John Gurda: History was made — and echoed — in Latino march

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Gurda is a Milwaukee historian.]

... The "Day without Latinos" march took place less than a mile from where I was working in downtown Milwaukee, but it escaped my notice completely.

Not until the March 23 demonstration was over did I realize that history had been made.

Whether the event attracted the 30,000 people claimed by its organizers or the 10,000 to 15,000 estimated by local police, it was Milwaukee's largest protest march in decades. Not since the 1960s have so many people taken to the streets to vent their anger, and rarely have they done it so peacefully.

I suspect I wasn't the only Anglo surprised by the scale of the demonstration. There was certainly nothing in the mainstream media to suggest there would be such an impressive turnout.

But the message obviously reached the Latino community. The resulting protest may have marked the political arrival of one of Milwaukee's most vibrant and fastest-growing ethnic groups.

The protesters, many of whom had taken off work for at least a few hours, were marching to dramatize the economic impact of Milwaukee's Latinos, but they were also voicing their displeasure with recent attempts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico.

They may not have realized it, but the marchers were touching a very old nerve.

More than one speaker invoked the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty at the midday rally, arguing that America was abandoning one of her proudest traditions: welcoming newcomers in search of freedom and opportunity. One banner proclaimed, "Immigration is an American experience."

Well, yes, but so, unfortunately, is hatred of immigrants. The truth is that Americans of every generation have harbored misgivings about the newcomers in their midst. The targets have changed over the years, but older groups have always shown their newer neighbors the same lack of respect and the outright hostility that many Latinos experience today.

It began early. In the 1850s, less than a decade after Milwaukee received its charter, the city had a vocal cadre of Know Nothings, a group pledged to preserve "America for Americans."

The Daily American made its debut in 1855. "Let us keep down the newly arrived flood of emigration," urged the newspaper, "until they understand our language and our laws."

The nativists were badly outnumbered. Immigrant families, most of them German and Irish, made up roughly 80% of Milwaukee's population at the time.

The Know Nothing movement, which controlled six state capitols at its peak, was eventually derailed by Americans who knew better, but nativism remained a dominant theme in the nation's life. By the late 1800s, the primary sources of immigration had shifted from northern and western Europe to the southern and eastern sections of the continent. Poles, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Hungarians and a host of other groups crossed the ocean to take jobs few others wanted - not unlike the undocumented Mexican workers of today.

Older Americans, every one of them descended from foreign stock of some sort, grew increasingly hostile to these "new" immigrants. Some viewed them as an economic threat, while others considered them a blight on the body politic - an indigestible species of invaders.

Nativists pushed a literacy test bill through Congress in 1896, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it as an unworthy repudiation of American ideals. The anti-immigrant tide continued to rise, fed by the isolationist trend of the World War I era.

A literacy test finally became law in 1917, and there was much worse to come. A group of pseudoscientists studied the physical characteristics of the "new" immigrants - my ancestors and possibly yours - and pronounced them genetically inferior to the older U.S. stock.

This frankly racist thinking underpinned a pair of quota laws that Congress passed in 1921 and 1924. Their effect was to end the flow of free immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

"Give me your tired, your poor," urged the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. "I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" In the 1920s, that door was slammed shut.

It was the quota laws, ironically, that opened the door to large numbers of Latinos and African-Americans. In the 1920s, as the economy shifted into overdrive, manufacturers in Milwaukee and elsewhere sent labor agents to the American South and into Mexico itself to alleviate a desperate shortage of workers.

What a difference a decade makes. In the 1930s, as the economy collapsed, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers were "repatriated" - deported, basically - only to be welcomed again during the World War II emergency.

Since the 1950s, resistance to border-crossing has stiffened significantly, and today we seem to be returning to the dead old days of literacy tests and "America for Americans."

It seems to me that those who want to cut off Mexican immigration, like their counterparts in the 1920s, are ignoring some basic economic realities.

Undocumented workers aren't coming north in search of welfare checks or better medical care - neither of which they receive. What they're after is jobs, and countless employers are obviously willing to provide them. ...

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