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An Old Debate Resurfaces

By James Utt
By James Utt

Both locally, with Orange County cities arguing over the sanctuary cities issue, and nationally, with troops on the border and calls for a reduction in legal immigration, an old issue has returned to the national stage. Who should we allow into the U.S.? Who should we do our best to deport?

Although we live in a city that is overwhelmingly white, our county majority are minorities, as is our state. This trend sends shivers down the spine of many Americans, one seeming to be our president. At an infamous meeting some months ago, he railed in vulgar terms against countries from Central America, as well as Africa, and wondered why we can’t have more people from Norway immigrating here.

To begin with Mr. President, not many Norwegians seem to want to come to the United States these days. They seem very happy with their ‘cradle to the grave’ welfare state. They place a high value on human rights and gender equality, and some polls rank them as the happiest people on earth. Oh, they are white though. Maybe that had something to do with your statement.

The president also spoke in harsh language about African countries. Here is a fact that might moderate his views: 42% of immigrants from African countries have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only 29% of native-born Americans hold such degrees.

The main complaint I hear from my friends is that the president’s comments about immigration fly in the face of our historical traditions. Sorry, that is just not the case. American historian Kenneth C. Davis says,  “Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty little secret. Anti-immigration sentiment is older than America itself.”

Look at the kindly face on the $100 bill and there is Ben Franklin. He was greatly concerned that “stupid, swarthy Germans” would overrun Pennsylvania. He moaned that they would, “Never adopt our language and customs, anymore than they can acquire our complexion.” Really, Ben?

When the Irish came to these shores in the 1840s, carrying with them their poverty and Catholicism, they were treated like dogs. So much was the fear of these people that the American Party, better known as the “Know Nothing Party,” rose to prominence. They were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. In 1854, they swept the elections in, of all states, Massachusetts.

Let’s skip forward to 1882, about the time when we had all but destroyed Native American culture. In this year, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act. Thanks for helping to build the trans-continental railroad. Now, stay out.

From 1890 to World War I, millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured through Ellis Island. This really caused an Anglo-Saxon reaction. In the early 1920s, a series of laws were passed to severely restrict immigration from these and other areas. The worst was the Johnson-Reed Act, which banned Asians entirely and greatly restricted African immigration. It was aimed most, however, at southern and eastern Europeans. The bill wanted to protect a distinctly American identity. Reed told the Senate that the law meant to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain of our people.”

This restrictive measure lasted until 1965 when it was overturned. I graduated from Tustin High School that year and our graduating class of nearly 700 was lily white. Look at Tustin High today. To a large degree, it mirrors the changes that have taken place across our state, and to a lesser degree, our nation. This is partly the result of the changes brought about by the 1965 bill. I am heartened, not frightened by these changes, because I view the United States as an idea, not a mono-racial society.

There is that poem on the Statue of Liberty that says, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” etc. But that is just a beautiful poem and does not necessarily reflect the attitude toward immigrants that our nation has displayed throughout much of its history.

When President Trump pined for more immigrants from countries like Norway, he was not going against a firmly established American credo. He was merely tapping into a strain of feeling that has been around since Ben Franklin’s day: fear of the other, especially the darker skinned other.

Let us hope that Laguna will continue to resist this impulse.


James Utt’s German ancestors came to these shores in the 1760s. He would be very surprised if they were stupid or had swarthy complexions.


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  1. And don’t forget the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement between the United States and Japan that restricted immigration. This was mainly caused by anti-Japanese sentiment in California. Unfortunately, xenophobia raises its ugly head too often. How did we get to the point that we fear so many from foreign nations that only want to get a opportunity to better themselves by coming to this country? I’m sure that Mr. Utt can show how we benefit by welcoming people from other countries.


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