Monday, August 27, 2012

Nativist Rhetoric, Assimilation, and Cross-Border Immigration

A Romance-language speaking, predominantly Roman Catholic population crosses the border into the USA from a neighboring country. At first they come as migrant workers but some of them stay. Their customs are different from, if not odious to, their immediate neighbors who leave their homes to the growing tide of newcomers. Those immigrants who set up permanent residence in the USA bring their relatives and neighbors across the border to the growing enclave. This process replicates. Soon the newcomers represent a coherent ethnic presence.

Alarm grows over these newcomers. Hand wringing in the media begins over the issues of language, schools, and the political participation and leanings of the newcomers. Strategies for influencing them to assimilate to the American way of life are discussed. There’s an atmosphere of threat surrounding these people as stereotypes and misinformation are passed around like a basketball.

This scenario ought to have a familiar ring to any American with reasonably functional gray matter. It is little-known, however, that this drama is a repeat performance. What is now occurring on the USA’s southwestern border occurred on its northeastern border some 90-130 years ago and, remarkably, this parallel is almost never drawn, the lessons of the past never learned. The Québécois and Acadian immigration into New England gave rise to perceived threats and proposed solutions that are remarkably similar to what we hear today.

Consider this piece from the September 23, 1885 edition of the New York Times under the headline “Canadians in New England.”

In such towns as Fall River and Holyoke the French Canadians have nearly shouldered out the native American (sic) operatives, who a generation ago impressed foreign observers by their superiority to any persons engaged in similar occupations elsewhere. They have crowded the Irish very hard, and they form a much more intractable element in the social problem. Where they constitute an appreciable part they constitute much the most physically degraded part of the “tenement house population.” Their dwellings are the despair of sanitarians and themselves the despair of social philosophers. Nor is there any prospect of an improvement. They are the Chinese of New-England inasmuch as they seem rarely to strike root in our soil. Whatever may be the fate of the Irish immigrant, there is always the hope that his children and his grandchildren may be assimilated with the native population. He himself has at least come with the intention of remaining. His interest in the land of his birth is chiefly sentimental… But even if the French Canadian leaves his bones here his thoughts all lie beyond the Canadian border, and he cannot be brought to take any interest in the life around him of a community in which he regards himself as merely a sojourner. He maintains his own churches and no schools. Add to this feeling of alienism that he is absolutely unenterprising (sic), and it becomes evident that he must be a troublesome element in the population.

Here, as in later anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric, the “good” immigrant of the past is contrasted with the “intractable” newcomer. The Irish are the foil for the threat of a cross-border incursion by a "troublesome element." Not long before this article’s publication, the Irish immigrant was met with anti-Catholic riots and signs reading, “No Irish Need Apply.” But after the nativist has turned his attention to a new target, the earlier wave of immigrants appears in a brighter light. 

The same forgetfulness of history applies today when a Leblanc or a Levesque disparages newer arrivals, along with the grandchildren of waves of emigration from Poland, Italy, or Greece. They imagine their forbears as the good immigrants who are somehow different from today's.

The unquestioned assumption in this 1885 piece is that cultural assimilation to American civilization is good in and of itself. It is not only the supposed unwillingness of the Canadiens to participate in civic life that irks the editorialist. It is that they refuse to accept the manifest superiority of the Anglo-Americans. The French Canadians have the temerity to prefer their own ways to his. That’s what is behind his calumnies, his tone of resentment.

If our editorialist had read his own paper he might have been amazed to find that these ignorant, “unenterprising,” “physically degraded,” “troublesome,” “tenement house population,” who took no interest in the community around them, had the self-awareness and organizational skills to choose delegates and hold an annual convention to discuss questions of national concern. Almost exactly a year before this 1885 editorial, the following item appeared in this very same newspaper (August 6, 1884).

ALBANY, Aug. 5. – The third National Convention of French Canadians assembled this morning, about 200 delegates being present, principally from the Eastern States and Canada…The object of the meeting…is to discuss subjects of universal importance and in which the French Canadians have a special interest. “Not the least among them [a delegate] said, “is the education of the growing generation. We also desire to impress upon our people the necessity of becoming citizens of this great Republic and to utilize the advantages and benefits to be derived from such citizenship; to remind the great family of French people of the United States not to forget their mother country by allowing the use of her beautiful language to be neglected; to inspire our people to have a sacred respect for our religion…” During its sessions the following topics will be discussed: “Establishment of French Catholic schools,” "The French Canadian Press,” “Naturalization,” “Emigration”…The last discussion of the convention will be, “Would it be to our interest to take part in the political affairs of this country?”

The 1884 article has the form of a news report while the 1885 piece is an editorial. The former, which reflects the genuine interests of the French Canadians in the USA, quite contradicts the latter.

Our editorialist complains about the lack of schools among the French Canadians. The leadership of the community was not at all unaware of this deficiency since it’s at the top of their agenda. The 1885 editorial suggests that the French-speakers fail to take any interest in their new community. Au contraire, the convention promotes not only the desirability, but, indeed “the necessity of becoming citizens of this great Republic.” These are not the words of the leaders of a community that wishes to remain aloof from its civic responsibilities. It also implies that the question appearing as the last item on the convention’s agenda is rhetorical.

The convention’s objectives are clear. Our community had every intention of educating its children, acquiring citizenship, and participating in American civic life but it also wished to preserve its language and religion.

The editorialist of 1885 sees cultural assimilation and civic participation as inseparable. The French Canadian leadership, however, had come from a country with an ideology of two peuples fondateurs with different languages and religions under the same national banner. For these leaders, there was no contradiction at all between the preservation of one’s culture and full participation in civic life. 

Is an American one who upholds the Constitution and the law of the land regardless of language, creed or culture or is it an Anglophone who is also culturally Anglo-Saxon and Protestant? The answer is no clearer today than it was in the 1880s.

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