almost every major immigration wave in US history (small-scale political and religious refugees are the exception). What drove the German farmer off the land in the 1850s – Bismarck’s “iron and rye” policy – is the same thing that drives Mexican families to Arizona today. Only when that process runs its course will we see immigration start to taper off. When will that happen? I Know Nothing, indeed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a technical glitch, when this post ran yesterday it did not include a District TMV link so readers were unable to discuss it. We are reposting this totally today and placing it on top of the site for the morning in so that it’s open for discussion. Since the other post may already have gotten search engine links, we are leaving it on TMv as well. A link to District TMV of this post will be placed to appear on the other post as well.
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