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Zaleski: History of immigration ain't pretty

FARGO -- It's a myth that America has always welcomed immigrants with open arms and big hearts. As the lunatics were taking over the debate about the U.S. responsibility toward Syrian refugees, I was reminded of my own family's Ellis Island history.

Jack Zaleski

FARGO -- It’s a myth that America has always welcomed immigrants with open arms and big hearts. As the lunatics were taking over the debate about the U.S. responsibility toward Syrian refugees, I was reminded of my own family’s Ellis Island history. If there was a welcome mat out in the late 1890s when my grandparents-to-be got off the boat, it had more to do with securing cheap labor than with goodwill.
That was especially true of newcomers from eastern and southern Europe, the people I knew best growing up in an ethnically diverse New England industrial city. Nearly all of my friends (we were second-generation Americans) traced their heritage to Poland, Italy, Lithuania, Russia and Ireland. Most were economic immigrants. Others, like Russian Jews, were fleeing pogroms. Still others, like the late-arrival Irish, were coming to join family members who had come a generation earlier during the Irish potato famines.
But nearly all of those early immigrants shared the same experiences. They were ghettoized – herded into shabby multistory tenement buildings within walking distance to the sprawling factory districts. They provided the labor for the long-established old New England owners of such manufacturers as The Stanley Works, Landers Frary & Clark, North & Judd, and Russell & Erwin. (If you live in an old house, look at the hinges. Probably stamped “Russwin” and made in that factory. If you own an old cast iron Universal chopper, it was made at Landers. If you served in the Army, you polished brass forged at North & Judd.)
One of my grandfathers worked for decades at Landers; the other at North & Judd. Their wages and benefits did not improve until unions got strong in the 1930s and ’40s.
Oh, and that open door at Ellis Island? It was slammed shut in the mid-1920s when nativist politicians concluded those eastern and southern Europeans, who were overwhelmingly Catholic, were eroding American “values” and culture as defined by self-described inheritors of the Mayflower version of the national character. After all, Catholics would be more loyal to a pope in Rome than to a president in Washington. The nation still hadn’t shed that bigotry when John Kennedy ran for president in 1960.
So let’s be clear about this nation’s immigration history. Not pretty. Not noble. Generally motivated by opportunistic economic and business priorities, not humanity and compassion. And today? The same perverted attitudes about race, ethnicity and religion that were brought to bear against my Ellis Island grandparents still sicken the national psyche and pollute the national (and local) debate. Disappointing.
Zaleski is the opinion editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com .

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