Archive for category Immigration

Melville Helps Us Understand Trump

Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this Presidential campaign season.  Melville will return to the news in the next few weeks following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired Moby Dick.   As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville’s tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab’s chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.

Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him.  The novel begins with the two sharing a room (and, as was routine in the early 1800s for men of little means, a bed.)   Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that “The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Melville’s summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings.   That anti-party political order bequeathed the nation one of the most colorful but also confounding names, opening up the obvious line of inquiry – who would want to be associated with a movement that embraces ignorance in its title?

Citizen_Know_Nothing

Citizen Know Nothing

The Know Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they “know nothing.”   Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.

In 2015, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know Nothings.  They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics.  The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

One Know Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose “professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools.”  The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans.  Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to “not vote for any man for any office…unless he be an American-born citizen.”  If elected or appointed to any office, the member would “remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place.”

The nativism of the Know Nothings crept over into an overarching contempt for politicians, in reaction to a perceived increase of immigrants and Catholics in politics.  The movement then saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time.  Failure of the Whigs in the Presidential elections of 1854 and  the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party .  New issues such as temperance and the length of the working day emerged but were left untended.

Tactically, the Know Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians.  They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as Governor and nearly all 400 races for the senate and house of representatives.  Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state “There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.”  Adherents replaced professional politicians, most evidenced in Massachusetts by the influx of clergymen replacing lawyers in elected positions.

The parallels to 2015 resound – anti-immigration in the rhetoric of “deny entry to all Muslims” and “build a wall;”  anti-political parties in the rhetoric of “I am not Washington’s candidate;” secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the “purity of the ballot box” in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.

One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model.  While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in Know-ing Nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its “fantasy” policy proposals.  Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”  Instead of answering they “know nothing” when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness.  Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.

By spouting ignorance, this year’s crop of politicians is making good on Melville’s dictum of delivering fear.  In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side.  In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.

This piece also appeared on History News Network and in the Berkshire Eagle.

 

 

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Waving the Red Flag

When President Obama announced this week he would use his executive powers to make immigration changes, the incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  Cries of “emperor” and “monarch” rang out from Republicans in Congress.  Representative Joe Barton from Texas already saw red, claiming such executive action would be grounds for impeachment. Another representative, Mo Brooks from Alabama, called for Obama’s imprisonment.

If using executive authority constitutes an impeachable offense, then Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy should all have been removed from office.   All four skirted Congress, at times overtly flouting their administrative prerogative, to implement a guest worker program.

This was the “Bracero” agreement with the Government of Mexico to recruit workers during World War II, starting in 1942 but lasting beyond the war, all the way until 1964.  At its height in the mid 1950s, this program accounted for 450,000 Mexicans per year coming to the U.S. to work, primarily as agricultural workers.

Several aspects of the Bracero program stand out as relevant to the impasse on immigration reform over the last 15 years.  First, the program began with executive branch action, without Congressional approval.  Second, negotiations with the Mexican government occurred throughout the program’s duration, with the State Department taking the lead in those talks.  Finally, this guest worker initiative, originally conceived as a wartime emergency, evolved into a program in the 1950s that served specifically to dampen illegal migration.

Even before Pearl Harbor, growers in the southwest faced labor shortages in their fields and had lobbied Washington to allow for migrant workers, but unsuccessfully.  It took less than five months following the declaration of war to reverse U.S. government intransigence on the need for temporary workers.  Informal negotiations had been taking place between the State Department and the Mexican government, so that an agreement could be signed on April 4, 1942 between the two countries.  By the time legislation had passed authorizing the program seven months later, thousands of workers had already arrived in the U.S.

The absence of Congress was not just due to a wartime emergency.  On April 28, 1947, Congress passed Public Law 40 declaring an official end to the program by the end of January the following year.   Hearings were held in the House Agriculture Committee to deal with the closure, but its members proceeded to propose ways to keep guest workers in the country and extend the program, despite the law closing it down.  Further, without the approval of Congress, the State Department was negotiating a new agreement with Mexico, signed on February 21, 1948, weeks after Congress mandated its termination.  Another seven months later, though, Congress gave its stamp of approval on the new program and authorized the program for another year.  When the year lapsed, the program continued without Congressional approval or oversight.

