Montana Viewpoint: Nothing new in anti-immigrant rhetoric

Nast

Anti-Irish political cartoon, “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly on Sept. 2, 1871.

They were dumb and dirty drunkards, they did not love America, they worshipped a foreign god, they took jobs from native-born Americans, they were illiterate and terrorists to boot, and it looked like they would soon outnumber the American populations in many cities.

And, in fact, like a nightmare come true, in a few short years they were indeed running some of the biggest cities in America. They were the Irish and they were not loved. Help wanted notices were qualified by stating, “No Irish need apply.”

Fortunately for the Irish immigrants, Americans found something else to be upset about. In distinction from the Irish, these new objects of vilification were illiterate, worshiped strange gods, owed allegiance to a foreign government, were drug addicts, and, of course, were taking jobs from hard-working Americans.

Jim Elliott

Jim Elliott

That would be the Chinese, and the recently despised Irish were right there in the front lines of anti-Chinese immigration in thought and deed.

I am old enough to remember the onslaught of immigrants to America after World War II, people who were disparaged by calling them Hunkies, Polacks, Dagos and Greasers, and who, in general, were not looked upon with favor by any true Americans whose family had been here more than one generation.

It is very interesting — not to mention ironic — that as soon as a group of immigrants has become accepted as a part of American society its members join in an anti-immigrant sentiment.

About two years ago, I wrote a piece in which I said that no group of immigrants had ever been welcomed into America with open arms. I neglected to mention the exception to that statement, which would be the generosity and helpfulness given the first Europeans to come to America by the true first Americans, the Indian tribes. It didn’t take the tribes long to realize that they had made a mistake with their liberal immigration policy, but by then, it was too late.

So, on to modern times and current scapegoats, Muslims and Hispanics. Muslims are all terrorists and non-believers (just like the Irish) and Hispanics are lazy people who are taking jobs away from Americans (reconcile that paradox, if you can). It gets tiresome.

The arguments don’t change, just the ethnicity of the current objects of vilification.

The fact is, of course, that every immigrant group has added to the vitality of America in culture and in commerce, but they have all started out by being accused of taking jobs away from Americans, the least damning of all their possible offenses. But that argument doesn’t work anymore because we now have an economy that has more jobs than workers.

The fault for that can be laid at the feet of the Baby Boomers, that generation of Americans who were born after World War II in an era of passionate fecundity. They are now retiring — at the rate of 10,000 a day, according to the Washington Post — and the current rate of regeneration has not and will not produce enough new workers to take their place.

Unemployment rates are at historic lows and employers are finding it nigh impossible to find employees. So much so, in fact, that some employers are now willing to hire people with criminal records and spotty work histories. President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has scared people enough that undocumented immigration is falling off, and like it or not employers who rely on those people for cheap labor are also having a hard time finding employees.

Special visas do exist for jobs in the high tech industries (H-1B visas), which allow college-educated specialists to work in America. They are generally, I read, willing to take lower wages than their American counterparts and so do actually take jobs Americans could fill. And for decades farm laborers have been able to work in American agriculture thanks to the H-2A visa program, which is enthusiastically supported by corporate agriculture.

But the fact remains that new immigrants will always be looked down upon by the old immigrants and imbued with the same undesirable qualities that have been handed down by generations of former immigrants: lazy, illiterate, criminal, and taking jobs from true Americans.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly newspapers across Montana and online at Last Best News and Missoula Current.

Comments are closed.