Xenophobia: An American Saga

Xenophobia: intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.

So, let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time, some religious dissenters called Puritans fleeing persecution left their country with its state-sponsored religion for better lands. They arrived in North America in 1620 and settled there. Where they almost immediately began persecuting anyone else of other flavors of Protestantism who tried to go to the New World. We call this Massachusetts.

In 1636, religious dissenters fled Massachusetts and settled nearby. We call this Rhode Island.

In 1633, Catholics arrived in North America from England, where they were a minority. They settled well south of New England to be clear of the Puritans. We call this Maryland.

In 1681, a man named William Penn founded a colony north of Maryland. He guaranteed freedom of religion, which attracted many peaceful Quakers to the state.  We call this Pennsylvania.

Time passed. A nation was born in 1776. A nation born of the idea of freedom. The Declaration of Independence announced that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In 1787, an amazing document was written. The U.S. Constitution. With a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, right to bear arms, and freedom of assembly, among others.

In the early 1800’s, Irish and Germans began entering the United States. Many of them were Catholics. Anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in the United States, especially in New England, where the celebration of “Pope’s Day” (an anti-Catholic event where the Pope was often burned in effigy) was held annually in most towns. People feared that Catholics would give their allegiance first to the Pope rather than the United States. German and Irish immigrants were castigated for what was perceived as their excessive drinking and labeled as useless drunkards. Germans who refused to give up their native tongue were mocked and looked down on.

In an ironic twist, many Germans had arrived in the U.S. after the failed Revolutions of 1848, seeking to live in a democratic society. They found it, but it was often wearing a hostile face. A political party labeling themselves the American Party ran candidates for President on an anti-immigration platform during the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Involuntary immigrants to the United States flowed in until 1808, when Congress outlawed the slave trade. Millions of Africans suffered in slavery, which was propped up by the theory that the African was an inferior race.

In 1861, the lower half of the United States declared their independence, in order to protect their slave-holding way of life. The northern states declined to let them leave. Thousands of Germans and Irish served in the Northern ranks, fighting and dying in the Civil War. As a result of the war, slavery was ended; but racism was far from dead. Jim Crow laws upheld the ideology that had sustained slavery well into the 20th century.

Chinese immigrants flooded into the U.S. in the 1850’s during the Gold Rush, and helped build the massive railroad infrastructure that turned America into an economic powerhouse. They were ill-paid, ill-treated, and looked on as second class citizens.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, severely restricting Chinese immigration. Similar legislation in 1907 restricted immigrants from Japan.

Immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Sweden, and other parts of Europe all flooded into the country in the late 19th century following the economic depression of the 1870’s. They worked in low-paying jobs in large cities such as New York or headed further west to become farmers.

When the U.S. went to war with Germany in 1917, the Justice Department required all German “aliens” to register with the government. Many were imprisoned. Some were killed in mob violence. German streets were renamed. Some towns with German names were renamed. Schools stopped teaching German as a language. “Patriotic” societies cracked down on German schools, clubs, and other cultural institutions that had existed peacefully for a century. German sounding foods or items had their names changed, including, nonsensically, the German measles, which became “Liberty Measles.” Yet thousands of German served in the U.S. military and fought against their homeland for their country.

Following World War I, immigration policies grew even more restrictive. Many Mexicans were deported. Refugees fleeing growing violence in Europe, including Jews, were turned away. Isolationism was in its last, deadly,  gasp.

During World War II, German and Italian citizens were required to register with the U.S. government. Even American citizens of German and Italian descent were detained. Worse was the detention of Japanese, including their American born children. Americans of German and Italian descent served prominently in the U.S. government and military, with many using their expertise in foreign languages to become spies in the O.S.S. The 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, became the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army.

Following World War II, the U.S. began welcoming more and more immigrants and refugees from all over the world, especially those fleeing Communist countries. Of course, many of these refugees arrived in the midst of McCarthyism, where the very thing they were fleeing stared them in the face. In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Neutrality Act, doing away with quotas from certain countries.

Today, America is one of the most diverse places in the world. Immigrants and refugees have built this nation into an economic powerhouse. They have overcome racism, suspicion, and violence. Nearly every single American traces their ancestry through immigrants or refugees. No major threat ever emerged from an ethnic group, despite the persecution levied against them by nativist reactionaries.

These blots on our history are just that – isolated incidents that do not overshadow the shining example that is our American Republic. However, each one of these blots on our national conscience should serve as a reminder of the dangers of xenophobic, knee-jerk, reactionary policies.

We stand right now at a point in history where we can either learn from our mistakes and honor the memory of our immigrant ancestors, or add yet another dark spot to our history. It is up to you.


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