Arizona Parties Like It's 1924

I'm here to speak for my grandparents.

Last week I was in the part of Manhattan called the Lower East Side, the first American home of my grandparents and parents. That they settled in the Lower East Side was no surprise -- it's been the first home of a whole lot of new Americans including Italians, Irish, Jews from Poland and Germany, Latinos from Central America and a whole lot of folks from the Caribbean. I imagined what the neighborhood would have sounded like when my parents lived there, as people yelled out open windows across narrow streets in a frenzy of languages as rich and diverse as the smells of the food cooking; Polish, German, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish. The Lower East Side in the 1920's was crowded, smelly, poor, and brimming with the optimism of a new beginning.

Then I pictured the effect on that multicultural neighborhood of SB 1070, Arizona's Immigration Law.

Cops required to stop anyone who might be illegal based on 'reasonable suspicion?' In the Lower East Side of the 1920's that would have been everybody. Imagine a cop walking along East Fifth Street; in front of him's a pushcart owner speaking Italian while his customers speak Yiddish and around them little kids shout in German. How could he tell who was legal? Would he demand papers from everyone? 'Show me your papers.' Imagine the panic and despair rising in my grandparents, hearing those four words spoken by authorities of their new home as it had been in the place they left. My Grandpa and Grandma were legal citizens of the United States but I guarantee they would have ended up in jail; if confronted by a cop saying 'show me your papers' what little confidence they had in their ability to speak English would have deserted them. Imagine the fear of their neighbors, knowing their English was no better and they could be next.

There were a lot of Americans in the 1920's who didn't think much of the polyglot of ethnicity that sat smack in the middle of America's biggest city, any more than Russell Pearce thinks positive thoughts about the number of Mexicans in Arizona today. In 1916 a lawyer named Madison Grant wrote a book called The Passing of a Great Race, in which he expressed concern that America was being overrun with undesirables, certain immigrants from certain places -- specifically, Eastern and Southern Europe. His solution for undesirables already here was the creation of ghettos. His solution to prevent more undesirables from coming to the United States became law in 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a quota which limited the number of new immigrants solely by race and origin. Those most affected were Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans; Asian immigrants were shut out completely, thanks to an accompanying act with the shockingly truthful name of the Asian Exclusion Act. This was racial profiling to the umpteenth degree; the 1924 law rated the desirability of immigrants purely on their country of origin. In defense of the Immigration Act of 1924, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith said this on the floor of the United States Senate:

I would like for the Members of the Senate to read that book just recently published by Madison Grant, The Passing of a Great Race. Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power, and yet the youngest of all the nations. The time has come when we should shut the door and keep what we have.

An America made up of "pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock" was not the America my grandparents believed in. They believed the words of Emma Lazarus, who said America welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free regardless of where they were born. They thought America was a place of refuge, a country that said, "send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me."

I know what my grandparents thought of the Immigration Act of 1924, that it was punitive and unfair, that it excluded people based on race and ethnicity. Most of all my grandparents felt the Immigration Act of 1924 was un-American, and when they said something was un-American, when they said it ran counter to all that was good and worthy and inspirational about their new home, that was as profound an insult as they could deliver.

That's what my grandparents would have said about any law based in fear and grounded in hate.

Arizona's new Immigration Law is deeply and disturbingly un-American. My grandparents aren't here to say it. But I am.