Small World: Strangers at the Gate

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Let’s give a bit of time this morning to the continuing political issue of immigration. Although I am not aware of a particularly strong reaction to an influx of foreigners in the Bridgton area, it is certainly a source of agitation for other communities around the nation. Immigrants steal our jobs, one hears; they change our culture; they will dominate our politics. Those liberals (mainly) who defend and welcome the newcomers as a traditional American way of economic and societal growth are derided as naïve, weak, and anti-nationalists.

It didn’t used to be that way. I grew up in a small southern city with fewer than 100,000 citizens. Virtually all were born there or came from farms nearby. We thought of ourselves as — with the pride of a persecuted underdog — simple Georgia Crackers. Me, too, even though my grandparents were immigrants from Germany and Wales. But they were gone so my family wasn’t reminded of its origins.

The few immigrants in our community were not foreigners but internal migrants. They were the families of soldiers stationed at the World War II military bases just out of town. Or after the war they were Northerners come South to take advantage of the Crackers newly enriched by the shipyard and factories opened in the post-Depression mini boom. We treated their offspring as outsiders and mocked their accents but mostly, we just accepted their differences.

The single exception to this nativist rule was Kurt Shier, who was my younger brother’s age and in his class. Kurt’s family were German Jews fleeing Hitler. Despite a thicker accent and large, thick glasses — or perhaps because of them — he became a good friend of my brother’s. No kid in our neighborhood wore glasses except one who had lost vision in one eye thanks to an errant BB shot. It was a place where shoes weren’t always affordable and glasses were out of reach.

In brief, despite the economic hard times immigration wasn’t an issue for an inward-looking community. Why not then? Why now? I speculate there are several overlapping explanations.

First, in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, things were down but began to move up. (“Things” are defined as the economy and society’s confidence and outlook.) More production meant more workers were needed in new or expanding plants. Second, the country had already experienced an anti-immigrant trauma: Chinese were banned and admissions were tightened up in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those who came in often assimilated pretty quickly. Until then, they stayed in their ghettoes. Cleveland, for example, was once the world’s second largest Hungarian city; now it’s hard to find there a restaurant or church from the old country.

Back then there was room for newcomers to fill in. Internal migration opened up the South and West. The new spaces needed new families. Immigration laws were liberalized. Asians and Africans found their way across the oceans. It was easy for those from the South to walk or swim across the border. They had long made possible the prosperity of U.S. agriculture and they took other low-wage jobs as well.

When the pull stabilized, there was still the push from those poor lands with far too many people to support. Policy in Congress and other conservative circles unintentionally cooperated: Washington opposed measures to limit births, including abortion, while trying with inadequate development aid to hold young people in their over-crowded villages.

If we honestly wanted to stem the flow of illegal immigrants we wouldn’t pin our policy on military policing and border barriers. It’s an unwinnable war. The true solution is to devise ways to keep young, hard working but poorly skilled men and women at home. That means limiting births by the means available — including voluntary abortions — and with economic development for those regimes that cooperate with us. Our immigration laws should welcome skilled and promising youth who can advance our well-being, not grandmothers and siblings who will make demands without contributing to growth.

Finally, we need an educated and confident citizenry who cannot be misled by dishonest politicians peddling fake news and scurrilous charges.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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