Nativism’s Long, Ugly History in American Politics

Last night’s GOP debate was an ugly affair. There was the customary anti-Obama nonsense: like Chris Christie threatening to kick the President’s butt out of the White House next year (ignoring the fact that he is Constitutionally bound to leave office anyway), Ted Cruz and Christie calling Obama a petulant child, and Marco Rubio’s fantastical claim that Obama does not believe America is a great superpower. You know, despite all the time Obama spent telling you specifically why the United States was the greatest power in the world just a few days ago. Ben Carson tried to reinvigorate his evangelical support by going on the offensive against the strawman of “secular progressives” and their lack of morality. This is news to the Ancient Greeks who developed a branch of philosophy dedicated to questions like “what is the best way for people to live,” “what makes something right or wrong,” “what is virtuous and what is vice?” You might have heard of it– it’s called ethics and Christian theologians and spiritual leaders also study these non-biblical sources in their struggle to understand human behavior.

The ugliest behavior of the night came from a familiar arena: immigration. Leading the charge was an unlikely candidate in Marco Rubio. Rubio’s personal narrative is one of immigrant success. To this point in his career, Rubio has been a champion for legal immigration and a supporter of these often marginalized and disparaged people. Last night, he attempted to flip the script on this tale. Trying to capitalize on some of the hateful rhetoric that has made Trump so popular, Rubio praised the Donald for tapping in to “some of that anger that’s out there about this whole issue because this president has consistently underestimated the threat of ISIS” and promised that he would make sure no questionable people got into the United States.

This is simple pandering, and while distasteful, it is politics as usual. The true ugliness of Rubio’s 180 came at the end of the evening when he was pressed to explain his former support for legal immigration. His excuse? ISIS. Which is hilarious, given the way he chastised nativist/racist Peter King of Iowa for reacting to the Boston Marathon bombing this way and the fact that ISIS predates his Presidential campaign and the copious number of statements he has made defending immigration against the very attack he engaged in last night.

What would compel an immigrant success story and long-time supporter of legal immigration to drop such a central narrative to his own life and embrace the keep America white movement? There are a lot of factors, but the most basic one is this: the GOP base hates immigrants.


Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove of ALL immigration. They feel that immigrants make America worse. They raise our crime rates (ignore that crime has been dropping while immigration has supposedly gone out of control). They weaken our economy (again, ignoring the incredible strength and durability of our economy). 81% of Republicans think immigrants don’t want to assimilate– which runs counter to every experience I have had with them in the classroom, driving my cab, or serving me food. 74% of Republicans think immigrants don’t learn English quickly enough. Ask any ESL teacher, K-12 or adult ed, if this is accurate. 67% of Republicans think there is simply too much immigration. Rubio’s position on legal immigration was never going to fly in the modern-day Know-Nothing party.

No issue, save slavery/civil rights, has caused more spilled ink (or blood) in this nation than immigration. Generation after generation of Americans have found novel ways to deny the humanity of those seeking a better life on our shores. No matter who you are, there is a good chance your ancestors faced the sort of slander, discrimination, and vilification the GOP continues to advocate for. But this is especially true if your family has Irish, Catholic, or Asian roots.

I won’t give a full run-down of immigration history here, but I do think taking a look at early American immigration up to the mid-19th century might be instructive.

Colonial Immigration (1600-1789)

(Undated image illustrating the progression of measles among Native Americans. We should definitely let this disease come back by not vaccinating our children…)

The start of it all. In the years following Columbus stumbling across the Americas there was a great dying off of the indigenous population. By the time English speaking immigrants were ready to start populating North America to the tune of 400,000 settlers in the 1600s, large swarths of the Native American population had been wiped out by smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria and other deadly diseases that they had no prior immunities to. Early immigrants, like my ancestors who landed on Plymouth Rock, found cleared areas to establish their towns on in the middle of forests that just so happened to have concentrated growths of high-yield crops growing in rows. God’s providence, miserable death by disease that nearly eradicated a entire people, had provided the necessities for European settlements to survive and thrive!

Beginning in earnest in the 1720s, European settlers imported vast numbers of Africans to use as a slave labor force throughout what is now the United States (roughly 126000) prior to the American Revolution. They would import approximately 170000 more from 1776 to 1808 (when Article 1, Section 9 allowed for the first laws regulating slave trade). These forced immigrants are not typically thought of as part of the fabric of America or our immigrant past, but have a longer standing claim to status as “Americans” than many of the “nativist” groups that so loudly talk about “losing what it means to be an American.”

While it is true that nearly half of the European immigrants of the period came as indentured servants, this should not be confused with being analogous to slavery. Despite what you may have heard, there were not “Irish slaves” throughout America. Those who travelled to what is now the US as indentured servants were given money and/or land at the completion of their period of service, did not pass their status on to new born children, and had legal standing in the courts. So basically, it was nothing like slavery. While many were political prisoners, debtors, and the unwanted poor, many others were willing participants who traded 5-7 years of labor and service in order to build a better life for themselves across the Atlantic.


Early Republic Immigration (1790-1830)

Despite what fantasies people may harbor, Americans have always struggled with racial animus. This should be obvious in a nation that held blacks in bondage until 1865, four years after autocratic Russia emancipated their serfs, but for some reason contemporary Americans seem to view our nation as devoid of racial conflict prior to 2008. The early Republic was no different. While immigration tapered off in this era (to roughly 8000 a year), in part out of British efforts to limit the growing size of the United States, we did pass a series of laws clarifying who was a US citizen and how one could achieve citizenship.

