Waring sides of the immigration debate try throwing historial analogies at each other

May 15, 2009

Both sides hit the books as debate over immigration tests the nation
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Monday, October 8, 2007

Not satisfied with throwing statistics back and forth, both sides of the immigration debate have drawn on American history to make their points. And they go far beyond the “we are a nation of immigrants” refrain.

Philip Martin, an immigration expert at the University of California, Davis, told The Wall Street Journal that the government can stop illegal immigrant labor if it wants to because it stopped child labor decades ago.

Commentator Pat Buchanan said open immigration is the stuff of foolishness. After all, the Native Americans had that, “and look what happened to them.”

Tamar Jacoby, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York, said legalizing the nation’s millions of illegal immigrants would be like ending Prohibition, the early 20th-century ban on the sale of alcohol. Legalization would put policy in line with reality and derail an entire category of crime, just as the repeal of Prohibition did with bootlegging.

Historians agreed with some of the comments and scoffed at others.

Child labor’s lessons

Daniel Howe, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said Martin is correct: The country’s abolition of child labor shows that illegal immigrant labor can also be stamped out.

He said history shows that the United States can do without huge numbers of low-skilled immigrants, as it did when Congress virtually shut off immigration from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Princeton University history professor Hendrick Hartog said he wasn’t so sure.

He said it took a “century-long struggle” to wipe out child labor.

“Child labor, well after the 1920s, probably until the 1980s, continued to flourish on farms and family businesses within an informal economy and throughout the service economy,” he said. “Obviously, those are precisely comparable to the areas where illegal aliens do most of their work today.”

James Bergquist, professor emeritus of history at Villanova University, noted that the federal government had a huge advantage in stamping out child labor that it does not have with illegal immigrant labor: The government could keep tabs on the country’s children by forcing them to go to school.

Open immigration

Historians dismissed Buchanan’s Native American example as silly because Native Americans could not regulate immigration.

But some said history does offer examples of societies overwhelmed by mass immigration.

Howe said Mexico’s openness to immigration backfired.

“Mexico allowed settlers from the United States into Texas and California, and that’s usually thought to have been a mistake on their part,” Howe said, “because then the immigrants turned around and rebelled against them.”

Anglo Texan settlers revolted against Mexico in the mid-1830s. Mexico later lost California and other huge tracts of land when it lost the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Howe said even ancient history shows the perils of mass immigration.

He said unending flows of immigrants undermined the Roman Empire and helped contribute to its downfall.

But open immigration has proven to be a success in Europe, said Edward Countryman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University.

Residents of the European Union are free to move from country to country, and this has helped the union grow into an economic superpower.

The Prohibition analogy

Many historians thought Jacoby’s analogy to Prohibition made sense when discussing illegal immigrants.

“When you get right down to it, there is no way we can get rid of them all,” Bergquist said. “We have to have some kind of realization that these immigrants are here, they’re not going to go away, and we have to do something to normalize them.”

Howe expressed less enthusiasm for mass immigration. He pointed out that the same argument is being made for the legalization of drugs.

History repeats

Historians also came up with a few parallels of their own.

Historian David Kennedy, a professor at Stanford University, sees Abraham Lincoln’s toying with the idea of resettling freed slaves in Africa as analogous to calls for mass deportation of illegal immigrants. Lincoln eventually abandoned the idea for the same reason Kennedy believes the U.S. government will never deport millions of illegal immigrants: It’s logistically impossible.

Hartog, however, said history offers some ugly examples that show mass deportations can be undertaken in the modern, mechanized world. Just look, he said, at the millions of people forced to move in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Other parallels included the interaction among immigrant groups. Black gangs are battling Latino gangs instead of Irish gangs as in years past, and bright Asian immigrants are achieving at top American universities the way Jewish immigrants did many years ago, Howe said.

Kennedy said American history is full of examples of the country successfully absorbing tens of millions of newcomers.

He said nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population were immigrants in 1910, more than at any other time, according to the U.S. Census. Their grandchildren later made their mark during World War II.

“They made their way into this society,” he said.

“It’s a huge success story, and we really do ourselves a disservice when we forget that.”

In 2006, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population — and nearly 16 percent of Texas’ population — was born in another country, according to the U.S. Census.