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New England’s immigration amnesia

June 7, 2010

Much of the talk at the Rhode Island and Massachusetts State Houses these days has focused on cracking down on illegal immigration. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that this focus is nothing new in New England.

The Massachusetts Senate just passed an Arizona-style crackdown in illegal immigrants. In Rhode Island, the General Assembly has been ensnared in a series of immigration jousts, most recently over a measure that would have forced virtually every business in the state to use a federal electronic database to verify the citizenship status of all new hires.

And you can’t flip on a talk radio dial these days without hearing a stream of rancorous anti-immigrant screed. There was a time when New Englanders watched as waves of fear, ignorance and racial hatred washed over other parts of the nation. So why now are we joining the anti-immigrant hysteria?

Well, the easy answer is that its’ election year, a time when politicians harvest votes with demagoguery to distract us from such serious topics as the listless economy, the mess in health care and the need for a better education system.

There is, of course, a legitimate matter here: Our citizens want the laws enforced and our borders policed. They want immigration rules imposed fairly and consistently.
But these are the historic roles of our federal government, not state authorities. And we are not Arizona; there are no drug cartels crossing the Pawcatuck or Merrimack Rivers every day wreaking havoc on our region.

In Rhode Island groups that are often at each other’s throats on Smith Hill, the AFL_CIO, the ACLU, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce all lobbied against the E-Verify legislation that was derailed in the Senate last week on a parliamentary maneuver.

Business and labor don’t want to make it any harder to hire people than it already is in our recession-wracked state. Is this really the right time to tie more red tape on small firms already wrapped in ribbons of it?

The ACLU wants to protect the rights of individuals. The church seeks to ease the climate of anti-Latino animus bred by these measures.

The saddest part of this debate is the collective amnesia of too many New Englanders who hail from immigrant stock. As Father Bernie Healy, the church’s representative on Smith Hill, said last week, “People forget how the Irish were treated in the 19th century and how the Italians were treated in the 20th.’’

In the myth of nostalgia and family legend, the descendants of European and Canadian immigrants came here legally, learned English quickly, and stepped off the boat and into the middle class.

In reality, the immigrants, especially Catholics, faced withering hostility from native Yankees. The Providence Journal published “No Irish Need Apply’’ ads until the 1890s and the newspaper routinely referred to Italians until the middle of the 20th century in terms too derogatory to repeat.

Ku Klux Klan crosses were burned in Smithfield as the KKK targeted Catholics, In Boston, convents were burned.

There was practically no such thing as an illegal immigrant until the 1920s when the Protestant majority, alarmed at the jump in arrivals from southern Europe, persuaded the U.S. government to slam the door on immigration, particularly from Italy and other southern European countries.

Do we really want to revisit this history. Or will we heed the words of Franklin Roosevelt, who told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938,’’ Remember, remember, always that all of us, and you I specially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.’’

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