I’ve written elsewhere in this space about Emma Lazarus’ impressive sentiments on immigration, as expressed in her sonnet “The New Colossus”; as I wrote there, while she might seem superficially to be simply echoing national ideals about our welcoming nature and melting pot society, I would argue that her emphasis on accepting the “wretched refuse” of other nations puts her ideas in explicit contrast to many of our national anti-immigration narratives and arguments, such as those being articulated in her own era to bolster support for laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. That is, many such anti-immigration voices have tried to portray themselves as generally in favor of immigration, but opposed in this particular case, when it comes to this particular group, because of the undesirable nature of those who are arriving. The most succinct example of this phenomenon was articulated, not surprisingly, by Lou Dobbs, who once claimed on his CNN show that he isn’t xenophobic, he just doesn’t like other nations dumping their trash on us.
Similarly, many anti-immigrant arguments depend on one version or another of the sentiment that it’s different this time, with this group—that prior generations and communities of immigrants have worked to assimilate, to learn English, to become part of our society, and so on, but that this particular group is not willing to do so, is instead seeking to change our nation to become more like them. Exemplifying such arguments is another text with which I have already grappled in this space, Pat Buchanan’s abhorrent post-Virginia Tech piece, where Buchanan writes of the thirty-six million Asian American immigrants who have arrived—invaded, is his word—since the 1965 Immigration Act that “almost all [came] from countries whose peoples have never fully assimilated in any Western country.” Since Pat is writing about my in-laws and my wife (and half of my boys to boot), it goes without saying that I have one or two problems with this assertion; but leaving aside any personal connections, perhaps the biggest problem with these “it’s different this time, with this group” arguments is that they’ve been made, erroneously, in opposition to various immigrant arrivals and groups for at least two hundred fifty years of American history.
Those making this argument might be deeply ignorant of our history, but they can take solace in the fact that one of the first Americans to make the same ignorant argument was also one of our smartest and most talented national icons. In the midst of his 1751 socio-historical study “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc,” Ben Franklin wondered why his state of Pennsylvania, “founded by the English, [should] become 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.” Anyone who wrote as voluminously as Franklin was bound to be wrong plenty of the time (and I’m not trying to use an individual such instance to downplay his amazing life and successes, nor his generally forward-thinking and tolerant nature), but what’s striking about this moment in retrospect is less the inaccuracy of his prediction and more the silliness of it, and of how much even a visionary like Franklin can become the worst angel of his nature through the influence of xenophobic fears (or maybe just a dislike of bratwurst).
Call me an idealist, but it seems to me that if those making arguments like these about Asian or Hispanic American immigrants could see Franklin’s text and recognize that silliness, it might make them second-guess a bit their own certainty about this time and this particular group and how in their case we had better be afraid of what kind of America they might produce. At the very least, Franklin’s case can remind us that we have always been this kind of America, a mixed and multi-national and multi-lingual one, driven by the worst kinds of fears yet also, as Lazarus reminds us, the best kinds of hopes. More tomorrow, on the flawed, forgotten, and fantastic little movie that pushed back against the first American blockbuster.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The excerpt of Franklin’s “Observations” that includes the anti-German fears (which are under number 23): http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/increase.htm
2) To link yesterday and today’s entries, a short and somewhat contemporary but still historically engaged (including reference to Franklin) take on immigration and education (and note that at least a few of the commenters argue directly that when it comes to Hispanic immigrants, it’s different this time, with this group): http://toped.svefoundation.org/2010/06/04/new-immigrants-same-old-confounding-issue/
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