THE RHODE ISLAND General Assembly is again poised to vote on legislation to require firms to participate in a troubling federal bureaucracy (known as E-Verify) to try to prevent them from hiring undocumented immigrants. I am voting against this legislation with history as my guide.
Reasons for immigration vary year by year and generation by generation, but there are two basic themes: Flight from violence, and flight from destitution. There's a parallel constant: It's sadly evident that we can expect anti-immigrant sentiment to manifest itself generation by generation as well. We learned growing up that the infamous "no Irish need apply" signs were wrong, discriminatory, even primitive. And it was wrong to turn back the boats of European emigrés in the 1930s and '40s, many of whom went on to their deaths at the hands of the fascists.
The Germans came here en masse in the early and mid-1800s because they couldn't find work in the cities — as machines reduced the need for labor — and because of political upheaval in the 1840s and '50s. The German "aliens" were a source of great consternation for many Americans of British background. Even Ben Franklin's writings evidence a xenophobia:
"Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation. . . . I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties. . . . In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies . . . they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious. . . . Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion."
The Irish came to avoid famine, disease and British oppression. Many American Protestants weren't happy — hence the famous employment discrimination. But most of the above-mentioned people did indeed come here "legally" because there were largely no laws against immigration (save against those Chinese who were not among the indentured servants who built our railroads).
Then the Italians and Portuguese and eastern Europeans started coming — legally, at first, even "With Out Papers" (whose acronym became an infamous pejorative). But sadly, many Americans — many of whose own families had only recently entered the country — wanted to keep the prize to themselves.
And so for the first time, we saw broad restrictions on European immigration. With the First Quota Law in 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act, in 1924, the anti-immigrant, "nativist"' forces clamped down on immigration from southern and eastern Europe, in favor of immigration from Europe's north and the west — the ancestral lands of the American political class of the era.
Make no mistake about it: Immigration law began to change because longer-standing Americans of the early 20th Century didn't like people with names like Tavares, Segal and Carcieri. We were swarthy, we were unskilled and we were considered dimwits.