Does America’s Poor Treatment Of Immigrants Push Them To Thrive?

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America is often called “a nation of immigrants” or an XpatNation if you will, and many people consider it a place where anyone can go, work hard, and achieve the American Dream.

Although this may be true in some cases, it’s important to understand that there is a darker side to the history of American attitudes toward immigration. Some of that has manifested recently in the form of politicians on the right spouting xenophobic proposals, considering the forced deportation of approximately 11 million so-called “illegal immigrants.” While others have proclaimed that a Muslim-American should not be eligible for the Presidency of the United States.

Why Is America So Scared Of Immigration?: Some Reasons To Consider

This is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. has had a prominent xenophobic streak since the nation’s founding. Matthew Jacobson, a professor of American studies and history at Yale University describes it as: “We are a nation of gatekeepers wary of opening doors too wide and the ‘wrong’ people.”

Jacobson goes on two explain that there are two primary reasons why Americans act this way. One is economic – Americans fear that immigrants will take jobs that should go to native-born citizens by working for a lower wage. The other reason is political – the belief that immigrants do not have the “wisdom” required to participate in American democracy.

We are a nation of gatekeepers wary of opening doors too wide and the ‘wrong’ people.”

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Image Source: Quiet Mike

It’s important to note that this discrimination is not unique to Hispanic and Muslim immigrants. There is a long list of immigrant groups that have faced rampant discrimination by a paranoid and xenophobic U.S. citizenry. Many of these groups came from Europe, which would suggest that America’s anti-immigrant stance is not entirely racially-based. Each of these groups survived, however, and eventually thrived in American society.

The Victims Of America’s Xenophobia: Color of Skin? It Goes Deeper Than That

In the U.S., each new group of immigrants faces a similar pattern – initial discrimination is followed by great success. One could argue that the mistreatment of these populations causes them to work harder to succeed and eventually they are not only accepted into U.S. culture, but they become an indispensible part of the fabric of America. They not only adapt to the American way of life, but the U.S. culture adopts some of their practices and  features of their culture. Let’s take a look at the journeys of a couple European immigrant groups in the U.S.

Irish-Americans: Why Are The Irish So Proud Of Their Heritage?

The mid 19th century saw a huge influx of Irish immigrants into the United States. Almost half of all immigrants to the U.S. in the 1840s were Irish, and they constituted one third of all immigrants in the 1850s. This was due in large part to the Irish potato famine that killed over 1 million people and forced 1.5 million to flee to the United States.

The Irish immigrants who fled to the United States typically settled in large cities and lived in terrible poverty for the most part. They lived in rented rooms in cellars and small apartments that often flooded with sewage due to poor waste management systems in the impoverished neighborhoods. They suffered under these conditions and were susceptible to terrible diseases like yellow fever, typhus, and tuberculosis. Some also were forced to turn to crime. Astoundingly, 55 percent of all people arrested in New York City in 1859 were of Irish origin.

See Also: The Irish are Emigrating Again

The Burning Of Irish Catholic Churches

When Irish immigrants were able to find work, it was typically as replacements for striking workers. This led to widespread resentment in working class communities. Blue collar workers blamed the immigrants for bringing down wages and undermining the union movement which was just starting to make a difference in the lives of working class people.

U.S. citizens also distrusted Irish immigrants because of their Catholicism. They were the largest predominantly Catholic group of immigrants to ever move to the United States, and the predominantly protestant nation worried that they would be more loyal to the Pope than they would be to the U.S. government. This led to violence on a number of occasions. In 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. For the next decade, there would be multiple Catholic churches burned to the ground by anti-Irish protestors calling themselves “nativists.”

Anti-Irish sentiment continued in one form or another for over a century. It went hand-in-hand with Anti-Catholic sentiment. It seemed to end abruptly in most parts of the country in 1960, however, when a transformational Irish-Catholic took the national stage. John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 in spite of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings in the electorate. Kennedy explained during the campaign:

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”- John F. Kennedy

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Image Source: Winsconsin Radio

Kennedy’s election did much to end anti-Irish sentiment in the United States. It also proved that an immigrant group that was once widely despised could still achieve the American Dream without sacrificing its culture. Irish immigrants were not forced to give up their Catholicism; instead it is now accepted and plays a large role in American society.

The Italian-Americans: The Lynching Of Italian Americans

If I told you that the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891, I’m guessing that you would assume that the victims were African American. Well, that would be incorrect.

In 1891, nine Italian-American immigrants were found guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy. While they were waiting to be sentenced, a mob broke into the jail and dragged the nine men, along with two other Italian-Americans who were not involved in the crime, to the gallows and lynched them publicly. 

Following the incident, hundreds of Italian-Americans in New Orleans were arrested, and as the news spread throughout the country, people in other major cities also began attacking and arresting Italians immigrants. When asked about the incident, future president Theodore Roosevelt called the lynchings, “a rather good thing.”  Overall, a total of 2o Italians were lynched during the 1890’s.

The New York Times published an editorial claiming that the victims were, sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” The next day they published another piece arguing that the, “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans…”

The Lynch Law (against Italian Americans) was the only course open to the people of New Orleans”- The New York Times

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Image Source: Timothy Hughes

This was a common view at the time. Italians immigrants were often regarded as sub-human. The Governor of Louisiana, John Parker, who was also involved with the lynching in New Orleans, once said that: 

Italians are just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in habits, lawless, and treacherous.”- John Parker, Governor of New Orleans 1920-1924

Italian-Americans were also not immune to the same anti-Catholic prejudice and violence that plagued Irish immigrants for over a century. They faced the same distrust over religion, but it should be noted that they faced an added element based on the perception that they were involved in crime to a greater degree.

But like Irish-Americans, Italian immigrants eventually overcame the discrimination that was such a large part of their lives. Although we have yet to see an Italian-American President of the United States, there are currently two Italian-Americans serving on the U.S. Supreme Court – Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. In addition, Italian culture has been completely adopted into U.S. society. All one has to do is look at Hollywood films or the abundance of Italian restaurants in every American city.

American Xenophobia Actually Makes Immigrants Stronger

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Image Source: Momzinga

These two case studies should provide hope for the oppressed immigrant populations in the United States today – specifically Muslim-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. Both groups have made great progress in recent decades. There are members of both groups currently serving in high political office. In addition, there are signs that many of their customs and cultural practices are being adopted by the U.S., which is generally the first step in overcoming prejudice.

There is still much work to do, and certain politicians seemed determined to not only continue a culture of discrimination, but actually enhance it. Similar attempts have been made before, regarding other immigrant groups in the U.S., and although they may burn hot for a while, they eventually die down, and the U.S. lives up to its creed of being a “nation of immigrants” and “a land of opportunity.”

Every group seems to have to go through a period of discrimination, but it only makes those groups stronger. They take the worst that American xenophobia can dish out, they survive, and then they thrive. All one has to do is look at the story of Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans to know that it’s possible to withstand discrimination and come through it feeling stronger with your culture intact.


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