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Viewpoints: U.S. has a long history of anti-immigrant rhetoric

By Keith R. Burich

The furor over immigration sparked by President Trump’s executive orders has a personal significance for me. My grandparents came from Europe on either side of World War I. My father’s parents came from Croatia before the war and my mother’s from Spain just after and just before the door was slammed in the faces of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in 1921. My mother was born in January of that year; today she would be an “anchor baby,” that is a child born in America to establish birthright citizenship. If they had been delayed or waited a year or two to come to America until after the restrictions were put in place, I wouldn’t be writing this.

My mother’s family initially settled in McKeesport, Pa., where, according to my grandmother, they were greeted by the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on the hills outside the city. The group’s goal was to intimidate the immigrants pouring into the country, many of them, like my family, attracted by the coal mines and steel mills of western Pennsylvania. My grandmother never could speak English, but she could say “Ku Klux Klan.”

Most people associate the Klan with its attacks on blacks across the South, but by the 1920s blacks had been stripped of any gains they had made after the Civil War. There was no longer a need for groups like the Klan, or White Line or Knights of the White Camellias that had conducted a reign of terror during Reconstruction. No, the Klan of the 1920s, which had been resurrected in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Ga., was different. It was mobilized against the people from Europe who had crowded into the cities during the greatest period of immigration in American history.

The Klan charged that these new immigrants were overwhelming the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had built America, and they were polluting society and undermining its moral certitude and superiority. They spoke strange languages and had strange customs and dress, segregated themselves from the rest of society, and were responsible for the corruption, crime and violence in cities like Chicago where Prohibition was openly violated.

Most importantly, most were Catholics who owed their allegiance to the Vatican, which the Klan accused of attempting to extend its influence over America through corrupt political machines that depended upon immigrant votes. Jews were also inherently un-American. They were clannish, associated with communists and anarchists, and linked to international conspiracies. In general, these intruders were thought to be ignorant, backward, unfit to participate in a democracy and, worst of all, willing to work for practically nothing and take jobs away from hard-working Americans.

Contrary to common assumptions, these Klansmen were not rural Southern “rednecks;” they were solid middle-class citizens, including many professionals, from cities across America. Indeed, their greatest support was in Northern cities and their influence ranged from New York in the East, to Oregon and California in the West, and Dallas and border cities in the Southwest. In fact, the headquarters of the Klan had moved to Indiana where it had considerable political clout.

To counteract the invasion of these foreigners, the Klan championed “100 percent Americanism” or a return to the Protestant values of temperance and chastity, a literal interpretation of the Bible, prayer in schools, the rejection of scientific theories like evolution and unwavering patriotism. It also required the strict enforcement of law and order, immigration and voting restrictions, the erection of trade barriers and American withdrawal from world affairs.

Even though it was associated with many violent acts, the Klan’s message attracted millions of respectable citizens who felt betrayed and forgotten in a rapidly changing world. Sound familiar?

Just how many Klansmen there were is debatable, but they and their silent supporters numbered in the millions. They were respectable enough to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in full regalia, and powerful enough to keep Al Smith, a New York Irish Catholic and opponent of Prohibition, from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 1924. Its reach across the country was frightening and surpassed only by its hatred. Only a lurid murder in Indiana by a high-ranking Klan official saved America from itself.

Despite their chilly and chilling reception, my grandparents endured, like so many others who came to America in the great wave of immigration at the beginning of the 20th century. My grandfathers were steelworkers, and my maternal grandmother worked in a garment factory. And, after my fraternal grandfather died prematurely in the middle of the Depression, my grandmother opened a saloon serving steelworkers for almost the rest of her life. They both raised large families, and it should never be forgotten that when war broke out once again, these unwanted foreigners sent their sons to fight.

I write this to remind Americans that we have heard this inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric before. Substitute Muslims for Catholics and Jews, Mexicans for Italians and Poles, and it’s the same fearmongering based on racial, ethnic or religious hatred that the Klan directed at my grandparents and, quite possibly, yours. We should not sanctify it in the name of national security or any other convenient excuse.

As for me, I am grateful that my mother was an “anchor baby,” but my story is really the story of millions of Americans whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents came to America to make it great in the first place.

Keith R. Burich, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Canisius College.

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