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Hardliners Try to White-Wash Their Own Immigrant Pasts by Redefining 'Immigration'

Redefining the word "immigrant" is an attempt to differentiate between those they hate and their own grandparents.
 
 
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I've encountered a new argument in my travels, both in the comments here on AlterNet and around the internet. It's perhaps best captured by the motto of the " Illegal Invasion News" blog: "IT'S NOT 'IMMIGRATION' AND THEY'RE NOT 'IMMIGRANTS.'" (This claim is often articulated in that ALL CAPS style so popular with small children and lunatics who are off their meds.)

The word "immigrant" has nothing at all to do with legal status. It means, simply, to move from one place to another for the purpose of settling down. Papers, no papers -- it's all irrelevant to the act of migrating.

The claim can be dispatched easily enough with a little elementary etymology. The word "migration" first appears in the English language in reference to humans in 1611, some 37 years before the modern nation state, with its discrete borders, came into existence. The Latin root of the verb "to immigrate," immigrare, predates that by more than a thousand years. Human migration is a phenomenon that dates back to before homo sapiens even existed -- pre-modern humans migrated wily-nilly. So, clearly, the word "immigrant" has nothing whatsoever to do with one's paperwork being in order; its roots predate the existence of contemporary legal systems.

An interesting question is why they bother making the argument at all? Surely, it's not relevant to the larger issue.

Or so it seems. But it is relevant, in that it is a response to a major problem for real immigration hardliners: the United States is, indisputably, a nation of immigrants and our heterogeneity, contra the howls of many a right-winger, is a big part of what makes America what it is. You can gorge on Bratwursts in Michigan, drink way too much vodka and mingle with decked-out Russian gliteratti in Brighton Beach, still read local Deutsche Zeitungen in small towns in Minnesota, eat Ethiopian food with your hands in L.A., sing weepy Irish ballads over your Guinness in dozens of Boston bars, wander the docks as the Vietnamese fishermen come in for a Texas evening and get the best roast pork in Little Havana. And thank god for all of that -- I wouldn't have it any other way.

But consider how awkward that simple reality is for a nice Irish boy like Bill O'Reilly, or someone like Tom Tancredo, whose grandparents -- all four of them -- immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the first decades of the 20th century. There are a lot of immigration restrictionists of European descent -- people with names like O'Malley, Kowolski or Schmitt -- who are incensed about the current generation of immigrants to America, and to avoid charges of hypocrisy -- or simple cognitive dissonance -- they have an almost obsessive need to distinguish between their forebearers -- "good immigrants" every one -- and these scoundrels coming here today.

Usually, they're content to hang onto the fact that their great-grandparents immigrated legally, but I guess some need to go a step further and deny that those who bypass the system are immigrants at all.

Even the former distinction is weak. Consider the similarities between, say, the wave of European immigration that arrived in the 1880s and 1890s and those who have come over the past decade, and they dwarf the differences. Descendants of the huge waves of European immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries make much of the fact that their great grandparents came here "legally," but they rest their case on a technicality: the only reason they were legal was that there was no law in effect restricting European immigration until the 1920s. In fact, European immigrants didn't even need to identify themselves to get in -- the derogatory word for Italians, "WOP," was an acronym stamped on entry documents that meant the person was arriving "With Out Papers."

It's true those earlier immigrants hadn't violated any law, but they never asked American citizens for permission to come and, while they contributed much to the growth of the American economy they, like their modern counterparts today, were not embraced with open arms by all of American society. In the mid-19th century, gangs would pepper arriving German immigrants with stones; walk into any Irish bar in New York City and you'll find the ubiquitous sign reading, "Irish Need Not Apply." Now those signs are a kitschy testament to Irish integration into American society, but back then they were anything but.

When one listens to the arguments put forth by people like Lou Dobbs today, they're virtually indistinguishable from what was said of those earlier European immigrants: they're invading in huge numbers; they won't assimilate like earlier immigrants have; they won't learn the language like earlier immigrants did; they vote in mindless blocs; they're unclean; their religions are backwards, and etc. Consider Benjamin Franklin's concerns expressed in a letter written in 1753:

Measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans ... Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation ... I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German, two half German half English, and but two entirely English; They have one German News-paper, and one half German. Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German ... In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies ... they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

That hearty German stock that had Ben Franklin so concerned would produce such esteemed Americans as Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the infamous "Sensenbrenner Bill" that would have made it a felony to even offer humanitarian aid to an undocumented immigrant, among other provisions. Sensenbrenner is just as concerned with the large numbers of Latin Americans coming in to the country today, and his rhetoric is very similar to old Ben Franklin's. One of the key differences is that in Franklin's era -- and through the middle of the 20th century -- immigration restrictionists spoke of the innate inferiority of other human "races"; in modern times, that's impolitic, so Sensenbrenner and his contemporaries make a big show of distinguishing between "legal" and "illegal" immigration.

In every generation, the gloom and doom predictions about how those newer immigrants would ultimately lead to the nation's destruction have proven overwrought and inaccurate. By the third generation, the Irish, Poles, Italians and all the rest of Europe's immigrants had all become Americans. And so it will be with today's new immigrants. According to a recent study cited in The Washington Post , immigrants today are no different; in fact, the study noted that "immigrants of the past quarter-century have been assimilating in the United States at a notably faster rate than did previous generations."

The similarities don't end with the consistent hostility some Americans have for newer arrivals. Individuals have all sorts of reasons for emigrating, but throughout our history, when large numbers migrate from a single country or region, it's always been in response to some kind of shock in their country of origin, be it civil strife or pestilence or drought or war or economic collapse or natural disaster. Today we have a large number of immigrants from Mexico -- slightly more than half of all new migrants -- which followed the peso crisis, which was aggravated by job displacement resulting from NAFTA's liberalization of agriculture. Again, this is consistent, whether we're talking about the Irish fleeing the Great Potato Famine, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms or Vietnamese boat people fleeing war in South-East Asia. The Wikipedia entry for Swedish emigration to America explains that their numbers peaked just after the Civil War:

There was widespread resentment against the religious repression practiced by the Swedish Lutheran State Church and the social conservatism and class snobbery of the Swedish monarchy. Population growth and crop failures made conditions in the Swedish countryside increasingly bleak.

Aside from the obvious demographic differences between today's immigrants and those of earlier eras, there was another difference. Relative to the native population, the wave of elevated immigration hitting our shores today is nothing compared to previous ones. During the 1980s and 1990s, about 16.4 million immigrants came to America -- a number equaling 7.1 percent of the 1981 population; during the period between 1901and 1920, about 14.5 million new arrivals came to America, but that number represented 18.9 percent of the population in 1901 .

Those who like to throw around rhetoric about some huge "invasion" would do well to read some history -- what we're seeing now is a drop in the bucket compared to earlier periods of American history.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

 
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