Immigration debate old as U.S.

The huddled masses have been welcomed and condemned, time and time again, by Americans valuing their gifts or fearing their burdens.


The current controversy over hordes of Hispanics coming over the border singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish is only the latest rise of a tide that ebbs and flows in the United States at regular intervals.

The debate over whether those who come from "out there" to "in here" are to be welcomed or repelled illustrates a paradox at the heart of this national enterprise - at once America is a country of immigrants and a country threatened by immigrants.

"There is nothing new about the issue of immigration becoming a hot political topic," says Gary Gerstle, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There are points historically when it becomes a major issue and grabs the attention of the polity in a major way.

"From that viewpoint, it is not surprising that something like this is happening today," he says. "The United States has long insisted, on the one hand, with having a relatively open border but, on the other hand, with being concerned about the volume, manner and character of those coming across it."

It is hard to find a point in American history when this was not an issue.

"This goes all the way back to the beginning of the country," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.

"There was a debate, in fact, between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the early part of the 19th century," he says. "Jefferson argued that immigration was a good thing because it would bring people who would contribute to the economy of the new country, while Hamilton argued that it was a bad thing since it would threaten the distinctive Anglo-American culture of the country."

The immigrants Jefferson was backing were the so-called Scotch-Irish, the Protestants who ended up populating much of the South.

But Jefferson also had his problems with immigrants, an early example of the recurring issue of language.

"Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were worried about German speakers," says Aristide Zolberg, director of the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship at the New School University in New York. "They thought the German language was different and would bring with it cultural antagonisms to what they were trying to establish as an American outlook."

While the current debate has its unique elements - mainly because it involves a country, Mexico, with a large land border with the U.S. and the specific issue of illegal immigration, which was not a large problem when people were arriving by boat - the similarities with the previous eruptions of the issue are overwhelming.

"It is certainly true that any time the country is going through an economic change, one easy thing to do is to target immigration as the problem," says Kriste Lindenmeyer, a historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"I think it is fascinating that not that long ago we were talking about outsourcing, the huge problem of good jobs going to China and India, and then within a two-week period, the whole focus shifts to undocumented immigrants," she says. "It certainly was weird how quickly the debate switched."

Economic change was in the air in the 1840s when the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party was founded, at least in part, in Baltimore - the country was beginning to deal with the nascent industrial revolution.

Jean Baker, a historian at Goucher College, explains that the party formed in secrecy, and when people attending its meetings were asked what was going on, they responded, "I know nothing." The name stuck.

When the Know-Nothings came out of the closet, one of their first names was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which certainly resonates with today's debate. They eventually affiliated with the national American Party.

Though it seems ironic that a political group known for its anti-Catholicism was started in the state and city considered the bedrock of American Catholicism, Baker says the two were linked: It was because there were so many Catholics in Baltimore that the city nurtured the reaction against them.

"There were a huge number of Irish Catholics coming into the port of Baltimore in the 1840s during the potato famine and also a large number of German Catholics," she says. "The white male natives got more and more excited about this."

So much so that the party - famed for its violent gangs with names like the Red Necks - swept the Baltimore municipal elections in 1854 not long after the party's founding.

"There was a lot of violent activity on Election Day between the Democrats and the Know-Nothings," Baker says. "Maryland is the only state that votes for the American party's presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, in 1856. So the party had real resonance here."

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