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Hysteria over immigrants repeats Itself

In the 1916 presidential contest between Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson, voters wanted a president who could keep the U.S. out of the war, but many also were looking for a president who could halt the "yellow peril" from Asia and stop "criminals" and "radicals" arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe.

One hundred years ago, in the midst of World War I, our country was in the thick of a contentious presidential election between Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. Then, as now, immigration was a major theme of that election. Voters wanted a president who could keep the U.S. out of the war, but many also were looking for a president who could halt the “yellow peril” from Asia and stop “criminals” and “radicals” arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Maddalena Marinari

Today, the rhetoric and fears voiced in the Clinton-vs.-Trump duel are strikingly similar. Many Americans, including voters here in Minnesota, complain about “dangerous” Muslims and “criminal” Mexicans and call for ever-taller walls to bar immigrants. And the U.S. is not alone. In Great Britain, older, white citizens ignored their children’s desire to remain in an integrated Europe and voted to leave the European Union, partially because of xenophobia and nativism against a recent wave of immigrants and refugees of color.

Very different experiences

My own parents, as former migrants, wonder why so many people in the U.S. and Europe blame immigrants for crime, taking away jobs and degrading our social fabric. They question why people are giving in to fear when immigrants clearly contribute so much to their newly adopted countries. My parents left Italy for Switzerland and returned shortly after they married, in part because of their profoundly different experiences. My dad loved his time in Switzerland; my mom absolutely hated it because she felt marginalized and discriminated against.

Growing up and hearing them talk about their experiences, I wondered why they felt so differently. Was it the country? Would they have had a different experience as immigrants in the U.S.? When I came to the United States as a high school exchange student, I hoped that my visit would help me understand their competing stories of immigration. While many of my classes in the Norristown, Pennsylvania, school I visited explored the richness of American multiculturalism, tensions outside of class were palpable. Many of my fellow students warned me not to go beyond the train tracks where Mexicans lived or not to visit some of the “ethnic” neighborhoods in Philadelphia. After returning home with more questions than answers, I vowed to return to study U.S. immigration history. Of course, the more I learn and teach U.S. immigration history, the more complicated the answers become.

Historical amnesia

When it comes to immigration, we all suffer from historical amnesia. Many Minnesotans today proudly celebrate their Swedish, Norwegian and Danish ancestors and fondly remember them as hard-working, law-abiding and respectable immigrants who, unlike today’s new arrivals, seamlessly integrated into American society. For most of the 19th century, however, many Minnesotans didn’t trust Scandinavian newcomers because they lived in isolated, close-knit communities where they only spoke their native languages and kept their own cultures and traditions.

During World War I and the First Red Scare, American nativists targeted Scandinavian immigrants because they did not speak English and supported labor reform. The Scandinavians became the “good immigrants” only when Eastern European Jews and Southern Europeans began arriving. Although many of those newcomers were fleeing persecution, poverty and prejudice, Jewish and Italian immigrants became the next to face discrimination at a time of rampant anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and nativism. In 1946, journalist Carey McWilliams dubbed Minneapolis “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States,” a label that stuck for many years. In both cases, many Minnesotans feared that these “new” immigrants, first from Scandinavia and later from Southern and Eastern Europe, posed a threat to American democracy.

And yet today, with these groups well integrated in Minnesotan society, we barely remember these episodes in our state’s long immigrant past. We again worry, goaded by incendiary presidential campaign rhetoric, that the current wave of immigrants and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, might endanger the core of American identity and change our society for the worse.

We are in danger of again marginalizing and discriminating against today’s “new” immigrants just as we did a century ago. While there are clear differences between immigration waves then and now, Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s words still ring true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Maddalena Marinari , Ph.D., joined the history department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, in 2015. She teaches a range of courses on 20th-century American history, immigration history, American identity, U.S. in the world, and world history. She is currently working on a book about the movement against restrictive immigration laws from 1882 to 1965.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Roy Everson on 07/21/2016 - 08:57 am.

    Husker du? I guess not

    Great article, very useful reminder of the varied aspects of the immigrant experience. It’s incredible that so many Americans who are only a couple generations removed from Europe fall into the same nativist role the Know-Nothing Party held in the 1800s.

    But the Know-Nothings had little historical perspective from which to form an alternative world-view. Today’s version of narrow-minded reaction has no such excuse: before their eyes are numerous examples over two centuries of immigrant groups who were met with suspicion or hatred, then went on to contribute enormously to their country. Perhaps a measure of the immigrants’ success is the luxury of historical amnesia their descendants are able to experience.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 07/21/2016 - 01:11 pm.


