Saturday, March 27, 2010

America's Immigration Woes- Nothing New!

"Get out of here, you low life, you scum!"
"Go back to the country you came from."
Go away, America doesn't want you."
"America is for Americans!"

Hey. Who's doing all the shouting? Who are they targeting? Mexicans? Guatemalans? While that kind of rhetoric is felt and wielded quite often in America today, it is nothing new. It's been going on for nearly two centuries now, and one of the earliest targets of anti-discrimination backlash were the Irish.

As a fourth generation Irish American, that kind of reaction, well, seems foreign. Generations away from those kinds of taunts, it's a little hard to believe that my ancestors were greeted so coldly, and reviled so heartily. Compounding the heritage problem was the Irish's Catholic faith. The Irish were seen as a quickly multiplying scourge in America - a new form of fast breeding locust.

But it's true, and characters like Bill the Butcher in Martin Scoreses's 2002 film Gangs of New York, nativist sentiment ran high and virulent against the Irish. You were only an American if you were born here,the nativists argued, nevermind that that privilege was a direct result of some brave souls fleeing an oppressive Europe in a boat generations before. Apparently, only the first generation of ships docking in harbors counted for anything.

In mid-19th century, the Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low. If the Irish had any use at all to society, it was servitude. A fascinating account of America's immigration history can be found in the 1992 book Low Life- Lures and Snares of New York, by Luc Sante. Sante describes the horrific conditions of tenement life in New York City. I was surprised to read how hated the Irish were when they reached New York's harbors. The Irish weren't alone, almost every immigrant group has had their turn at being the latest low life. This is brutally honest portrait of NYC, politics and the history of immigration that is only glossed over in history text books. Often suggested reading along with the Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury, unless you are an indigenous Native American, there is likely something in this book about your family's history..

Each May in New York City, Sante writes, families would move en masse, to a new and hopefully better tenement lodgings, incrementally inching their way up from the bottom rungs to decent housing and respect as Manhattan and its boroughs grew. The move would make room for the new wave of immigrants and low lifes. If one could survive New York City long enough, one might get lucky enough to occupy a building with shared plumbing, wasn't a fire trap, or live a private enough existence so as to not be put on display, like zoo animals, for New York City society who toured the tenements ostensibly for philanthropic reasons, but really only came to gloat and gawk and take souvenir photographs.

The Irish were considered animals. Fast breeding base creatures under the complete influence and control of a Roman Pope. Noted illustrator Thomas Nast, a German Catholic-turned-Protestant immigrant who came to America at the age of six, and considered to be the father of the political cartoon, repeatedly depicted the Irish as monkeys - sub humans with simian features.

Nast's problem with the Irish, was their growing multitude - and their usefulness as voters to a corrupt city manager known as Boss Tweed. Tweed a Scottish Presbyterian, was no fan of the Irish, but he saw political value in their numbers and often sided with the Irish's demands for public funding of their Catholic schools. Causes like that outraged Nast and many others. His cartoons in  Harper's Weekly were eagerly awaited with each new issue and strongly influenced public opinion.

In one of his most famous cartoons, The American River Ganges, Sept. 30, 1871, the Catholic bishops are depicted as ravenous crocodiles, scrambling to the shore to gobble up innocent American children. A Protestant preacher valiantly tries to defend the children from the slithering papal onslaught. Nast drew the bishops mitres as salivating jaws eager to clamp down and feed upon a WASP America. At top center, U.S. public schools can be seen crumbling due to the fact that Tweed diverted public funds to a Roman Catholic institution seen thriving in the distance. In a revision of the cartoon, Nast added Tweed safely perched atop the cliff looking on as his Tammany Ring of corrupt cohorts sent down innocent children for feeding. No, they are not rescuing them!

Nast's cartoons are credited for causing the eventual undoing of Boss Tweed, but the Irish would persevere beyond Nast's pen and ink. Slowly but surely, the Hibernian menace assimilated and moved up the social ladder, most notably through politics and law enforcement, though never quite as high a level as Protestants. Some vestiges of Irish prejudice remain today. The term "shanty Irish" is still bandied about and the alcoholic stereotype persists, though mostly through humor or in celebration surrounding St. Patrick's Day. But by and large, those of us with Irish-American heritage are far removed from the unwelcoming catcalls - blissfully unaware of how difficult it was for our ancestors to gain acceptance as Americans. It is important we do not forget our history and the journey endured to become American. It is important because that history is being repeated.

Today, the Irish today have cleared the ladder to the platform of acceptance - the lowest rungs since filled by other cultures, who like the Irish before them, follow in historic footsteps in an arduous effort to call America home. Some things are different today- immigrants escape for different reasons and from different regions now, and seldom dock at harbor by ship. But if you listen to the immigration rhetoric today, it's clear some things, sadly, haven't changed a bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment