Know Nothings and Immigrants: Some Things Never Change

There are two statues, in two different countries, which honor Annie Moore. One is in Ireland, the other in the United States. Annie Moore was not great philanthropist, nor was she a scientist, a great leader or educator. She spent most of her life a housewife and full time mother, having had 11 children, five of whom survived -- no wonder she died at the age of 47 in 1924.

The reason Annie was honored is simple. The young girl, with her two younger brothers, had left Ireland as immigrants to America, where they would join their parents, already here. Annie was the first person to enter the country through the famous Ellis Island immigration station. She was certainly not the first Irish immigrant, nor the last.

In truth, she was just one of 2.5 million immigrants who fled starvation and poverty in Ireland to come to America. They were not welcomed with open arms. What they faced was hostility. The anti-immigrant feelings were even more blatant than those we see directed at Mexicans today. Employers openly stated "No Irish Need Apply" when they offered jobs. These immigrants were poor, mostly uneducated and perhaps most terrifying of all, Catholic. This "threat" spread fear among American Protestants and a mass movement, the Know Nothings, came into existence. The name came from a promise by members, that if asked about the organization, they were to say they "know nothing" about it.

These anti-immigrant activists organized the American Party, and successfully ran candidates around the country, pledged to stamp out the evils of immigration. The complaints that were made about Irish immigrants are pretty similar to those we hear today about Mexican immigrants. The xenophobes insisted the Irish were lazy, prone to crime, drank too much, and were stealing jobs from good white Americans. And, of course, they were also Catholics, in cahoots with the Vatican to take control of the United States and stamp out Protestantism, for good measure.

Of course, it wasn't only the Irish who were hated. Anti-immigrant activists also targeted Germans. They were displeased that so many German language newspapers existed and that many Germans still spoke their native language, even when living in the United States. Anti-Asian feelings were strong in the West as well.

These immigrants, for the most part, came to America to improve their lives and the lives of their children. That is what they were looking for. I suspect not much has changed since then, at least not in way of motivation. But today the hurdles to legal immigration are so onerous that few would-be immigrants can surmount them.

The earliest of my ancestors, came to America in an unusual way. He walked here. Most immigrants came by boat, but he was a French Canadian who walked into the United States. His motivations also seemed a bit different than most. He came to the United States in order to fight in the Civil War against the slave-holding South. His goal was the abolition of slavery, but he stayed after that job was completed.

Another ancestor sailed to the United States from Sweden and made his way to the Mid-West. All my immigrant ancestors came to America during a time when immigration was bureaucratically simple. This is what so many anti-immigrant Americans forget, when they talk about how their "ancestors came to America legally." Of course, they did. Back then it was easy to immigrate legally and damn hard to immigrate illegally. The hardest part of immigration during the 19th century was the boat trip, or the walk from Canada, as the case may be.

Today, very few Americans would say this country would be better off without those 2.5 million Irish immigrants. Had we cut them off, we would have lost their children, or grandchildren -- people such as Gene Kelly, Diamond Jim Brady, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Tom Clancy, Grover Cleveland, Ronald Reagan, and millions of hard-working, but lesser-known individuals, who built this country.

Certainly, while they were immigrating, there was no shortage of politicians ready to damn the Irish and predict disasters they would inflict on America, yet today you would be hard pressed to find one politician, of any stature, willing to say Irish immigration was a bad thing.

What baffles me is why the modern Know Nothings, with their Tea Party rallies and anti-immigration rhetoric, assume their perceptions are so much more accurate than their compadres in the 1800s. Personally, I suspect that these modern advocates of closing the immigration door are no more likely to be correct. History does repeat itself, or at the very least, bad ideas continue to come back, over and over, just with different labels attached. And the bad ideas are no more correct, a century later, than they were during the first round of this debate.