Thursday, September 28, 2017

Immigrants Are Our History: So What Do We Do Now?

Spending so much time conducting research in old books and newspapers, I’m often left shaking my head when today’s news headlines call to mind a favorite saying: “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.” We use the concept all the time for personal decisions.

Before making a purchase — car, washing machine, cable package, cell phone — have you ever referred to a magazine like Consumer Reports, read online reviews, or asked a friend how their own choice worked out? If so, you checked with history to avoid making a poor choice. It’s a simple concept: learn a product’s history and you’re not doomed to repeat it.

Why do we abandon that logic when it comes to other things? Take immigration, for instance. No matter where you stand, one important thing should be part of the deliberative process: knowing your (our) roots before forming your own opinion.

Consider the Adirondacks and North Country. Ours is a history of French lumberjacks, Irish potato farmers, Italian railroad workers, and the like. Their stories inspire regional musicians, authors, and storytellers, who honor their memory.

But the truth is, many of those immigrants were discouraged or prevented from coming to America during times like these, when the voices of millions said they weren’t wanted. When immigrants arrived to build railroads, cut timber, farm the land, and work in mines, they battled anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Slavic, anti-German, anti-Italian, and anti-Irish sentiments. We should all know the mantra by now: when things go wrong, politicians need a scapegoat. Historically, the easiest, most vulnerable targets were immigrant groups.

Anti-immigrant movements have surfaced repeatedly in our past, and there’s not a single instance where we look back fondly on them today. (You don’t hear much of, “Hey, remember the 1920s, when the KKK was here in the Adirondacks, trying to drive out Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and bootleggers? Thousands went to the meetings. Boy, those were the days!”)

And yet we keep doing it. The target changes, but the message is the same. Each generation uses the same excuses: “But this time is different!” And yet it never is. “But they might blow things up!” Also, not new. “But they’re taking our jobs!” Same old song and dance. History tells us that today, just like back then, immigrants didn’t take jobs from Americans: they took jobs that Americans wouldn’t do. Despite the time and expense, companies back then found it more productive to actively recruit workers from foreign lands and offer them jobs if they agreed to immigrate.

We should know these things before deciding how we feel about immigration. Make your own decision, and make it an informed decision.

Take my location, for instance. I’m in Clinton County, where someone deciding their stance on immigration should know our own history. Who is it that we’re against, and why? We should know about the Irish peasants who fled British tyranny (sound familiar?) and settled in this county by the hundreds. We should be aware that French farmers came here, stayed permanently, and with the Irish, formed the county’s economic base for more than a century. We should never forget that more than twenty nationalities were present in our former mining town of Lyon Mountain, which produced the highest-grade iron ore in the world for a century — ore that was critical to the production of America’s cars, airplanes, bridges, and implements of war.

In 100 years of mining there, more than 175 men were killed in accidents — immigrants whose American blood was spilled for the good of the country. Many dozens of those Lyon Mountain families consisted of more than ten children, spawning a wide web of descendants across the north. If you’re from Clinton County, there’s a good chance your ancestors, or ancestors of friends you love and admire today, belong to one of those immigrant groups. The same is true in other towns, cities, and counties of the region. Our histories are tied to immigration. So look at your roots, and consider them when forming an opinion on today’s immigration issues.

Some of our immigrant ancestors were itinerants, following work by the season—making maple syrup in the spring, picking blueberries in the summer, hops in early fall, and lumbering in the winter. Are we dishonoring that legacy of hard work by keeping “foreigners” out today?

When the issues are argued, we shouldn’t forget who we are, and who we were just a few generations ago. We have to figure out the answer to a very tough question: if we are the sons and daughters of immigrant parents, grandparents, or great-grand parents, is it hypocrisy for us to side against immigration?

And before you come up with an answer, remember the typical historical reply: “But this time is different!”

Photos: Immigration materials from the Library of Congress images collection.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

12 Responses

  1. JohnL says:

    “But they (immigrants) might blow things up! Also, not new.”
    Really??? I don’t remember reading anything about the Irish, or Chinese, or whatever immigrants from the past you’re referencing being threats to commit terrorism. They came here and worked hard, they ASSIMILATED, and they made this country better. No question. They also didn’t blow things up. IF, and this is a huge IF these days, immigrants want to do this (work hard, assimilate, etc), AND if they come into this country following the duly enacted laws of the land, by all means come in. They are welcome. Otherwise, nuh uh. The world HAS changed. Everything IS different. If you can’t see this, you’re putting your head in the sand.

