Monday, July 9, 2018

We Are a Nation of Immigrants -- Except When We Aren't

America's history of dealing with immigrants has never been that admirable, as it turns out, despite what Lady Liberty may have you believe. But never in its history has America been led by a racist xenophobe supported by a significant segment of the American populace, while a complicit Congress stands in the wings waiting to see if they'll be reelected.

I have been appalled by the Trump Administration’s cruel and incompetent handling of immigrants at our southern border seeking asylum. Separating children from their parents, and then seemingly unable to reunite the families, despite court orders to do so, is heartbreaking and maddening. Following on the heels of this humanitarian disaster is the Supreme Court ruling upholding Donald Trump’s ban on predominantly Muslim countries.

The Court’s conservative majority ruled in a 5 to 4 decision, that Mr. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Islam was irrelevant in deciding the constitutionality of the ban, and instead based their decision on broad presidential powers. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but as the ACLU stated, “this is not the first time the Court has been wrong, or has allowed official racism and xenophobia to continue rather than standing up to it."

My mother and her family immigrated to America from Northern Italy. Her father, my Nono Ugo, came first in 1903, followed by my grandmother and then my mother and her brother in 1924. They were achingly poor. Ugo worked in a meat packing plant. His wife, Cesira took in laundry.

Hog butchering in Chicago circa 1905
My father’s family immigrated from Southern Italy in 1898. My Nono Vincenzo and his wife, Marianina and their five children, including my father, Stefano, lived in a small flat at 76 Carmine St., in Brooklyn. My grandfather worked as a barber. My grandmother took in sewing. All the kids worked as soon as they were able. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1912, where my grandfather was able to open his own barber shop.

My Nono Vincenzo in his barber shop in Los Angeles
More than one million people lived in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century -- and more than 30% of them were foreign-born: Irish, Germans, Italians, Russian and Polish Jews, and other European ethnic groups, Negroes, and later Puerto Ricans, arrived in NYC mostly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mulberry Street, NY, cica 1900
My Italian ancestors at that time were described in terms that mirror what Donald Trump is now saying about immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, and has said about immigrants from the Middle East. This appeared in an 1891 NYT editorial:

"These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practises, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation.

The Immigration Act of 1924 barred most Italians from coming into the country — causing immigration from Italy to fall 90 percent.

Trump wants us to believe that the people at our border today are somehow different than you and me, and our predecessors. They are not. They too are poor, frightened people seeking asylum, seeking a better life for their children.

We do have a broken immigration system. Let’s fix it. Not with walls of brick or hate or fear, but rather with reasoned compassion.
"You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanized. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination."
From; Trial Runs for Fascism Are in Full Flow, by Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times, June 26, 2018.