      I would argue that party leaders who bash immigrants aren’t ignorant of history, but are instead very aware of it and are willfully using it to whip up their party base.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 07/21/2016 - 12:43 pm.

    It’s More Complicated

    The skepticism about immigration isn’t a product of nativism or racism, as this professor wants readers to believe. It’s about the economic impact of massive immigration on the economic fortunes of existing citizens. People who justify illegal immigration always say that those immigrants are merely doing “jobs Americans won’t do.” Labor statistics show clearly that that assertion is false, with only farm labor jobs being an exception. A letter to the editor in the Star Tribune last year made this point well. The writer identified himself as a former roofer who used to earn union scale wages in the early 1980’s (around $26/hour in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars). He noted that most roofing work is now done by illegal immigrants for $10 or less per hour. The same dynamic has occurred elsewhere in the building trades, in landscaping jobs, in meatpacking plants, and in many other industries. In 2006, the liberal economist Paul Krugman refuted the “jobs Americans won’t do” thinking in a column criticizing George W. Bush for pushing that line. However, it is now politically incorrect to admit that supply and demand operates in labor markets, and that low income immigrants receive far more in public benefits than they pay in taxes, a subsidy that would increase exponentially should they ever become citizens eligible for all public assistance programs. Ideology cannot refute these economic facts.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 07/22/2016 - 10:45 am.

      It’s even more complicated

      You’re right (I believe) that immigrants are willing to accept menial and unpleasant jobs for less money. But that’s been true of every immigrant group: Jews, Chinese, Irish. In Minnesota, it was the Germans and Swedes willing to endure a difficult life farming.

      And, as far as your union-scale roofing salary example, that’s as much a function of the decline in unionization and union bargaining power as it is immigration. For example, largely due to the actual or threatened move of auto plants to the US south, starting UAW salary is about $16 / hour. And, throughout the scale, non-union autoworkers (with few exceptions) make less than union autoworkers.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/22/2016 - 11:17 am.

      We need a new Godwin’s Law,

      one that blows the whistle on any argument predicated on America’s supposed political correctness, whatever that may be.

      Rather than detail Mr. Webster’s misuse of the 2006 Krugman column, I’ll provide a few quotations and a link for those interested in reading it for themselves and provide my own anecdotal information.

      “First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small.” In other words, no net harm to the American economy as a whole.

      “Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.”

      As a former roofer and building contractor, I’ve watched the roofing industry evolve over a period of more than 40 years. It’s true that migrant labor has largely replaced local labor in that field. In order to understand why, it’s important to understand other changes in the industry. There was a time when local builders were themselves craftsmen, people who employed other craftsmen. Since the mid-1970’s, however, the field has been flooded with owners whose skills lie in finance and management rather than knowledge of the industry. Lacking the necessary skills, they transformed the business into one in which those skills are subcontracted, with the most important qualification being the lowest cost. Skilled workers were replaced by the unskilled, including college students seeking summer work. Once the race to the bottom began, it was inevitable that migrants would move into the field. (Mr. Webster assumes that these workers are here illegally, as his source may also have assumed. I’d like to see some support for that assumption.)

      Other contributing change in the industry include the move to commissioned sales forces and changes in roofing practices. Rather than rely on traditional marketing methods, many roofing contractors hire third parties to do their marketing, in some cases receiving as much as 50% of the job in return. Where a roofer in 1975 likely hand-nailed and cut the shingles he laid, today’s crews consist of a few workers with air-driven nail guns and companions who scurry across the rooftop head of them, positioning shingles. It’s as close to a production line operation as on-site construction can be.

      The bottom line, in my opinion, is this: do we blame the workers who are here illegally or the business owners who knowingly employ them? I look to the business owners, who have managed to outsource work within our own borders.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/21/2016 - 03:27 pm.


    I think the GOP wants to build the wall to stop illegal immigration, not deny legal immigration.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/21/2016 - 04:40 pm.


      The wall does, however, not make for positive image anywhere, especially in the Europe whence many of our families came. The specter of any wall summons images of Berlin, of course, and an era of western anxiety in nuclear post-war Europe and North America.

      I wonder if bigger and better fencing than that built by past administrations would find the same rejection. Nobody has been talking much about our existing southern fence partition. Does it make a difference? Sure it does, because walls are associated with fortresses and draw bridges, parapets and boiling oil.

      I am perplexed by those who seem to honestly propose we forsake all border or documentation control, however. That makes no sense to me in this 21st Century, so far, at least.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/22/2016 - 11:54 am.

    On the general subject of American hostility to immigrants

    I suggest those interested take a look at this brief summary of immigration laws.

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