In the summer of 1844, Catholic churches burned in Philadelphia, the flames fueled by the anti-Catholic sentiment of the day and fear of the growing numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants arriving in the United States. More than 171 years later, a bloody pig’s head was left at a mosque in Philadelphia, the act provoked by the current anti-Muslim rhetoric and fear of Syrian refugees hoping to enter the United States.
Jim Kenney, the mayor-elect of Philadelphia, traces his family tree back to those once-maligned Irish-Catholic immigrants. He took the podium at the National Immigrant Integration Conference earlier this month to denounce the “bigotry” of the desecration of the mosque, and to reflect on how America’s tumultuous immigration past is repeating in the present.
“A lot of ‘hyphenated’ Americans don't understand their history anymore,” he said, referring to many Americans’ immigrant heritage. “We need to explain to people their own history, and relate it to the Mexican, the Honduran, the Syrian neighbor.”
Given the intensity of the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric at the moment, pontificating on our nation’s past might seem trivial. On the heels of tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino, Donald Trump has called to block all Muslims from entering to the United States. Other presidential candidates have said that religion should be considered as part of the refugee admission process. These developments come as the nonprofit Muslim Advocates has tracked nearly 50 hate crimes against US Muslims since November 2015.
Yet history was a core theme at the conference, a 1,300-strong gathering of immigration thought leaders, community organizers, researchers, elected officials, advocates, and even presidential hopefuls, convened in New York City.
At a venue just miles inland from Ellis Island, the conference’s line-up of speakers was prone to bouts of immigration nostalgia. Like Philadelphia’s Mayor-elect Kenney, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, and presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all proudly spoke of strong immigrant roots—hardworking, foreign-born parents and grandparents who overcame incredible obstacles.
In some ways, today’s newcomers and these past generations have much in common. While today’s immigrants and refugees are perceived to be “flooding our borders,” their numbers somehow more threatening than past groups, they represented just 14 percent of the population in 2011—the same percentage as immigrants did in 1910. And while current anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim sentiment seems especially vile, it’s unfortunately not much different than the “no Irish need apply” signage of the 1860s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or the public outcry against Jewish refugees in the 1930s.
Despite the obstacles faced by immigrants past and present, they eventually find their way. A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reveals that today’s immigrants are assimilating into American society as quickly and broadly as the previous ones. They learn English, find gainful employment, and raise children who grow up to be mayors, governors and presidential candidates.
There are key differences, of course. Columbia University’s Mae Ngai described how, prior to 1924, the immigrants arriving to New York were nearly all legal, low-skilled, and European (88 percent). Post-1970, given different geo-political realities, developments in transportation and technology, and antiquated immigration laws that limit legal immigration channels, the country now receives a mix of legal and unauthorized immigrants. They’re high- and low-skilled. And 88 percent are non-European, hailing mostly from Latin America and Asia.
But the biggest difference has less to do with the immigrants themselves than with the economic health of their new home.
Previous waves of immigrants, particularly those arriving mid-century, arrived in an America experiencing unprecedented prosperity. Low-skilled immigrants found ample work alongside their native-born peers in the thriving, manufacturing-driven economy of the time.
But today’s immigrants arrive to unprecedented inequality in the United States. The share of Americans living in middle-class households has fallen since the 1970s, as has the share of the nation’s income earned by the middle. Once-bountiful manufacturing jobs have dried up, leaving some working-class Americans resentful of immigrants perceived to be taking available jobs and driving down wages.
Some presidential candidates have proven especially adept at tapping into this economic uncertainty, combining it with escalating concerns about global terrorism, and stoking it into nativism or even xenophobia. But immigration experts offer a different perspective to alarmed Americans.
“Today’s greatest threat isn’t terror. It’s the lack of affordable housing,” said New York University’s Suketu Mehta.
Immigrant integration—the focus of the conference—is an antidote to this growing inequality, a means to foster both economic vibrancy and national security. In light of the federal stalemate on the issue of immigration, local government, community, and nonprofit leaders—including a growing cohort in the Midwest—are stepping up to fill the gaps in immigration policy. They realize that fully integrating newcomers means maximizing their contributions to local communities and strengthening regional economies.
“When the immigrant community succeeds, we all succeed,” said Governor Cuomo.
While the United States’ troubled history may inevitably repeat itself on the issue immigration, it’s not a reason to remain complacent. The 1,300 people gathered in New York, all seeking solutions to new challenges, represent only a fraction of the critical mass gathering around this issue.
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