    • Just because you didn’t read about it, something is untrue? What an interesting argument! Historically, among the code words the media used for immigrants or “undesirables” was anarchists, and yes, they blew up many things in the past. If you can’t find countless articles about Chinese, Germans, and others setting off bombs, you’re not looking hard enough. A simple example: go here … … and search anarchist bomb, but be prepared to read for weeks on end about the bombings you don’t remember. They aren’t emphasized in school history classes, which focus on the generally warm and fuzzy story of the melting pot, and downplay the darker issues that accompanied immigration: poverty, ostracization, dissidents, and more.
      The same head-in-the-sand argument was used by nationalist movements in the past, who took your position: “our” immigrants (the ones we “remember”), or as you called them, “they,” worked hard, assimilated, etcetera, but today’s immigrants are different. The truth is, the story has always been the same. Yes, most of them worked hard and assimilated, but there were always “bad seeds” among them who committed acts of domestic terrorism, so to insist that 2017 immigration is unique in our 200+ year existence is to ignore history.
      Of course the world changes, but there’s a lot of truth in the old saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

      • JohnL says:

        Sorry Lawrence. Since you didn’t state any specific positions regarding immigration today in your article, I probably should have started with a couple questions that are basic to TODAYS immigration issues in this country. Do you believe in open borders, i.e. let anyone in that wants in? Do you believe in the rule of law, i.e. immigration is allowed and quantified as prescribed in the duly enacted laws of the United States? Do you believe that certain parts of the world today (not in the 1800’s) are more dangerous than others and should be controlled with that in mind? Thanks. JL

        • Jess says:

          Ugh! You’re taught a lesson, your ignorance is exposed, so you reply by reciting the same old nonsense you hear every day from Fox News. Get a grip and open a history book.

        • Right back at you with a sorry. I stated no positions because it wasn’t an opinion piece. It’s based on historical facts—that every generation thinks certain occurrences are new and unique, but the vast majority of certain occurrences have happened many times in our history (financial crises, deep divisions between political parties, nasty public attacks, etc.), and we can (should) learn from that. Rather than be quick to accept what “experts” on TV have to say (which are usually just opinions based on their own limited reading experience, with no guarantee of depth), we’re far better served by adding history to the equation before making a decision or choosing a side.
          I’m also enough of a realist to know that it won’t happen. It used to take lots of time and substantial physical effort to learn about the past in detail (drive to a library that has microfilmed newspapers, operate the machines to view old newspapers, take notes, parse through the possible biases of each writer, etc.). One way this generation is different from all others is the amount of information that is accessible so easily and so quickly, literally at our fingertips … but instead of using it, we listen to what “Bob” says on our favorite TV channel and decide, “That makes sense.”
          History also teaches us that many terrible ideas first started out by seeming to make sense.

          • JohnL says:

            Lawrence. I read history books, almost exclusively, with a very occasional Brad Thor thrown in for variety. I particularly like American History from the 1750’s on. I have absorbed a lot peripherally about immigration as it’s contained in the various history books I’ve consumed. Example: The Stephen Ambrose book on the Transcontinental Railroad describes in detail the dangers and hardships that the Chinese immigrants endured. He also makes very clear how crucial they were for the completion of the railroad.
            As for this generations students of history, you make an excellent point. People today (not just young people) have literally the entire history of the world instantly available at their fingertips and I’d venture to say that they know MUCH LESS than my generation does about our history. They rely, as you said, on what someone tells them. That, in my opinion, is a very dangerous thing. One thing of which I’m very proud is that my 2 daughters (Gen Y’ers) are interested in American History and I generally pass on the books that I’ve finished to one of them. We all do what we can to help things along.
            Anyway, if I came on a little strong on this subject, it’s because I consider it (immigration) one of the most important, and potentially dangerous issues we have before us today. Thanks for putting the subject out there.

    • Paul says:

      Irish catholic immigrants in many major east coast cities helped to finance terrorists in Northern Ireland. They always pretended that the money that was sent home was for other uses but they knew what some of it was being used for.

  2. Cristine Meixner says:

    Immigrants ARE our history, and in my opinion are welcome when they come here legally.

  3. Paul says:

    We talk about being a nation that is open to immigration “bring us the huddled masses etc.”. Yet if you do look at our past we have been a nation pretty closed to immigration. We tend to kind of open the door a crack when we have some particular need. Every country (save Africa where it appears we all come from) is a nation of immigrants.

  4. Richard L. Daly says:

    Larry, thanks for your article … followed by a good set of comments.
    Freedom isn’t free … We have to work at it … generation after generation.

  5. Guest says:

    There ARE differences this time.

    First, most of the previous waves of immigrants were of European and Christian origin. That made them more compatible with the established population.

    Second, immigrants were expected to conform to a large extent with the prevailing culture.

    Third, there was no forced integration. Integration did take place but it happened naturally and because of the reasons above, was largely successful. There were no “diversity” requirements in employment or social affairs.

    Fourth, there was little in the way of tax-funded social programs available. An immigrant was expected not to become a public charge. There certainly was no expectation that their children would get SNAP or they would be able to bring elderly parents over and put them on social security and medicare. Immigrants were also screened for disease.

    Fifth, the economy was generally growing much faster than it is today and there was no threat of artificial intelligence and automation looming.

    Sixth, until WW1 we had little military involvement overseas that would inflame ethnic passions resulting in domestic acts of terrorism.

    Seventh, the culture did not gloat over an inevitable demise of those of european heritage.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox