History is a great teacher. History shows us the problems faced by our ancestors and how they resolved those problems. A study of history also illustrates two things: We seldom learn from our previous mistakes and, secondly the human condition, in spite of our great advances in technology, has not improved.
While researching another story I came across a letter from the “Commissioner General of Immigration, Terrance V. Powderly that appeared in the Brookville Republican in October, 1897. In the letter he expressed his views on the laws “necessary for the regulation of immigration to this country from foreign lands.”
He began his latter bemoaning his difficult task “owing to the inadequacy of existing immigration laws.” The problem still exists today and many of the presidential candidates have vowed to reform the immigration laws.
At that time the bulk of the immigrants were coming from Europe. “I have no doubt that thousands of the worst classes of Europe are swept in upon us every year,” said Powderly. “Lately they have taken their route from Europe to the United States by way of Canada and are coming across the frontier.”
Today the problem of unchecked immigration has shifted to the southern border and the problem has multiplied from thousands in Powderly’s day to millions of illegals today.
Powderly pledged to “keep every unworthy person out and to cause Europe to take care of their own anarchists.” In Powderly’s time the threat of the anarchists was very real. It was a very real threat. Four years after Powderly wrote the letter anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz assassinated President William B. McKinley.
Fast forward to today and you can substitute the Middle East for Europe and Islamic terrorists for anarchists.
Powderly previewed some current political opinions when he said, “The old ways, ‘America is the asylum of the oppressed’ or ‘the refuge of the nations’ find little favor in my eyes. There was a time when the oppressed could come here without oppressing others, but that was before the on-comers became oppressors and when the tide of immigration to this country was not the tide of refuse.”
If that does not sound familiar, then you have not tuned in any of the recent debates.
Powderly then posed a fundamental question. “Can we assimilate, can we Americanize the vast horde of immigrants that is dumped upon us? No prophet voice need tell us what the future has in store for the United States if we permit an unchecked stream of unsifted immigrants to flow in upon us.”
He had his own solution. “If they are oppressed at home let them dethrone their oppressors there and establish governments of the people, for the people and by the people across the Atlantic.”
Dr. Ben Carson said very much the same thing when he said that the Syrian refugees would like nothing more than to go home and not become immigrants in foreign lands.
Powderly stated that the immigration laws of his time were “too lax and we stand in danger of being voted out of existence.”
He further explained that the words “I am an American citizen have no meaning for them. They are voters because some degenerate American in need of a vote corralled them and brought them into a court of justice. They are aliens at heart and they will not do a single thing to uplift the standard of citizenship.”
This is exactly the argument that has been put forward today to stifle immigration reform. It is the fear that these new immigrants, who are largely Hispanic, will line up to vote for Democratic candidates.
Like politicians today, Powderly said his comments were not driven by “bigotry, race hatred or selfishness.” How many times have we heard the politicians utter those same words today?
Powderly proposed that each new immigrant be offered a five year period to learn to read and write the English language and pass a citizenship test before being allowed to vote.
This “path to citizenship” is a far cry from blanket amnesty or mass expulsions. Powderly’s goal was to make American citizens and, through education, grow the democracy.
The problems Powderly faced and his solutions may seem archaic today but, when you cast off the legal jargon and political bias, the problem remains the same.
If you think Powderly was a reactionary, conservative politician, here is his partial biography:
Terence Vincent Powderly (January 22, 1849 – June 24, 1924) was an Irish-American politician and labor union leader, best known as head of the Knights of Labor in the late 1880s.
A lawyer, he was elected mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania for six years. A Republican, he served as the United States Commissioner General of immigration in 1897. His influence reportedly led to laws abolishing alien contract labor law in 1895, and establishing labor bureaus and arbitration boards in many states.