immigration ellis island“History is bunk,” Henry Ford famously—and so wrongly—said. Obviously, it’s not bunk because the way we look at history affects the decisions we make right now. George Bush made bogus comparisons between Saddam and Hitler, and used them as an argument for war. Bad history makes for bad decisions.

Bad history flying around the Internet seriously dumbs down the discussion of the immigration issue. It’s also an insult to your ancestors, as you’ll soon see.

Anti-immigration zealots create two classes of immigrants: There were those hardworking, good, quiet immigrants who came from Europe in the good old days and there are those demanding, lazy angry immigrants of today.

The following anti-immigrant Internet screed is typical of this attitude:

“Back in 1900 when there was a rush from all areas of Europe to come to the United States, people had to get off a ship and stand in a long line in New York and be documented. Some would even get down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. They made a pledge to uphold the laws and support their new country in good and bad times. They made learning English a primary rule in their new American households and some even changed their names to blend in with their new home.

“They had waved good bye to their birth place to give their children a new life and did everything in their power to help their children assimilate into one culture.”

This is absolute rubbish, and, if you are of European descent, it might be even an insult to your ancestors—as I’ll soon show you.

These Europeans didn’t wave goodbye to their birthplace, nor did they do everything in their power to assimilate into one culture. European immigrants of this period, and in the decades before, millions of them, were not at all such simple-minded, English-only, ground-kissing, (butt-kissing?) assimilators. All you have to do to understand this is look at their publications. Before World War II, there were more than 1,300—yes, 1,300–foreign-language newspapers in the United States. Many immigrants did push their children to assimilate, yes, but not necessarily because of any loyal patriotic yearning for “one culture.” They often pushed their children to assimilate because they didn’t want the kids to suffer from the terrible prejudices against immigrants that existed at the time—and apparently still exist. Almost every immigrant group encountered prejudice exactly like the prejudice expressed in signs saying “No Irish Need Apply.” If you go back a bit further, to the 1850s, you’ve even got a national political party, the Know Nothing Party, that is calling for the deportation of Jews and Catholics. Abraham Lincoln himself had to tell them to shut up.

There’s no better example of the immigrants’ real as opposed to sugar-coated attitudes than the experience of W. D. Hoard, a great man who had a lot to do with making Wisconsin into The Dairy State. Bear with me, here, though I may seem to digress. Born in New York in 1836, Hoard moved to Wisconsin in 1857. After serving in the Civil War, he became an advocate for dairy farming. In those times, Wisconsin’s farmers were deep into wheat, but from the history of New England, Hoard knew that cash-cropping wheat was a recipe for ecological and economic disaster. So he became a leading advocate of dairy farming as a way to save the soil and make efficient use of pastures and silage while being more profitable than than wheat growing. He hooked up with like-minded agriculture professors, and in 1885 started his own magazine, Hoard’s Dairyman.

So popular was the great agriculturalist W. D. Hoard—and great agricultural geniuses every bit as important as great political geniuses (Jefferson and Washington were both agricultural AND political geniuses, so they occupy a special niche)—so popular was old W.D. that he was elected governor of the state in1888. But in 1890 he got dumped because he had urged the legislature to require the teaching of English in all schools. Yes, those nice, sweet, lovely one-culture immigrants—those polite, hardworking, earth-kissing, law abiding, Heartland immigrants—they gave him the boot. When the English-teaching law passed, all hell broke loose, because Germans took this as an attack on them. Both the German Lutheran and German Catholic schools taught their students in German, because this was the language used at home, and that was good enough for them, thank you . Consequently, they raised enough hell to defeat W. D. Hoard. So much for the goody-goody immigrant, the white Uncle Tom of today’s historical fantasy.

Oh, and Hoard’s Dairyman is still published, and guess what? It’s even available in a Spanish language edition!

Anyhow, the whiner blathers on about earlier immigrants:

“Nothing was handed to them. No free lunches, no welfare, no labor laws to protect them. All they had were the skills and craftsmanship they had brought with them to trade for a future of prosperity. These immigrants truly knew what it meant to be an American. They stirred the melting pot into one red, white and blue bowl.”

No. Not a damn thing was handed to them. But they didn’t sit there in an English-only kitchen happily stirring the melting pot into an imaginary flag-colored bowl. Those immigrants fought like hell for their rights. They were the backbone of the labor movement, and they demanded free lunches, welfare, and labor laws. Some of these early immigrants paid a price for their demands, being hounded by the government, and deported after the Palmer Raids in 1919, when the notorious J. Edgar Hoover started a half-century career persecuting leftists in America.

But very little is being “handed” to today’s immigrants or “illegal” workers. In fact most immigrants DON’T get free lunches, or welfare, or protection by labor laws. They’re simply not eligible. Actually, today’s immigrants are in many ways LESS  demanding—and less privileged–than my own ancestors, some of whom were anti-slavery hell-raisers who defied the system, and others who got very cheap land that was stolen from the Indians. In the end, too, these ancestors all learned English, simply to make a living,  just as immigrant kids today, almost everywhere are learning English.

May 1, 2007