It is remarkable how common perceived immigration problems have been and continue to be. Politicians demonizing immigrants from generation to generation have focused on their indigent status, destruction of the job market, foreign culture and uncleanliness. Campaign literature from 1845 from the anti-newcomer Know-Nothing Party could pass for that aimed at Latino immigrants today.
In 1800, the Federalists were looking for a way to beat back a rising swell of support for the states’ rights presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had been advocating for closer ties to France, even though France was in the middle of a revolution. The Federalists believed they could gain traction with an anti-French immigration campaign, and they did. Everyone, of course, knew the French were an unstable lot and far too effeminate to be good citizens.
Again, in 1845, the Irish Potato Famine drove hundreds of thousands of starving wretches to east coast cities. Because the Democrats’ political machine thrived on immigrant votes, the Irish became the new target of a rising opposition from the Know-Nothing Party. Everyone knew the Irish were drunkards, did not respect family values and took jobs out of the hands of working men. Worst of all, they were “papists,” Catholics, taking orders from a foreign monarch, the pope.
Then in 1882, the Republicans excluded all Chinese from legal immigration. The western states were becoming a strong political force and wanted to be rid of all the Chinese they had imported to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Everyone knew the Chinese lacked morals, dressed oddly and did not support democratic values. Everyone also knew they were responsible for the opium culture taking hold in San Francisco, as well as the abduction of white women for demonic ceremonies.
Here in Maine, a burgeoning shoe and textile industry was drawing thousands of French Canadians across the border to dozens of towns and cities. At the turn of the century, little communities like Dexter, Corinna, Milo and Hartland, as well as larger cities like Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor and Augusta saw their populations soar.
The response was to develop the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the Northeast to counter the rising tide of Catholic French-Canadians. During the 1920s, a faction of the Republican Party was actively supported by the Klan. Owen Brewster was elected governor of Maine in 1924 with their open help and support. Everyone knew that the French-Canadians were dim witted and allied to the pope, so few objected to the Klan’s political agenda.
Most Mainers, if they cared to look, would find some of their immediate ancestors fall into one of these immigrant groups. At one time or another, all of us have “illegal immigrants” in our genealogy. Many of them stayed and worked in America their whole lives. Some went back home after a few years, and others became naturalized citizens.
The country grew and prospered with their vitality and work ethic. Within a generation or two, they were indistinguishable from their fellow citizens. They did not ferment revolution, abduct white women, establish a Catholic theocracy or addict the population to opium.
The immigration problem is not being solved because our leaders have never been interested in solving it. It is just too good of an election issue. It is so easy to stir sentiment against people who are different that many candidates do not really want it to go away. All across the country there are elected officials who owe their seat to distrust and fear of the newest immigrants, so it is not in their interest to solve a problem that continues to get them re-elected.
My mother had a friend who came into this country in a wheelbarrow. Her parents had lived in a small village along the St. Lawrence River and walked down the Old Canada road to Waterville in search of work, each pushing a wheelbarrow ahead of them. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. All the while she raised a family of six and worked for 40 years in a shoe shop, never forgetting who she was or where she came from; neither should we.
Alan Haley of Skowhegan teaches economics online for the Maine Department of Education.