Montana Viewpoint: Still a nation of immigrants

We are a nation of immigrants who despise immigrants. Syrians and Middle East refugees are just the most recent of the indigestible bits in the melting pot that we are so fond of claiming as our great distinction among nations. And Hispanics, like the poor, we will always have with us and will probably disparage them for another few decades in addition to the disparagement of the past 150 years, give or take.


Jim Elliott

In 1939, a ship bearing 900 Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany was turned away from American shores. We excluded Asian peoples from coming to America, and put quotas on the immigrants from “less desirable” nations.

We always have good reason to fear them, the best of reasons. In the 1800s the Irish were drunken, lazy brawlers, and Papists, whose loyalty was to the pope, not America. The Italians were anarchists and provocateurs. And they were all criminals, immoral, and, oh yes, Catholic.

The Jews were opportunistic moneylenders who didn’t mingle with us. (is it any wonder?) Then in my lifetime we had the influx of refugees after World War II, Poles, Czechs, Greeks, more Italians and others with names that were funny and we couldn’t pronounce so we made fun of them.

In the mid-1950s there was a German immigrant family that bought a small farm near ours, one that in fact had once belonged to my great-grandmother. Word was that he was a concentration camp commandant, or at the very least a Gestapo agent. I have a watercolor of my great-grandmother’s house that his wife painted and gave to my mother.

In 1950, there was an Italian immigrant named Talarico who opened a small sandwich shop on the highway to town. We called him Pop and that was the name of the store— “Pop’s.” In the back of the shop, there for all to see, a big American flag was painted on the wall below which was written in large letters, “Pop says ‘God bless America’.”

Thirty years later, his son Ralphie, a local civic leader, was running the shop. On the wall Ralphie had a big oil painting of Pop and below the painting was written, “Pop Talarico always said, and meant, ‘God Bless America’.” This was a man whose fellow Italian immigrants we commonly referred to as Dagos, Wops or Guineas.

We complain that they won’t learn English, but the children of immigrants are bilingual and their grandchildren often refuse to speak the language of their grandparents’ native land.

I came from a part of America where history went back a long way. It was settled by Germans before the Revolution, and in the small family graveyards you would see little flags with 13 stars next to their graves. They voted in German, and they elected to the first Congress of the United States a man who became the first speaker of the House of Representatives, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister. It was common to hear them converse in German well into the 1960s.

We disparage immigrants for being lazy, but at the same time we complain that they are taking jobs away from Americans. We claim they will cause us economic hardship, but their labor always adds to the economy. We claim they are changing American culture, but our culture has always changed and we have often ourselves been the agents of that change.

They face the same hardships in a new country that we celebrate in our own immigrant ancestors—loneliness, fear, hunger, uncertainty and endless toil, but somehow their hardships are not as noble.

The list goes on and the anger at immigrants never seems to stop. Why?

From the earliest European immigrants to today, whoever we are, whatever our history, whatever our origins, all our families were immigrants who were not welcome in America. It’s not a tradition to be proud of, but it is one to think upon.

Gov. Steve Bullock has said that Syrian refugees from terrorism will not be turned away by Montana. It is a politically courageous act, and he deserves great credit for trumping fear and hatred with compassionate patriotism.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek. 

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