May 19, 2010

THE HYSTERIA IS CONSTANT, ONLY THE "RACES" TARGETED CHANGE:

Untangling Immigration's Double Helix: Arizona's new immigration law is only the latest in our nation's long history of conflicted feelings about the undocumented among us (PETER SCHRAG, 5/19/10, WSJ)

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin described the influx of German immigrants who were moving into Pennsylvania as "a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion." The effect, he warned, was that "even our Government will become precarious." Those words could have been written yesterday about Hispanics.

The issue of immigration has long troubled Americans. Arizona's new law, which gives police the power to detain those they suspect of being illegal aliens, is only the latest chapter in centuries of intermittent efforts to slow immigration, or stop it altogether.

Yet mixed with those doubts has been endemic ambivalence: the tension between the need of a huge unsettled continent for people to clear land, work factories, fields and mines, and build canals and railroads, and the fear of what those workers would bring. Today there's still the need for help in the fields, in the kitchens, in construction and, increasingly, in countless highly skilled jobs, yet the fear remains. Depending on economic conditions, the U.S. has tacked uncomfortably between our founding ideals of equality, tolerance and assimilation and doubt about who was fit to come and under what circumstances.

Immigration restrictionists argue that they object only to those who are undocumented—pejoratively, the "illegals." But the category is itself a creature of policy, arguably necessary for good social and economic reasons, but ever mutable and ever revised by economic conditions and public attitudes. Until the passage of national immigration restriction laws in the 1920s, there were no illegal immigrants, with the exception of the Chinese, who were categorically excluded in 1882, and those who failed the health and character screens at Ellis Island. (Occasionally, it was reported, some Chinese snuck across the southern border disguised as Mexicans.)

Still, many Americans have harbored doubts about unfit classes and "races" of immigrants for centuries.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 19, 2010 5:31 PM
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