By Cesar Fernando Zapata
Published by The News-Press
On Aug. 7, 2006
A famous American figure bitterly complained once about the “swarm” of immigrants who arrived to the country.
He feared that one day America might become a “colony of aliens”:
“Few of their children in the country learn English”, he wrote. “They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts (…) so increases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say.”
“(Those immigrants) will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion”, lamented this famous American in one writing.
Of course, those who read these articles were alarmed. And they totally agreed.
Who is this mysterious figure who expressed such hate towards immigrants?
Is it Pat Buchanan? Or Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who fears Spanish language and Catholicism would one day undermine the American identity?
Is it Tom Tancredo, the stubbornly anti-immigration congressman?
Or is it one of those famous Minutemen, who patrol the Mexican border at their will?
Not a chance. The author of those articles is no other than… Benjamin Franklin.
Yes, THAT Benjamin Franklin.
The quotations found here have been mentioned by several columnists, like Lucinda Dillon Kinkead and Richard De Uriarte.
What “swarm” of alien immigrants he referred to with such contempt?
No other than… German immigrants.
Back in those early pre-Revolutionary days, Anglo-Americans controlled the economy, trade and government in the original thirteen colonies. Their quality of life was enviable, even for British standards.
German immigrants, on the other hand, were poor, countryside people. Many were illiterate, and did the hardest, worst-paid jobs.
Pennsylvania —Franklin’s colony— was a main magnet for immigrants: Almost one third of its population was of German origin.
These immigrants were despised by the rest. Germans were regarded as dirty, and stupid. Just a little better than animals.
“They will never be like us”, thought Franklin, and many others..
Now let us fast-forward a little in time. Fifty or one hundred years later, those Germans “who would never assimilate”, were in fact totally assimilated. Their descendents were so integrated into the melting pot, that it was hard to tell them from “average Americans”.
True, many still kept their elders’ language, but just as simple tradition. All of them spoke English as well as anyone. And they were “stupid” no more: They had become artisans, soldiers, traders, and even politicians.
Then, by mid 19th century, the Irish came. And deeply impoverished they were. (Perhaps even more than German immigrants). It was the time of the Great Famine in Ireland. Back then, Ireland was like the Africa of Europe. -a world apart of today’s wealthy Ireland.
Those new Irish immigrants were not schooled: The majority were poor farmers. Illiterate and desperate.
And it was the turn of the Americans of German-descent to hit the roof.
Why? Because the newcomers were perceived as (of course!) lazy, dirty, drunk, stupid and troublemakers.
The “No Irish Allowed” signs were a common sight outside factories and other businesses
“The Irish will NEVER be like us”, surely was a common complaint among Americans back then.
Fast-forward again in the future, and we’ll see that, after several generations, the Irish descendents were totally assimilated. They were policemen, workers, soldiers, firefighters, and even politicians.
And then… it was the Italians’ turn.
No new story here: Italian immigrants were also poor, illiterate and hungry. And like others before them, they were accused of being stupid, criminals and nobody believed they would ever assimilate, nor learn English.
Like the Irish, Germans and Eastern Europeans, Italians were also accused of crowding prisons, public hospitals, schools and depressing wages.
Today, the descendents of those immigrants are “pure Americans”. It’s hard to tell them apart from those first pilgrims of British ancestry.
Some of the descendents of those immigrants have been elected presidents: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (Irish) Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover (German).
Let’s fast-forward again to the 21st century: Millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding Americans of German, Irish and Italian descent find it hard to believe their ancestors once were labeled as lazy, criminals and freeloaders. And they laugh out loud at the mere thought that they would never assimilate.
But now it’s the turn of Latin American immigrants.
They are poor. Many uneducated. And are accused of crowding jails, schools and depress wages or American-born workers.
And of course, it is said these new immigrants will NEVER assimilate.
Don't these complaints sound familiar?
Some anti-immigrant activists are horrified of “fast-forwarding” history. Because they fear that, in 50 or 100 years, the United States will be, in their opinion, a different country. Alien to them. And worse off.
But for the average American of the year 2100 (who may be named Raul Roberts, Kevin Lopez or Esperanza Harrison), the real “aliens” would be those who complain today against Latino immigrants.
Those future and proud Americans will surely laugh loudly when reading about the hysteria that the “swarm” of Hispanic immigrants caused in the early 21st century United States of America.