On January 23, Nashville 43% of Nashville voters voted in favor of a bill touted as being able to unite their city and save it money in these difficult economic times. Had it passed, this Tennessee city would have become the nation’s largest to enact such legislation. In 1780, John Adams proposed similar legislation to the Continental Congress, stating it would help to “purify, develop, and dictate usage of” English; his proposal was rejected as undemocratic. Still, some 30 states and a dozen cities have made English their official language, showing not only intolerance to immigrants and international travelers but also a Pollyanna longing for the bygone days before globalization. (Cousins, Juanita) It is truly scary that only 57% of Nashville voters weighed in against this “English First” proposal. Mayor Karl Dean said, “The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community,” but the nation’s largest Kurdish community must have felt more than a little terrified that the vote had been so close. If the economy continues on its downward trend and politicians look to scapegoat, immigrant communities around the States may be faced with similar nativist proposals. (Cousins, Juanita)
Already, immigrants and refugees throughout the nation are struggling to make ends meet. Always the most vulnerable community in any country, refugees arrive in the United States with about $450 of federal aid and a little temporary financial help from private agencies for 3 months. After that, they are on their own. While Nashville proposed English First legislation to help that city’s budget, Utah is answering the cries of low-income families in a different way. Beginning this month, Utah will provide recently arrived families rent subsidies for a period of 2 years. The money, drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves, will mean a world of difference for refugees living with the heat off this winter. Utah will disburse this money through refugee aid organizations like International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. Utah’s compassionate new legislation will mean a world of difference for 1,000 new refugees each year, but for the other 59,000 the United States accepted last year, 2009 looks bleak. (Eckholm, Erik)
An editorial in the New York Times yesterday detailed the horrors xenophobia and its self-defeating nature. According to the article, the American Cause spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, declaring that the GOP’s November defeats were due to Republicans being too soft on immigrants, rather than too harsh. The author points out anti-amnesty and anti-immigrant thinking like this cost House and Senate seats in 2006 and 2008. Xenophobes like Lou Barletta of Hazleton, PA, or former congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona both lost due to their harsh stance toward immigrants and diversity. (New York Times) After Latinos’ huge showing in the polls this past election, this author correctly states that any political party which bases its success on the exclusion of immigrants risks deserved irrelevance.
Historically, nativist groups have flourished in troubled times. The Know-Nothings came to power in the 1840s and 1850s on a platform of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. Their rise to power coincided with the disintegration of the 2-party system, the increasing resistance to slavery, and the influx of Irish immigrants. Similarly, the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915 coincided with the Great Migration of Africa-Americans and low-income whites from the South to the North, as well as a large number of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. The influence of this anti-minority, nativist organization eventually faded, but not before Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited immigrants based on their national origin (severely restricting Asian and Eastern European immigration). (http://www.historicaldocuments.com/ImmigrationActof1924.htm)
This latest economic situation could instigate the same. However, it also could be a time when the United States grows closer together, seeking to integrate the immigrants within its borders and to become a nation that lives up to its moral responsibility toward refugees. As bank accounts shrink and jobs disappear over the coming months, we must be vigilant to ensure that no one is scapegoated. We are truly all in this thing together.
* Editor’s Note: Monday night’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor” declared war on the New York Times because of the editorial mentioned in this article. Pointedly, Bill O’Reilly took offense at the editorial’s mention of his statement that the Times wanted “…to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, which you’re a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.” Hurrah for such an article, Editorial Director Andrew Rosenthal.