Immigration / Racism

Cinco de Mayo and Neo-Know Nothingism

Cinco de Mayo and Neo-Know Nothingism May 5, 2006

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo most likely will celebrate Cinco de Mayo by continuing to sound the alarm that the nation is awash in a wave of “of immigration … far greater than anything we have ever experienced.” Tancredo, who may run for president in 2008, views immigration not only as “the most critical issue facing our nation today” but as a threat to western civilization itself.

For example, census data for Arizona reports that foreign born residents (FBRs) account for 60 percent of the state’s population.  That would be a cause for concern were it not for the fact that the data is from 1870 and is five times Arizona’s current FBR rate. In fact, at both the national level and in Tancredo’s home state, the current “great wave” of immigration is significantly below levels for 1870-1930.

Tancredo, who wants to reduce legal immigration by nearly two-thirds, claims that immigrants are a financial drain on society, bring disease into the country, cause increased crime and that tougher immigration laws would prevent terrorism.  Those claims either have no support or are refuted by evidence such as the National Academy of Sciences’ study finding that immigrants contribute $1,800 more in taxes per year than they receive in benefits.

The heart of Tancredo’s argument is that immigration threatens the nation’s “cultural identity.” Tancredo’s fear is that the United States becomes like multi-racial Brazil where “you cannot look at anybody and say they are Brazilian.” He believes that without more restrictive immigration laws we will become “balkanized” and “no longer a nation at all” and that “Western civilization (is finished if it) succumbs to the siren song of multiculturalism.” Setting aside the racial overtones of his remarks, Tancredo could not be more wrong since what makes the United Sense distinct from other countries is that we are defined by common beliefs, not common blood. Immigration hardly threatens our cultural identity since the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and live in a multicultural society is an important part of our identity. Having attended my wife’s citizenship ceremony, I can assure you that nothing is more affirming of American values than a ceremony with more than 900 immigrants who had traveled from all ends of the globe for the day when they could proudly swear that they would “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”

Despite the Statute of Liberty’s invitation to “(g)ive me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free,” nativist anti-immigrant movements such as Tancredo’s are a recurring theme in our history. This movement reached its zenith in the 19th century with the American (or Know Nothing) Party which President Lincoln warned would lead us from a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, to one in which “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and Catholics.”  By being singled out as a threat to America’s cultural identity, Latin American immigrants join a long list of ethnic groups who were all viewed as threats to American society at some point in time. My family came from Ireland in the 19th century and, despite serving in the Civil War and almost every war thereafter and entering into the 20th century, my grandparents still had to face signs reading “Irish Need Not Apply.” This same prejudice led to California’s Asian Land Laws which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning property and the decision to intern the Japanese during World War II.

What Tancredo fails to understand is that this type of xenophobia and bigotry stain our nation’s image as a beacon of liberty and is a far greater threat to our nation’s identity than immigration ever will be. I do not mean to suggest that immigration is not a serious issue or that we should not attempt to control our borders. This debate, however, should be driven by facts and our national interests, and not by myths cloaking the prejudice or naked ambition of the Tom Tancredos of the world.

Robert Kennedy once said that “our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal.” This week began with nationwide demonstrations by over 1 million Latin American and other immigrants in which today’s poor, huddled masses found their voice and proudly declared that “we are Americans too.” On Cinco de Mayo we will embrace them by celebrating the cultural contributions of Mexican-Americans, just as we do for the Irish and Italians during St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations.  We should also make Cinco de Mayo a celebration of our faith in the American dream by choosing the welcoming hope and promise of the Statute of Liberty over the fear and bigotry of Congressman Tancredo’s neo-Know Nothingism (adding lime and salt is optional).