Let’s consider. Terrorists reared in France and Belgium mowed down innocents in Paris – and over thirty US governors cry: “No Syrian refugees beyond my state line!” That makes as much sense as a bellicose presidential candidate proposing Muslim databases and mosque shutdowns a few weeks after he assails Mexican immigrants.
We’ve lain in this anti-immigrant and refugee bed before and it always sprouts thorns. The most infamous moments circled around World War 2, when the US confined American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps and rejected Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
But let’s tour the brambles even more. Maybe the governors will pause and Donald Trump’s popularity will vanish.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Federalist-controlled Congress passed these measures in 1798 and President John Adams signed them into law. Rumors rolled up and down the coast of an invasion from Revolutionary France, which supposedly swarmed the nation with spies. The new rules raised the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, sanctioned the imprisonment or deportation of aliens deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” and hemmed in critical speech.
Surprise-surprise: The Federalists were not pure. They were aiming their political guns at their arch-rivals, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, which befriended the immigrants. One Federalist Congressman tipped his party’s hand when he said he saw no need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”
To give him due, no Statue of Liberty welcomed the world’s huddled masses yet. But notice: “Wild Irishmen” were not French. They did, however, support the immigrant-friendly Democratic-Republicans, who called themselves “Republicans” but would evolve into the future Democratic Party.
About twenty Republican newspaper editors were arrested. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was thrown in jail for ridiculing President Adams and his “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self-avarice.”
That’s not nice, but we’ve heard worse from Donald Trump.
German-American harassment during World War I
America had flung its gates open to German immigrants ever since the colonial era, with the greatest influx arriving from 1881 to 1892. They often settled in the Midwest, where they stoked their own culture, established their own schools, spoke their own language, cooked their own food, and named their communities after German cities and famous Germans. Almost a tenth of the US population was German-American by 1910 and some entire cities – such as Hoboken, New Jersey – spoke German. Most were Lutherans; some were Mennonites.
All of which made them sitting ducks when the US aligned itself with France and Britain in the slaughter on the Western Front.
Soon, Attorney General Thomas Gregory passed cigars at the birth of the American Protective League: Two hundred thousand volunteers were deputized to spy on German immigrants. It didn’t take long before they were snooping on all dissenters. State councils of defense and the National Security League pressured German-Americans to buy war bonds, sing the national anthem, and declare their allegiance to the flag. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety was adamant: “The test of loyalty in war times is whether a man is wholeheartedly for the war and subordinates everything else to its successful prosecution.”
No room for conscientious objection in this America. Quakers and, especially, German-bred Mennonites fell under persecution.
It got uglier. German books were burned; the German language was verboten in schools; towns were re-named (one Michigan congressman suggested a federal mandate on all such changes); foods were re-branded (hamburger was now liberty steak; sauerkraut was liberty cabbage). South Dakota outlawed the use of German over the telephone and in assemblies of more than three.
And, of course, the rumors crammed the nation with spies, spies, and more spies. President Woodrow Wilson fanned the flames in his 1917 Flag Day speech: “The military masters of Germany have filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators have sought to corrupt the opinion of our people.” Rumors told of spies lurking in the pews of German-American churches and Congress passed the Espionage Act, which banned mail “advocating or urging treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States” (in practice, that jeopardized Socialist newspapers). German-Americans were tarred and feathered and expelled from their homes. A 45-year-old coal miner named Robert P. Prager dreamed of joining the US Army as it marched to war. Instead, he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges near St. Louis Missouri, and lynched in early April, 1918.
Several thousand German-Americans were interned in camps.
Incidentally, there were legitimate worries about German plots, saboteurs, and spies. Before the US declared war, British intelligence intercepted the “Zimmerman Telegram” in which the Kaiser’s government invited Mexico to join its side should hostilities erupt, and it seems that German agents blew up a munitions dump on Jersey City’s Black Tom Island in 1916. In other words, Imperial Germany spawned America’s first terrorist cell.
But, as we all know, a single cell does not bespeak an entire population.
Imagine this: Mexicans cannot eke out a living in their native land so they migrate north, where farmers recruit undocumented workers for jobs no American wants. That means a labor shortage for Mexican farmers and crops rot in the fields. Their government implores our government to do something while American anti-immigration campaigners warn of spies (this time, for the communists) and cultural demolition.
The birth child: Operation Wetback of 1954. The Immigration and Naturalization Service rounded up Mexicans and shipped them south, whereupon many waded back across the Rio Grande. The INS loaded them onto cargo ships and dropped them off in Veracruz, far from the border and their own families. The INS also dumped migrants in the steaming desert. Eighty-eight died in the heat.
The INS was so draconian that it even shipped off US citizens.
Donald Trump, incidentally, hailed this program as a model – even though it did not stem the immigration tide.
Look back and weep
As the Good Book says: “There is nothing new under the sun,” including ignorant demagogues and politicians who forget their roles as statesmen. Venting our anger on defenseless immigrants is often popular; history always renders it a harsh verdict and condemns its practitioners.