Supposedly, an estimated 10 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.
Not surprisingly, former President George W. Bush — son of a president, grandson of a U.S. senator, first offspring produced by the marriage of the blueblooded Bush and Walker families — is a Mayflower descendant. President Barack Obama’s roots go almost that deep: He is a descendant of Thomas Blossom, who arrived in Plymouth Colony less than a decade after the Mayflower landed.
America’s two most recent presidents are distant cousins. But what distinguishes them from most of the rest of us is merely their ancestors’ earlier time of disembarkation, and maybe the place from where those ancestors initially departed. Unless you’re Mohawk or Mohican, Wampanoag or Wenatchi, you’re not really “from here.”
That being the case, why is there so much consternation about the latest, Latino-dominated generation of American immigrants?
The oft-repeated reasons for concern and consternation are familiar: that they violated the law to get here; that by increasing the labor supply they take jobs from, and lower the wages of, American workers; that they strain the legal, security, health care or social-service resources of our state and national governments, sticking taxpayers with the tab. But similar if not identical criticisms were leveled at previous immigrant generations.
My own ancestry is basically half German and half Italian. Both immigrant groups were scorned and reviled at critical junctures in American history.
The significant role of German-American anarchists, most notably in the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago, brought down suspicion upon the broader community. German brewers were singled out during the run-up to Prohibition for leading the nation’s moral decay. And, of course, a number of “Huns” were interned during both world wars. Still, millions of young German-Americans fought bravely in each conflict.
Ditto for Italian-Americans. Because notable Italians led the American socialist and anarchist movements during the early 20th century, the patriotism of all Italian-Americans was questioned; Italian-Americans were also displaced or interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II; the “wops” or “Chinese of Europe” were frequently characterized as untrustworthy, swarthy people with a penchant for violence; a few were even lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. Still, more than 1.5 million Americans of Italian descent served in uniform during World War II.
I could write similar synopses about Americans of Irish, Greek, Japanese or Chinese descent, but I invoked my own German-Italian heritage for another reason: According to Census Bureau figures, as the 21st century opened, German was the most common ancestry in the United States — claimed, in whole or part, by more than 40 percent of Americans — with Italian ancestry not far behind, in seventh, at roughly 15 percent. Few people today consider either group “un-American” — least of all in Baltimore, with its proud history of German immigration and cultural influence.
But whether one’s ancestry is recent or Colonial in origins, common or uncommon, doesn’t matter: America is what America becomes. The immigrant we fear today is just the latest iteration in a long tradition that, for all but the most recent arrivals, includes our own grandfathers and great-grandmothers and ancestors even further back.
Immigration is also a critical aspect of America’s most cherished tradition: capitalism. In fact, immigration may well be capitalism’s most rudimentary form. New bloodlines introduce new ideas and legitimate challenges to old, outdated modes of thinking.
Economic pressure from immigrants forces those of us already here to work harder and smarter. Their willingness to take the jobs like house-cleaning and yard work that most other Americans don’t want frees the rest of us to do the jobs we do want — as will hopefully be the case someday for their own children. Immigration is competition.
And anyone who thinks today’s mostly Latino immigrants don’t work hard has never seen a construction site or the hardware store parking lots where they wait, sometimes for hours, in hopes of finding even one day’s labor. With unemployment at 8 percent officially and higher unofficially, why aren’t anti-immigrant xenophobes wondering aloud why other out-of-work Americans aren’t waiting alongside them?
I’m not advocating illegal immigration: People should follow the proper course to citizenship. But there’s nothing more un-American in spirit — albeit manifestly American in historical practice — than anti-immigrant hatred and fear-mongering.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.