In a 1914 speech, President Woodrow Wilson observed: “Some Americans need hyphens in their names because only part of them has come over; but when the whole man has come over, heart and thought and all, the hyphen drops of its own weight out of his name. This man was not an Irish-American; he was an Irishman who became an American.”
As the saying goes: Everything old is new again. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barak Obama employed a theme reminiscent of Wilson’s, but more focused on the economic implications: “When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent and contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone.”
Obama and Wilson both faced great opposition from Republicans over immigration policy. Wilson’s views represented an uneasy — and perhaps begrudged — public evolution.
In his 1901 opus, A History of the American People, Wilson elaborated at length on the myriad ways in which he believed the nations of southern and eastern Europe “were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”
Wilson characterized Poles and Hungarians specifically as having, “… neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence…”
The yellow journalist, William Randolph Hearst, hated Wilson because he would not bow to Hearst’s political whim. Consequently, Hearst began eagerly reprinting the most salacious and bigoted parts of Wilson’s book. In response, Wilson mounted an aggressive campaign of contrition, explanation and bridge-building with leaders of several immigrant populations.
Fast forward a century to Obama’s recent speech and one sees a far less ambitious prioritization of the issue. This year his state of the union included just 121 words dedicated to the topic. This is down roughly 50 percent from last year’s record of 250 words.
Modern Republicans don’t have as forceful a shill as the GOP of yore had in Hearst. Even so, there’s vociferous hectoring from the right-most reaches of Capitol Hill.
Of these protestations, Rep. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) is typical: “He seems to work very hard on the politics of immigration but not the actual policy of it. There’s a real belief within a lot of Republicans that whatever we pass he’s not going to enforce.”
Again borrowing the theme of “old wine in new bottles,” some of Wilson’s more controversial observations presage much of the modern debate about our nation’s southern border: “The “unlucky fellows who came in at the eastern ports were tolerated because they usurped no place but the very lowest in the scale of labor.”
The recurrent anti-immigrant flap in places like Alabama go directly to this point. When that state passed draconian anti-immigration laws, even the conservative farm lobby pushed back. They did so because they quickly found out that they couldn’t give their jobs to “real Americans” because real Americans would tolerate neither the conditions nor the pay. Apparently, only a certain strata of immigrants are willing to subordinate themselves to the toil of manual farm labor — a strata that became too rare once the state of Alabama clamped down on them.
By the fall of 1912, Wilson’s tune had completely changed. He knew he would need the immigrant vote. The planks he offered for the Democratic party platform reflected as much. This snippet goes to the point: “Reasonable restriction safeguarding the health, the morals and the political integrity of the country no one can object to, but regulation should not go to such an extent as to shut the doors of America against men and women looking for new opportunity and for genuine political freedom.”
Therein lies the rub for modernity. We have so conflated border security with the war on terror, that almost anything goes. With the convenient cover of ersatz patriotism-masking xenophobia, the more genuine economic motives have little chance of freeing our newest neighbors of their perpetual hyphens.