No Human Being Is Illegal

By Zinn, Howard | The Progressive, July 2006 | Go to article overview

No Human Being Is Illegal


Zinn, Howard, The Progressive


Vigilantes sit at the border, guns on their laps, looking for those who might cross over. President Bush promises to send 6,000 National Guardsmen there and to build a wall. Archconservatives threaten to make felons out of the undocumented and those who help them. But immigrants from south of the border, along with their supporters, have been demonstrating, by the hundreds of thousands, for the rights of foreign-born people, whether here legally or illegally. There is a persistent sign: "No Human Being Is Illegal."

Discrimination against the foreign born has a long history, going back to the beginning of the nation.

Ironically, having just gone through its own revolution, the United States was fearful of having revolutionaries in its midst. France had recently overthrown its monarchy. Irish rebels were protesting against British rule, and the new U.S. government was conscious of "dangerous foreigners"--Irish and French--in the country. In 1798, Congress passed legislation lengthening-the residence requirement for becoming a citizen from five to fourteen years. It also authorized the President to deport any alien he regarded as dangerous to the public safety.

There was virulent anti-Irish sentiment in the 1840s and '50s, especially after the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, which killed a million people and drove millions abroad, most of them to the United States. "No Irish Need Apply" symbolized this prejudice. It was part of that long train of irrational fear in which one generation of immigrants, now partly assimilated, reacts with hatred to the next. Take Irish-born Dennis Kearney, who became a spokesman for anti-Chinese prejudice. His political ambitions led him and the California Workingmen's Party to adopt the slogan "The Chinese Must Go."

The Chinese had been welcome in the 1860s as cheap labor for the building of the transcontinental railroad, but now they were seen, especially after the economic crisis of 1873, as taking away jobs from the native born. This sentiment was turned into law with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, for the first time in the nation's history, created the category of "illegal" immigrants. Before this, there was no border control. Now Chinese, desperate to change their lives, tried to evade the act by crossing over from Mexico. Some learned to say "Yo soy Mexicano." But violence against them continued, as whites, seeing their jobs go to ill-paid Chinese, reacted with fury. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the summer of 1885, whites attacked 500 Chinese miners, massacring twenty-eight of them in cold blood.

In the East, Europeans were needed to work in the garment factories, the mines, the textile mills, or as laborers, stonecutters, ditch diggers. The immigrants poured in from Southern and Eastern Europe, from Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, and the Balkans. There were five million immigrants in the 1880s, four million in the 1890s. From 1900 to 1910, eight million more arrived.

These newcomers faced vicious hostility. A typical comment in the Baltimore Sun: "The Italian immigrant would be no more objectionable than some others were it not for his singularly bloodthirsty disposition, and frightful temper and vindictiveness." New York City's Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham insisted that "half of the criminals" in New York City in 1908 were Jews.

Woodrow Wilson's decision to bring the United States into the First World War brought widespread opposition. To suppress this, the government adopted legislation--the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act--which led to the imprisonment of almost a thousand people. Their crime was to protest, by speech or writing, U.S. entrance into the war. Another law provided for the deportation of aliens who opposed organized government or advocated the destruction of property.

After the war, the lingering super-patriotic atmosphere led to more hysteria against the foreign born, intensified by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. …

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