Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Politics and Spirituality of American Immigration:





I was taking a break at work last night, picked up a copy of the local newspaper, and found this in the letters section:


now we must endure an influx of recent "invaders" (illegals) and supposed "Syrian" refugees, because our "general government" has decided that we are the dump of the world for its poor cowards afraid to fight for their own lands and powers? We, the people of Montana, do not need to take the poor of the world…


It was a depressingly familiar rant.

The fact that it was being written by the ancestor of European migrants living on land originally held by the Salish, Kootenai, and Pen d’Orielle  peoples is particularly ironic.

But that’s a whole other blog post…  

Anyway, another letter on the same page tried to be more even handed:


Unlike legal immigration of the past, where immigrants have properly assimilated and contributed to American culture and way of life, the current wave of refugees do not.


But is that true? Did previous generations of legal immigrants receive a welcome and assimilate easily into American society? Addressing these questions throws up the reality of America's conflicted relationship with the idea of immigration.

On the one hand, America is proud to be a nation of immigrants. It fits into the national narrative of America as the ‘Land of Opportunity’, where the populations of the world- fleeing stifling monarchies, cruel oppression, and universal health care- bravely make their way to the golden shores of the USA. Old languages, dress codes, and social mores are delightfully abandoned and the shared values of individual hard work and adopted patriotism combine to create that most noble of humans, the ‘American’.

It has never been that simple.

American immigration history roughly breaks down into four distinct periods: the colonial period; the mid-1800s; the early 20th century; and everything after the mid-1960s. Each period brought different types of races and ethnicities different global regions, and the US has responded to them very differently. 

In the colonial period, most immigrants were Europeans, about half of whom were wealthy business people looking for investment and the other half indentured servants with the promise of freedom after a set amount of time. This is probably the source of the twin American notions of ‘wealth=job creation and development’ and ‘hard work+thrift=opportunity’.

Crucially, most of these immigrants were English, Scottish, and Dutch and shared both the Protestant faith and the politics of Republican representative government. Equally crucially, there were less than 1 million of them.

The mid-1800s saw the first large influx of what we might call ‘foreigners’, mostly rural Irish fleeing what they simply called an Gorta Mรณr (the Great Hunger). Many didn’t speak English and had a very different social structure. The vast majority of them were Catholics, which immediately made them suspect both in terms of religion andwith their supposed allegiance to the Pope- politics. And they were arriving in huge numbers, poor and unskilled. 




Thousands died on the Atlantic crossing, leading many to simply equate ‘Irish’ with ‘poor, stupid, starving, and diseased’. 





Most Americans argued that they didn’t fit into any accepted definition of ‘white-ness’ and were closer in social and racial characteristics to blacks.





At the same time as the Irish came the Chinese, who spoke no English at all and had no connections with white Americans in terms of religion or- if they were even capable of contemplating it- politics. They were seen as utterly inscrutable, pagan, brutish, and good for nothing but essentially the most dangerous and crippling of slave labour, for which they were paid nearly nothing less and died in their hundreds.




In 1846 America invaded Mexico and fought its first war solely of aggression and conquest. When it was all over two years later, half of Mexico was now the United States. In contravention of the Treaty of Hidalgo, Mexican citizens and Native American nations who had possessed Mexican citizenship and were now located in the newly-seized territory were denied US citizenship, losing most of their civil and political rights. It was hoped in Washington that they would simply flee south, which many did. It is not for nothing that many present-day Latinos in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah ruefully point out, ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us’…




The early 20th century saw the arrival of immigrants mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. This was the era of the Italians, who spoke even less English than the Irish, but- in the opinions of most Americans- shared their same slavish devotion to degenerate Catholicism. Worse, they brought their secret criminal societies with them, to the point that ‘Italian’ was almost synonymous with ‘gangster’ for close to a century.



The outbreak of war with Japan in 1941 brought the full weight of American injustice down on its large population of Japanese citizens. Thousands had their property and belongings confiscated and were deported to concentration camps.




After 1965, most immigration the US has been either Central Americans fleeing dictatorships often supported by the US and the drug wars being fueled by US consumption. The Vietnam War led to a huge influx of Southeast Asians.

All during its history, America sought to curtail or end the immigration of one group or another- all except for the white, the wealthy, and the Western:

The 1790 Act limited naturalization to "free white persons";

In 1875, the Page Act effectively banned the immigration of female Chinese, on the assumption that they were mostly prostitutes. This effectively stopped Chinese in America from starting families;

A few years later, the transcontinental railroads completed, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning all immigration from China. It wasn’t repealed until 1943;

In 1921, the Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, revised into the Immigration Act of 1924. It severely restricted immigration of Jews, Italians, and Slavs in favour of Northern and Western Europeans, while at the same time maintaining the ban on Asian and Arab immigration altogether. According to the US State Department, the measures were necessary to ‘preserve the ideal of American homogeneity’.

This history must be included in any discussion of immigrant assimilation. 

It points to a two-fold reality: first, each new influx of immigrants to the US has assimilated to the best of its ability- and to the extent to which they were allowed. It wasn’t that these communities didn’t want to assimilate; most Americans thought them unable to assimilate and were vehemently opposed to them assimilating. Assimilation has always been a hard-fought struggle for every new group of arrivals.

Secondly, the notion of America eagerly and helpfully creating a path to assimilation is a false one; assimilation- where you can live, where you can shop, what clubs and organizations you can join- is a struggle for immigrants and has very often been achieved in spite of the prevailing culture rather than with its assistance.

These are simply the complexities of a ‘nation of immigrants’ constantly trying to define itself and what it means to be an ‘American’.

My political anarchism and my devout Christianity seeks to transcend nationality and embrace a common humanity. My faith holds sacred the Hebrew scriptures and prophetic writings that point to a God who demanded that we ‘love the stranger’ and that the ‘alien who resides with you’ must be thought of as a ‘citizen among you’ (Deut. 10: 19; Lev. 19:34).

I follow after the life of the man Jesus who insisted that I love my neighbour as myself, and not just my neighbour, but even my enemy (Luke 10:27; Matt. 5:43-44);

This ethic is not bound by any temporal or political understandings of ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’; it transcends nationality, party politics, or legislation. However they arrive, they are ‘among us’ and we are to give them comfort and love;

If they are fleeing a maniacal leader that our government has supported or an intractable war that we have incurred or prolonged, we give them our hospitality and support;

If the State makes it illegal to help them, we resist. For Christians, there is no way for us to practice our religion without taking in and caring for the poor, the stranger, and the refugee. The words of the Gospel make clear that it is Jesus himself who is hungry, thirsty, ill, incarcerated, and a stranger, and if we don’t care for them, we don’t care for him (Matt. 25: 35,40) and, as we are constantly reminded, 'Congress shall make no law...'

Americans must welcome, care for, and assimilate anyone who comes to our shores, for whatever reason.

Very often, we do this not, because of our history, but in spite of it. 

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