The 1790 Naturalization Act limited naturalized citizenship to immigrants who were free white persons of “good character.”Obviously, this excluded a large number of people already living in the United States, namely Native Americans, free blacks, and slaves. Also of note, given the recent discussion of Ted Cruz (and Barack Obama before him) eligibility to serve as President of the United States, the Naturalization act said that children of US citizens born abroad “shall be considered as natural born citizens.”  Later laws would add years of residency terms (all of which Cruz’s mother passes).

As for the immigrants of the period, they largely came from Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany, seeking agricultural opportunities in what is now the Great Lakes region of the United States. Small in number, these groups would pave the way for the next era of immigration and the first organized political opposition to immigration in America.


Mid-Late 19th Century Immigration

(1882 Puck illustration titled “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House.” Depicts the nations various ethnic groups as largely sleeping peacefully until disturbed by the “Irishman” throwing a fit. He has thrown bricks with titles like “The Chinese must go!” and “Irish Independence” at a befuddled Uncle Sam, while Lady Liberty looks on in horror.)

As you may recall from your high school US History course, the middle of the 19th century was a time of mass immigration to this nation. From 1830 to 1850 nearly 2.5 million immigrants would enter America. The Catholic Irish and German populations would be on the receiving end of the first organized call to protect American purity from being tainted by outsiders. Catholics were believed to be anti-republican, owing their allegiance to the Pope and not the nation. Secret societies and organized political groups began to emerge to combat this immigrant menace. Referred to as “Know-Nothings” (the supposed response you would receive when questioning a member about their allegiance to the movement), these groups stepped into the void created by the collapse of the Whig party. Presaging the sort of rhetoric we hear from blowhards like Donald Trump today, the Know-Nothing Mayor of Chicago, Levi Boone banned all immigrants from working for the city in 1855. State legislators around the nation fought to take away civil rights from Irish Catholics– they would attempt to deny access to citizenship application processes, push to mandate the use and teaching of the Protestant Bible in public schools (to prevent Catholicism from poisoning the minds of the American youth and to proselytize to Catholic children), and ban the Irish from public service. Elections around the nation were faced with conflict and violence, as nativists tried to deny immigrant voters access to polls, fearing that they were not legal voters and would vote overwhelmingly against the party that was openly hostile to immigrants. Heard similar ideas anywhere lately?

(1881 Puck image titled “The Mortar of Assimilation– And The One Element That Won’t Mix.”)

On the east coast and in the mid-west, the Irish became the face of the ugly immigrant. Unlike earlier Irish immigrants, these new comers were unskilled laborers who would settle in cities, providing competition for jobs in city government and industrial labor. Building canals and railroads, working in early factories, Irish immigrants were viewed as stealing jobs from “real” Americans. Often depicted as out-of-control and/or violent, they represented the dangers of allowing non-natives into the country. The Irish held on to their culture. They remained committed to the political causes of their home country (even when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s there was a significant pro-IRA sentiment in the Irish-American community here in the US). Their religious values were not congruent with main-stream America. They “fit-out” instead of “fitting-in.” In short, the Irish could never really be Americans and their presence threatened the very nature of what it meant to be American.

(1882 political cartoon titled “The Only One Barred Out.” It shows the Chinese immigrant sitting with his baggage of industry, order, sobriety, and peace, barred from entering America despite the admittance of communists, nihilists, socialists, “Fenians” (Irish), and other assorted hoodlums.)

Out west, the face of unwelcome immigration belonged to the Chinese. Like the Irish, they were considered outsiders by religion and culture. Brought to America to work in mining and railroad construction, the Chinese, like the Irish back east, were a threat to the wages and employment of working class American citizens. Unlike the Irish, the Chinese had no avenue for advancement, few champions in government or industry, and no “more savory” Protestant Chinese to help them assimilate (or fake it) into American society. The odious 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese labor immigration to the US for ten years (renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902). It also made Chinese already living in America ineligible for citizenship, classifying them as permanent aliens. Later acts would strip the Chinese of legal standing in the courts, extend the immigration ban to all types of Chinese migrants, and extend it to cover other Asian peoples. These laws remained on the books until 1943.

Nativist sentiment is not new to American politics. In fact, we have a long history of behaving in boorish, mean-spirited, and violent ways towards immigrants. Whether it is the Catholic, Irish, and Chinese in the mid-19th century, the Italians, Jews, and Poles of the early 20th century, the Korean, Vietnamese, and Cubans of the Cold War era, or the Somalians, Iraqis, and Latin Americans of today you have been attacked for your “otherness.” You are described as a threat to the very fabric of American culture. You’ll change our language (though none of them have). You’ll destroy our religion (we do a damn fine job on our own there). You’ll vote for the party that does not say and do terrible things to you (no shit). You might even change what we look like (among the most awful things Ann Coulter has written in her long, distinguished career of writing horrifying things). These monsters are ugly enough on their own. Tapping into their hate and anger is not a positive thing– it is and always has been an unethical, immoral, and undemocratic position. Senator Rubio gave his soul to the Know-Nothing Trumpers last night. Good luck selling your look, family, heritage, and political past to them, Marco. I hope it was worth it.


2 thoughts on “Nativism’s Long, Ugly History in American Politics

  1. Interesting stuff. I wonder how long it will take for non-Kleptocracy libertarians to be recognized rather than lumped in with communists, anarchists, econazis, ku-klux konstitutionalists and tea-party madmen.


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