We are currently enduring one of America’s periodic freak-outs about immigration. State legislators rush to enact laws allowing police to grill anyone they suspect of lacking the right documents, leading Republicans advocate repealing the “birthright” section of the Fourteenth Amendment, and some conservatives demand the deportation of all illegal migrants and joke about shooting those who sneak across the border.
Analogous developments occurred in the 1850s, when Irish newcomers were the “problem,” and in the 1880s, when white Westerners demanded, “The Chinese must go!” But the closest parallel is to the 1920s. Then, a GOP-controlled Congress effectively slapped a ban on anyone who did not come from the “Nordic” lands of Western Europe or from Latin America. Their contemporary soulmates are eager to punish the people who, in nearly every metropolis and large suburb, wash restaurant dishes, clean office buildings, take care of preschool children—and, out on the land, harvest most of our fruits and vegetables and slaughter and package much of our meat.
For a few years, this nativist surge will undoubtedly be a political winner—as several articles in this issue suggest. In times of crisis, Americans who conveniently ignore their own immigrant pasts crave protection from any external threat, whether real or conjured up by the demagogues of the moment. Yet these periods soon pass; employers and civil rights activists prevent most low-wage workers from being deported, and the majority gradually grows more comfortable with the “aliens” among them. Ethnic pluralism becomes a sign of the nation’s cultural vitality and innovation rather than a cause for division and fear.
Before long, immigrants and their children also emerge as powerful voting blocs and help to create a society more tolerant than the old. In the 1930s, non-”Nordic” Americans became critical members of the New Deal coalition; for many, the GOP would always be the party of bigots who kept their friends and relatives from crossing an ocean to struggle for one version of the American Dream.
A similar transition may occur more rapidly in our own time. The contemporary world is full of migrants—refugees, sojourners, hopeful passengers as ubiquitous and unstoppable as they are controversial. Arizona’s new law immediately produced a backlash campaign to boycott the state, and federal courts may stop its worst aspects from ever being enforced. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats, backed by the Catholic church and organized labor, have stepped up their advocacy of immigration reform. They understand that an aroused Latino community could become the keystone of a new electoral majority.
So we should brook no compromise with xenophobia, even when it is articulated by some of our fellow citizens who are scared about jobs and crime. This is an issue on which the Left holds both the moral high ground and a mortgage on the political futu...
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