Sundin column: Immigrants have come knocking for many reasons
As I See It
The United States is a country that has been built by immigrants. But from the very beginning immigrants have seldom been welcomed by those who were here before them. It is highly unlikely that the influx of increasing numbers of people from the British Isles was popular with the Native Americans.
In a cartoon I remember, two Native Americans were standing on the Atlantic Coast looking at a couple approaching sailing ships and one says to the other, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Until 1790 (when the U.S. population was approaching four million), most of the immigrants were from northern Europe and were predominantly Protestant. The U.S. population doubled about every 25 years to about 35 million in 1865. Between 1820 and 1870 there were nearly 2.5 million Irish and 2.5 million German immigrants. A million impoverished and starving Irish fled the potato famine in the late 1840s, followed by Germans escaping religious prosecution from a resurrection of the 30-Years War that had consumed the country two centuries earlier.
Both groups were largely Catholic and did not speak English, and were not well received in the mostly Protestant U.S. But the country was rapidly industrializing and needed men to work in the mines and steel mills with the low wages and unsafe working conditions they were desperate enough to accept.
This was followed by prejudice against the later immigrations of more than five million Italians, nearly one million French Canadians and two million Jews from Russia for the similar reasons. These prejudices were driven by economics as well as religion – the fear that an influx of foreign workers would displace American workers and drive down wages.
After the U.S. imported Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, Congress passed Asian and Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1875 and 1885, which were repealed in 1943 and 1952 respectively. Following the Vietnam War well over a million Vietnamese have been resettled in the U.S., which has been resented in some areas.
Most of the immigrants to the U.S. before 1980 have come from Europe seeking a better life for themselves and their families by leaving behind poverty, lack of opportunity and religious strife.
The most recent large wave of immigrants comes from Mexico, and once again is not welcomed by those who came before them. The number of immigrants from Mexico has increased from 2.2 million in 1980 to 11.7 million in 2010 (half of them estimated to be illegal), a number which has changed little since 2010.
A comparatively small number of people coming across the Mexican border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador illegally has recently gotten our attention. These people are fleeing countries that have proven incapable of or unwilling to control the murderous gangs who extort money from people by threats of death to them or their children.
It’s no wonder that these people are knocking on our door. It’s a wonder there aren’t a lot more of them; for these people it is a desperate matter of life or death, as it is for the five million people who have fled the interminable warfare ravaging Syria and several countries in north Africa. Many of them have taken the risk of crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overloaded unsafe boats because remaining in their countries is an even worse option.
Our government has adopted the heartless policy of separately imprisoning the parents and children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador at our border with Mexico, to – as Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated – let the anguish of those terrified children be a deterrent for other parents who also are fearing for their and their children’s lives. He claims they should be using legal Ports of Entry, but with a backlog of 700,000 cases needing resolution, how realistic is that?
A recent Executive Order from President Trump has put an end to separately imprisoning parents and children, but for the 2,200 children who have already been separately imprisoned, the damage has already been done. They have been traumatized and scarred for life with serious emotional problems. And, inexcusably, ICE has been so slip-shod in handling the separation that they admit that it may take months, if ever, to reunite these families.
We do need to protect our borders, but are making the mistake of attacking the symptoms of this problem instead of the cause. The humane course would be for the U.S. to offer military assistance to stamp out the predatory gangs terrorizing these countries.
“As I See It” appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.