Anti-immigration fever finally came to a head as armed mobs attacked immigrant homes and churches. The final death toll may never be determined, but it is estimated that at least 20 people died and more than 100 were wounded before order was restored. This wasn’t along the United States border with Mexico, this was in Philadelphia, in 1844 – 170 years ago this month.
“Hey! Wait a second! Didn’t you just write something a couple of weeks ago that caused people to think that a restaurant owner in South Carolina was refusing service to minorities based off the Hobby Lobby case?” Why yes, I certainly did, and this is another example of current events mirroring those in our past. Enjoy.
So what’s the parallel between the riots in 1844 and what’s going on with our current Central American refugee crisis that is the subject of nearly every political talk show? 1844 was the year before the Irish potato famine which saw the total collapse of the Irish food supply which was almost completely reliant on the potato. Over one million people died and another million emigrated, not out of choice, but for their very survival. Just like the Central American refugees today, they were not welcomed with open arms by many people who were the descendants of immigrants themselves.
However, Irish Catholics were already coming to America prior to the Potato Famine, and in the 1840s they accounted for almost one half of the total immigrants to this country. Needless to say, the people of German, Dutch and British descent who were already here weren’t too happy about that, and angry protests (along with occasional bloody riots) broke out periodically over a couple of decades. Back in the 1840s, there wasn’t a strong police force with riot control gear to put down the violence, so the “well-regulated” militia was called out.
Do these anti-immigration protests and political dialogue sound familiar? They should. Here’s a brief background of what led up to the July 1844 riots in Philadelphia:
In the five months prior to the riots, nativist groups had been spreading a rumor that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from public schools. A nativist rally in Kensington erupted in violence on May 6 and started a deadly riot that would result in the destruction of two Catholic churches and numerous other buildings. Riots erupted again in July, after it was discovered that St. Philip Neri’s Catholic Church in Southwark had armed itself for protection. Fierce fighting broke out between the nativists and the soldiers sent to protect the church, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Several Catholic churches were burned but no Catholics were killed. (Source)
Back in those times, Protestants were the majority in government and saw the wave of Catholic immigrants as a threat to their way of life – just like many gullible Fox News viewers and anti-immigrant militia members or protestors do today. And just like the xenophobic sentiment is a part of today’s Tea Party and right-wing Republican, it was a strong political force back then as well.
The other new party to challenge Whigs’ role as Democrats’ major foe between 1854 and 1856 was the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration Know Nothing party. Started as a secret fraternity known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and reacting to a massive wave of European immigration between 1845 and 1855 as well as fear of the apparently burgeoning political influence of Roman Catholics, Know Nothings confined their membership to native-born Protestants and sought to increase the naturalization period for immigrants from five to twenty-one years while proscribing all immigrants and Catholics from public office. (Source)
Does this sound a lot like the current anti-immigration “Obama is trying to destroy America” rhetoric? I sure think it does. A lot of people have compared the militia members who have headed to the border with weapons to the KKK, Nazis and so on. However, the more accurate description would be 19th century Know Nothing movement which is portrayed in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis.
While the current anti-immigration protests have not yet turned deadly like in the 1800s, the presence of armed, self-described militia members positioning themselves on the border is needlessly escalating an already tense political and humanitarian situation. If you look at the rhetoric in the book “FOREIGN CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE LIBERTIES OF THE UNITED STATES: THE NUMBERS OF BRUTUS” by Samuel Morse (yes, the inventor of the telegraph), it absolutely reeks of the same nativist, paranoid diatribes coming from many of those who are frothing at the mouth about America’s changing demographics today. Just replace the word “Popery” with the current political buzzwords “Muslims” or “illegals” and you have a more eloquent, but just as paranoid version of anything you’ll hear on Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or other right-wing media sources today.
Here is a specimen of the disposition of Popery to meddle in civil matters in this country where it has the power; the Bishop is the propounder, and the Missionary one of the administrators of the civil laws. It is not true that Popery meddles not with the politics of the country. The cloven foot has already shownitself. Popery is organized at the elections! For example: In Michigan the Bishop Richard, a Jesuit (since deceased,) was several times chosen delegate to Congress from the Territory, the majority of the people being Catholics. (Source)
Every generation seems to have their own struggle with xenophobia and prejudice. Today it is people of Hispanic descent or Muslims who are painted as not sharing “American values” (meaning Anglo-Saxon Protestant values). In my parents’ time it was segregation and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Before that, it was Jews, Italians, the Chinese, the Irish…and the list goes on. In fact, in the 1930’s, the State Department refused to take in German Jewish refugees because they were thought to be a possible strain on the economy during the Great Depression. Everyone knows what happened to them after that.
America’s immigration laws placed quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States from other countries. In 1939, the quota allowed for 27,370 German citizens to immigrate to the United States. In 1938, more than 300,000 Germans-mostly Jewish refugees-had applied for U.S. visas (entry permits). A little over 20,000 applications were approved. Beyond the strict national quotas, the United States openly denied visas to any immigrant “likely to become a public charge.” This ruling proved to be a serious problem for many Jewish refugees. Most had lost everything when the Nazis took power, and they might need government assistance after they immigrated to the United States.
Shortly after she was appointed to the cabinet, Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, proposed an executive order on refugees and immigration. Perkins suggested that the State Department should give priority to immigrants seeking refuge from racial or religious persecution. The State Department objected to this order because it would antagonize relations with Germany and alienate jobless American citizens. FDR never issued the order, and State Department officials in Europe continued to reject many visa applications from Jewish refugees. (Source)
America was built by immigrants and those seeking a better life, free from persecution, violence, poverty and hunger. We already have a “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans, so why should we treat children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, especially if they already have family here who can take care of them? In fact, they can’t even request asylum unless they’re on US soil already, per current asylum rules and thanks to a law signed in 2008, most unaccompanied minors will not be sent back to their country of origin.
Unaccompanied minors fall under the bipartisan law, William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
That law says the children cannot be sent back. They must instead be held humanely by the Department of Health and Human Services until the courts release them to a “suitable family member” in this country. (Source)
“The New Colossus” engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t state which immigrants and asylum seekers we accept and which we don’t. We are a land of freedom and opportunity for all people of the world – that’s what made America great. Those who wish to deny the same opportunity their ancestors enjoyed to new refugees forget that truth. America has absorbed wave after wave of refugees since the founding of our nation, and we’re better for it – not worse.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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