It’s not just native-born Americans expressing nativist sentiments these days. Somehow, it’s immigrants, too.
“I think that enough immigrants entered this country,” Rosa Berezovskaya, an 86-year-old immigrant who came to the United States from Kiev in 2003, told the Forward in a story that ran last week.
“We also came here as immigrants in our own time. But we can’t let in crooks, we can’t let in untrustworthy people that will cause us problems,” said 82-year-old Olga Dubova, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1995, in the same article.
“I like his honesty, that he’s against Muslims, that he’s against refugees,” added Valentina Albert, herself a refugee from Moldova, referring to Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
All three spoke to Forward reporters in Russian, if that matters.
For any Americans whose own families were also at some point among the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, these attitudes are disheartening. But they are hardly unusual. In recent months I have heard similar anti-immigrant rhetoric from other U.S. immigrants, including those hailing from as far away as Cameroon and Egypt. Many are convinced that today’s newcomers are more dangerous to society than they themselves (and other immigrants in their cohort) ever were.
When they arrived, these established immigrants argue, they worked hard, learned English, assimilated and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. By contrast, the newbies are predominantly lazy, law-breaking, non-English-speaking, unwashed masses seeking welfare rather than work. (No matter that newly arrived immigrants are generally ineligible for means-tested federal benefit programs such as welfare, or that undocumented immigrants are always ineligible.)
These attitudes are reflected in recent polls of immigrants and their descendants, too.
In a U.S. survey conducted this spring by Pew Research Center, half of all foreign-born whites said that the growing number of newcomers “threatens” traditional American customs and values, rather than “strengthens” them. Astoundingly, there was no significant difference in responses to this question among white immigrants, their children or their grandchildren.
White respondents whose most recent immigrant ancestors were their great-grandparents (or even earlier forebears) were only slightly more likely to view new immigrants as threatening to U.S. society (59 percent of fourth-generation whites said this, compared with 50 percent of others).
Last year the PRRI asked an alternate version of this same survey question. In that survey, though, pollsters also happened to ask Hispanic respondents about their place of birth and how long they’d been in the United States if they’d been born abroad. At my request, the institute cross-tabulated the results of these two questions.
The findings? Immigrants were generally more pro-immigrant than non-immigrants were, unsurprisingly. But within the subset of foreign-born Hispanics, there was a sharp gradient in views of newcomers, depending on how long ago respondents had arrived in the United States.
Among foreign-born Hispanics who had lived in the United States for one year or less, for example, 84 percent said that the growing number of immigrants strengthened American society. Among foreign-born Hispanics who had been here for at least two decades, only 66 percent agreed. In other words, the longer Hispanic immigrants had been in the United States, the more skeptical they were that those who followed in their footsteps had much to contribute.
It’s hard to blame these results entirely on Trump, as abhorrent and xenophobic as much of his rhetoric is. Established immigrants — like their descendants — have a long tradition of shutting out the next cohort seeking shelter, security and freedom from persecution.
Take Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, who was himself a British immigrant. As the long-tenured leader of the storied labor union, he fought hard to restrict further immigration. Why? Partly because newcomers posed an economic threat to his union members, but also partly because immigrants might corrupt the character of his adopted homeland. Especially if they were from the wrong sort of stock.
“The greater the number of immigrants, the less American the United States becomes,” he wrote in 1923. “The American Federation of Labor believes that the foreigners now in this country should be assimilated before others are permitted to come except from such countries as Great Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia.”
In the late 19th century, German-born American Jews were not terribly welcoming of the waves of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, thinking them barbarous and uneducated. German-born Protestant immigrants were likewise hostile toward Irish Catholic newcomers, as illustrated in Philadelphia’s bloody 1844 Bible Riots.
Going back even farther, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant born in the West Indies, argued in 1802 that admitting and naturalizing too many foreigners threatened the young republic’s “safety,” “national spirit” and precise American calibration of “temperate liberty.”
Following in this grand American tradition, the ladder is being pulled up once again.