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1880s Nativists Replaced by Modern-Day Nativists but Message Remains the Same

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Anti immigration revolt

(8th-grade history book)

A Nebraska elementary-school teacher was arrested and convicted for teaching in a foreign language. He was fined and jailed as the law read that teaching elementary-school children a foreign language or using a foreign language to teach was a crime. How can this possibly happen in America?

Were this article to end at this point, letters would pour in suggesting that the teacher and I go back to Mexico. Letters would include hoorays for Nebraska along with reminders that English is the language of America and that Mexicans do not want to assimilate to the American culture and way of life and are stealing jobs from Americans.

Hold off on the letters; there is more to the article. The teacher arrested and jailed was not a Hispanic; he was of German ethnicity and the language he taught was not Spanish, it was German. The teacher appealed to the Supreme Court (Meyer vs. Nebraska) that in turn overturned the conviction as an infringement on personal liberty.

Since the creation of the country after the American Revolution there have been those, known as nativists, who oppose immigration, foreign-language usage and the practice of religions and cultures not conforming to those of the nativists. Today's similar in attitude group are but the latest batch, whose commonality with past groups is their claims that unless we make a final stand the country, culture and sovereignty will be overrun and forever lost.

Teacher Myer's Supreme Court case was in 1923. But the question of language dates to the organization of the new country as the founders debated which language to adopt. German was of prime consideration, as was Dutch, and even Greek was considered. There was good reason; about one-third of the population was foreign born and numerous languages were in use. English was chosen as the nation's language (though never as the official language) simply because the majority of the founders in power were English speakers.

Early-day nativists argued that immigrants depressed the wages of "artisans and laborers because newcomers would work for less pay than native-born workers." This argument was heard in the early 1800s about the Irish and German immigrants; today it's about Mexicans.

We also hear that Mexico through Mexican immigrants is hatching a Reconquista, a plot to take back the "conquered land." In 1844, the argument was that the Pope in Rome was secretly planning to seize control of America through Irish Catholics. In those days opportunistic political candidates campaigned to deny citizenship to Catholic immigrants, denouncing Catholicism as an evil foreign influence.

To diminish the power of those already citizens a secondary argument was that "a set of citizens, German and Irish, wanted to get the Constitution of the U.S. into their own hands and sell it to a foreign power." From 1840 through 1880, German immigration was in excess of 4 million and Irish immigration over 1.5 million -- their number making them the target.

Some prominent figures in those days carried the nativist banner: Henry Francis Bowers, founder of the American Protective Association; John Bell, presidential candidate in 1860; John J. Crittenden, Senator from Kentucky; Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House; Jerome Smith, mayor of Boston; Henry Wilson, Vice President under Grant; Secretary of State Edward Everett; Lincoln's Attorney General Edward Bates; and many more.

Those names are today replaced by Congressmen, Steve King (R-IA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Lou Barletta (R-PA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Lamar Smith (R-TX) and other Congress representatives led in the Senate by Jefferson B. Sessions III. From outside government there is John Tanton, founder of a multitude of anti-immigrant, disguised as 'immigration reform' nativist organizations: Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Numbers USA, Pro English, and others that replace the Know Nothing Party, the Immigration Restriction League, Order of United Americans and Order of the Star Spangled Banner organizations of the 1800s.

Nativists' attack and periodic influence continued into the 1900s. Germans after WWI once again became targets as happened to Myers in Nebraska. The 12+ million Italian, Jewish, Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks immigrants arriving through the 1920s suffered the same wrath, in some cases worse at the hands of nativists.

Fortunately nativists have always been a minority in the Unites States but their power to create national division and cause fear about immigrants is always present. We are again faced with such force reincarnated by Donald Trump's candidacy and subsequent election to the presidency who has voiced his anti-immigration feelings and policies he will pursue as president.

Nativists, and thus President Trump, don't want immigration reform because to them it's not about immigration; it's about the kind of people coming to America -- modern-day nativists don't want either people of color or non-Christian religions.

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Former Editor of (2000 to 2010), a weekly online news magazine dealing with US-Mexico and Hispanic-American issues. Weekly columnist with HVC. Monthly columnist for the San Diego Metropolitan Magazine, The Connection, which (more...)

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