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Dan Lawlor: Stop Blaming Immigrants for Your Problems

Saturday, February 25, 2012

 

More often than I like, I’ve heard and read denunciations of “illegal aliens.” I recall a jaw-dropping example at the Ancient and Horribles parade a few summers back where people actually walked around in Martian Outfits with signs reading “Illegal Aliens.” The fears that “others” are coming in and “taking jobs,” turning “our” capital into a “sanctuary city,” spreading crime and the like are very pervasive. However, I think this fear of “illegal aliens” is based on a very selective memory of history.

There are people in our political life today who echo the paranoia of the 1920s. The 1920s was a time when Rhode Island was a major textile manufacturer, when workers had to strike (and at times did so violently) for vacation time and higher wages. In Massachusetts, Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants, were executed in the electric chair after an unfair trial. In Rhode Island, the National Guard was called on to fight against factory workers in West Warwick. The KKK had a growing presence particularly in Northern Rhode Island, and political corruption in the RI on the part of the Republican Party allowed over-representation of the rural towns, giving power extra power to a small number of anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish voters, who often feared the “dangerous” Irish, Russian and Italian immigrants.

By the mid- 1920s, nationally, legal immigration from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe was dramatically cut, and immigration from Asia was forbidden. The 1920’s was a time of Jewish and Catholic quotas at elite colleges. It was a time of little to no protections for most workers. It was a time of school quotas, legal segregation and lynching for blacks. It was a time of a resurgent KKK. When people talk about rising crime in cities today, I think they forget the street gangs, terrorists, and mobs of the past.

Some people today – in our state and country - who denounce citizenship by birth for children of undocumented people, would perhaps not be citizens if the US had adopted a similar policy back in the 1920s. There were certainly plenty of Americans who would have loved to deny citizenship to Irish, Italian, and Jewish citizens of yesteryear (not to mention black Americans whose rights were denied for decades). Not all immigrants from 80 years ago were saints, and not all were sinners. We shouldn’t look back with rose-colored glasses to justify exclusion and discrimination today.

There were certainly challenges and reasons that helped produce the fear of immigrants. Were there legitimate concerns for terrorism in the 1920s? Yes. Did those concerns justify demonizing all Southern and Eastern Europeans? No.

Were there concerns about regulating a fair wage for laborers in the 1920s? Yes. Did those concerns justify denying people the right to enter this country based on their country of origin? No.

We live in a time of stress, confusion, and frustration. It is hard to find a job. It is hard to make sense of all the changes in our world. However, that frustration is no reason to blame people of different skin for a crisis brought on by wealthy bankers and neglectful regulators, to blame immigrants for a local budget crisis created by politicians down the street, or to deny the right to citizenship to those born here.

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