There Goes the Neighborhood – Part 1

The Emergency Quota Act. Cartoon by Zuni Maud in Der Groyser Kundes, published May 5 1921

An email from a younger relative inspired me to write a series of posts about immigration. In a later post I’ll tell you what he said, but first I’ll share a little history.

Mom Was an “Illegal Alien”

My mother was an indocumentada, an immigrant without papers—what right-wing types call an “illegal alien.” To me it sounds as though they want us to see such people as creatures from another planet.

Mom was born in Poland. Her family left in 1921, after suffering through pogroms and the devastation and widespread hunger resulting from World War I. They would have come to the United States, but in that same year the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was passed, “mainly in response to the large influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and thus successfully restricted their immigration and that of other ‘undesirables’ into the US.”  Instead, the family went to Cuba.

At age 16, during the Great Depression, Mom boarded a crowded little boat and crossed the open ocean from Havana to Miami, entering without legal permission. From there she traveled to New York, where she found employment in the city’s garment factories.

My paternal grandparents had entered the United States in 1910, before the passage of the Emergency Quota Act, and at a time when there was a huge demand for garment workers. Their children, including my father, were all born in New York City.

When my parents married, my father was able to sponsor my mother for citizenship.

White Makes Right

Hostility to new immigrants seems to come in waves, but I haven’t found any documented before white people first arrived on this continent. Still, I like to imagine that when members of our species first walked or sailed here from Asia, a woolly mammoth turned to its companion and snorted, “There goes the neighborhood.”

That mammoth was right. Those new immigrants, whom we now call Native Americans, exterminated the hapless pachyderms. The Natives nearly suffered the same fate at the hands of Columbus and the shiploads of Europeans who followed him. From 1492 to 1691, the Native population declined by 90–95 percent.

The first English settlers immediately began to exhibit animus to anyone who wasn’t just like them. In the 1790s Benjamin Franklin wrote that German immigrants were stupid, and that these foreigners were endangering New England’s whiteness: “… Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.” Likewise, Alexander Hamilton declared that “The influx of foreigners must…change and corrupt the national spirit.”

The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to white immigrants—essentially, those from western Europe.

Not White Enough

Not all whites were made welcome, however. The 1800s saw a rise in discrimination against the Irish, who came in large numbers to escape the potato famine. They were desperate enough to work for low pay, mostly in construction and domestic service, and were accused of driving down wages and taking jobs away from “Americans.” On top of that, they were (gasp!) Catholic. Want ads commonly stated that “No Irish need apply.”

The Irish faced violence and, at times, forced deportation.  Landlords refused to rent to them, and they were forced to live in crowded, dilapidated, and filthy apartments—and then, when they got sick, were blamed for spreading diseases.

Italians suffered similarly. 19th Century philosopher John Fiske wrote that “The lowest Irish are far above the level of these creatures (Italians).” Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly said that the earlier immigrants brought “the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe” rather than “the black eyes, the black drop” of southern Europe. Italians as well as Blacks were lynched in the South.

The “Yellow Peril”

The term “yellow peril” originated in the late 19th Century, probably in 1897,  and was in common use through the early 20th.

By the 1860s thousands of Asians had entered the United States. Between 1864 and 1869 the railroads hired around 20,000 Chinese laborers, who eventually formed 90% of the work force on the Transcontinental Railroad. The owners found them desirable as, like most immigrants before and since, they were willing to accept low wages and horrific and dangerous working conditions.

“White Caucasian workers were paid $35 per month with food and accommodation, but Chinese laborers initially received only $26 without food, accommodation nor basic insurance.” White supervisors were allowed to whip Chinese workers. About 10% of the Chinese work force died working on the project. In addition, child labor was common—some were as young as 12.

The Chinese were not allowed to become citizens. Like the Irish, they faced violence. They were targeted by discriminatory laws. “For several decades, a law was in place that prevented Chinese immigrants from testifying in court against Americans of European descent—effectively placing thousands of immigrants outside the protection of the law.”

This particular law struck a personal nerve. My mother told me that when she was a child in Poland, Jews could not be witnesses in court because they could not swear on the New Testament. A Christian woman in her town was allowed to get away with murder—she had given all the food to her biological children while starving her stepchildren—because the neighbors who would have testified against her were Jewish.

Anti-Chinese hostility intensified with the Long Depression that began in 1873 and continued until the end of the century, with a corresponding decline in wages. As a result, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese people with the exception of temporary visitors such as diplomats and students.

Japanese people and Koreans faced similar animus, for similar reasons. For example, In 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt entered what was referred to as a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japan which prohibited further immigration from that country.

I first encountered the term “gentleman’s agreement” as the title of a 1947 novel about anti-Semitism in America. Until Jackie Robinson was hired in 1946, another “gentleman’s agreement” excluded Black players from organized baseball. I think it’s likely that such informal pledges between racists who have the chutzpah to call themselves gentlemen are still common.

Some Changes

Over time some of the earlier groups were assimilated. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, when the United States was at war with Japan and therefore presumably on the side of China. I am old enough to remember when people questioned whether it was acceptable for a Catholic—John F. Kennedy—to be President. Today no one even thinks about Biden’s Catholicism.

Nativism is still very much with us, though, and stronger than ever. We’ll visit Mexico in the next post.

2 Responses to There Goes the Neighborhood – Part 1

  1. Connie O Byrne March 3, 2024 at 6:16 pm #

    another welcome start of a look at our history…with the same depth and openness to discomfort as usual. Thanks…looking forward to more

  2. Mary McCarthy March 8, 2024 at 10:34 am #

    The USA has such a despicable history but totally in line with what the powerful have always done. I now live in Mexico where I most often hear laughter rather than rage.

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