It was President Kennedy who said that America is “a nation of immigrants.” What else could it be? Unless you are a descendant of one of the native “Indian tribes,” you are either an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant. Despite this obvious truth, immigration has been a perplexing problem in every generation.
Repeatedly, early immigrants looked down on subsequent immigrants — tagging the newcomers with denigrating names. Jews were called “kikes” or “sheenies.” Irish Catholics pouring into America in the 1840s were called “micks.” They encountered signs on factory doors reading, “Irish need not apply.”
In later decades, the slurs proliferated. Italians were called WOPS, an abbreviation for Without Papers. Norwegians were called Norskies. Hungarians were called Honkies. Mexican Americans were called “wetbacks.” Jews were called “kikes” and “sheenies.”
With the mass migration of Jews to America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jewish establishment, composed mainly of wealthy German Jews, was embarrassed by the uncouth habits of the Jews from the shtetl for whom the use of a handkerchief was often unknown. The wealthy Jews started a host of charities aimed at Americanizing the newcomers, smoothing their habits and taking them off the public dole. They tried to redirect immigrants to Texas and the Southwest, hoping that they would enter the mainstream more rapidly. They mounted massive lobbying efforts to end antisemitism in Russia, hoping that it would slow the exodus. All to little avail; the only thing that slowed the influx was congressional legislation, adopted in 1921 and tightened in 1924, that set racial quotas on immigration with the frank goal of keeping out more Jews.
The current form in which we confront our immigrant dilemma is the presence of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants working here — most from poor countries to our south. Some of the most intriguing and helpful ideas for a solution are coming from an unlikely alliance of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and two huge unions — the Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million members, and the Laborers International, with 400,000 members. The coalition’s main objective is, in effect, to legalize the presence of the illegal immigrants.
The Chamber of Commerce, speaking for thousands of employers, has a good reason to seek legalization: Many of the chamber’s members and companies employ the immigrants. Legalizing their presence would make it easier for such employers to sleep better at night. It also would reduce their fear of government sweeps and draconian fines, which they would face if some congressional initiatives are successful.
The unions have their own good reasons to favor legalization. Businesses that now employ undocumented immigrants are in a position to evade rules for protecting workers on the job. An employee without legal papers is unlikely to lodge a formal complaint with a government agency, since it could mean deportation or worse.
Most constructive discussion of the immigration dilemma is taking place in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, a punitive border security bill was passed last December that simply would tag the immigrants as “felons” and expand the fines on employers. That would render millions of American residents outlaws and drive them underground, while burdening business with huge new costs. It’s unlikely to become law, but its advocates will fiercely resist a more humane approach.
And so here we are, a nation of immigrants, tied up in knots over what to do with the immigrants who came behind us.