Braceros at processing center, 1957.  Photo, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

Braceros at processing center, 1957. Photo, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service

The Bracero Program started out as a wartime emergency, but by the mid-1950s, its streamlined procedures made it easier for growers to hire foreign labor without having to resort to undocumented workers.  Illegal border crossings fell.

Still, there were many problems making the Bracero Program an unlikely model for the current immigration reforms.  Disregard for the treatment of the contract workers tops off the list of problems and became a primary reason for shutting the program down.  However, the use of executive authority in conceiving and implementing an immigration program is undeniable.

The extent of the executive branch involvement on immigration was best captured in 1951, when a commission established by President Truman to review the status of migratory labor concluded that “The negotiation of the Mexican International Agreement is a collective bargaining situation in which the Mexican Government is the representative of the workers and the Department of State is the representative of our farm employers.”  Not only was the executive branch acting on immigration, but they were negotiating its terms and conditions, not with Congress, but with a foreign country.  Remarkable language, especially looking forward to 2014 when we are told that such action would be an impeachable offense.

Senator McConnell used the bullfighting analogy because the red flag makes the bull angry; following the analogy to its inevitable outcome is probably not what he had in mind.  The poor, but angry bull never stands a chance.  In this case, though, it won’t be those in Congress who don’t stand a chance; it will be those caught in our messy and broken immigration system.

This article first appeared on History News Network.

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Who is Jenni Rivera?

A couple of weeks ago, Jenni Rivera died in a plane crash.  If you are at all like me, you wondered who is Jenni Rivera.  Then, you may have moved, like me, to a better question: how could I not know of Jenni Rivera?

It’s not age, but certainly there are a slew of boy bands and other pop culture icons who have just passed me by.  This one, Jenni Rivera, had to do with our ethnic and racial, perhaps geographic bubbles we live in.

Jenni Rivera turns out to be a Mexican-American singer, and not just any singer, but one who sold upwards of 15 million albums.  She started out singing banda and ranchera music, which, when I lived in Mexico, sounded like a form of Mexican country-western distinct from mariachi.  She then moved on to greater popularity with her own reality show on Spanish-language cable television.  She was due to break out with her own English-language TV series this coming year.

She was American, born, raised and resident in California, right in front of our eyes, but only if we looked in her direction.  That direction includes Spanish language television, music, churches, radio, neighborhoods and schools.

It turns out her parents were immigrants, from Mexico.   Her story sounds like it fits into the American  immigrant pattern.  It is a pattern which is not supposed to exist, which is supposed to have changed from the earliest Irish and German immigrants (not counting the early settlers as immigrants.)

Those patterns are changing: language and culture are held on to longer, because it is easier with bilingual education, mass media and telecommunications, and proximity to the border and the native land.  School achievement is lower than for previous second generation immigrants, but not in comparison to the first generation of Mexicans who are coming here with barely a primary education.  The Jenni Riveras could thrive on her side of the immigrant boundary, unknown to those of us on the other side, in the receiving mainstream.

These changing patterns have caused academics since at least the 1960s to re-think the “melting pot” and assimilation that we once thought characterized our nation of immigrants.  Instead, they see segments of some immigrants assimilating and moving up the economic ladder, and others spiraling downwards.  They see exclusion and separation, not inclusion and integration.   They may be seeing, and trying to explain, the present, before it has a chance to become the past.  We are still too close to the current immigrant wave to see it play out.

For example, the ethnic enclaves where Jenni Rivera thrived also existed before.  The once dominant French, Polish and Italian churches hold special services in Spanish, Korean and even Khmer.  Sports, culture and politics still remain avenues of economic mobility and acculturation; yesterday’s Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson are today’s Alex Rodriguez and Pablo Sandovaal.  The 2012 Presidential election saw, for the third straight time, the increasingly important Hispanic vote.   And, of course, nativist reaction to immigrants still continues.

Despite the segmentation of our own cultural offerings, with hundreds of cable channels to allow us to stay in our own ethnic and political realms, Jenni Rivera made it, in death, on to both the front and op-ed pages of the New York Times.

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Jenni in 2009 Performance. Photo: JEnriquez

Think I’ll go add Jenni Rivera to my playlist, and move the boundaries a little.

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