Like any great nation, America has a number of myths about itself. There are myths about the possibility of achievement where "anyone can grow up to be president." And there are myths about opportunity that were epitomized in author and newspaper editor Horace Greeley's famous line: "Go West, young man, go West," stated in 1871, as America expanded westward holding tight to a belief of Manifest Destiny. Another great American myth portrays America as "the great melting pot," a gumbo of sorts, in which people come from all over the world, from different nations, ethnicities, and cultures, to become one.
Any enduring myth is anchored in an element of truth. But there is usually more to the story. The current debates about immigration in the United States are not new to American life. Historically, the United States has often found itself conflicted on the issue of immigration. On the one hand, part of American's self-understanding lies in being a nation of immigrants. But, at the same time, we often have been deeply hostile and fearful of immigrants to this country. And the underlying causes of those fears and hostilities are not new and generally are born of ignorance.
The 19th century and early 20th century were times of an influx of immigrants both from Asia (mostly Chinese) and from southern Europe (Italians and Greeks). Many of these new immigrants looked different from the Anglo-Saxon immigrants who had come before. And they worshipped differently than most Americans. In the 19th century, more than 4 million Irish - among them, my ancestors -- immigrated to America to pursue the "American Dream." Yet they were greeted with hostility and suspicion.
The Irish were widely seen as alcoholics, and they were, by and large, Catholic, which caused fears about allegiance to a foreign pope. This prejudice remained vibrant through the 1960 presidential election! The new immigrants' culture of drinking and their use of pubs and bars as gathering places collided with some Yankees' Puritan strain. They arrived at a time of economic unrest. Artisans were losing their jobs to mass production while immigrants were willing to work hard, for little money, in factories.
Scholars often use the term "nativism" as a general term for "opposition to immigration." Nativism is often based on fears that the immigrants will distort or spoil existing cultural values. However, it has been observed that nativists usually do not consider themselves nativists. Rather they see themselves as "patriots" or "law-abiding citizens."
Contemporary Americans are often surprised when they learn that before World War I there were no green cards, no visas, and no quotas for immigrants. Immigrants just arrived. The American government did use, to some extent, health criteria for admitting people. Mae Ngai, a legal and political historian at Columbia University who studies American immigration, said that "... if you could walk without a limp, and you had $30 in your pocket, you walked right in." And so they came -- with no paperwork issues or quotas or restrictions or immigration courts. Political backlash followed, in the form of secret societies that coalesced into the Know Nothing movement. The Know Nothings grew so popular that, in 1854, they overwhelmingly took over the Massachusetts Legislature -- where they pushed for Prohibition laws, aimed squarely at Irish and German cultures. The Know Nothings also supported an effort to extend the naturalization period to 21 years. At the time, the debate centered not on sending immigrants back but on denying them the right to vote.
As we head toward the presidential elections in November, immigration remains a central, and often divisive, issue. Presidential debates and campaign speeches stir up controversies that are repeated and expounded upon at modern-day kitchen tables - social media.
Our past can help us to be better today. President Harry Truman challenged Americans not to live within but to live outside of our fears. He reminded Americans that: "America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and unbeatable determination to do the job at hand." Our past reminds us that, in spite of our fears, past and present, our differences are part of what makes the United States a richer, stronger nation made up of many cultures. Our past reminds us that we are a nation of immigrants and that many of those immigrants came to the U.S. without green cards or visas. And, in spite of hostility, stereotypes, and prejudice, immigrants became part of the rich, diverse fabric that makes America today. We must look past our own fear, to seek mutual understanding and acceptance.