Americans have always been leery of immigrants. The country has experienced several waves of immigration. Often times, the dominant culture views the newcomers as completely alien. Each generation superimposes stereotypes onto the newcomers. As a result, each generation of immigrants is often viewed as job thieves, uncivilized, violent, and unwilling to assimilate.
After the formation of the United States, the first wave of alien invaders came from Ireland. The Irish came to America to escape famine and political and religious repression. Protestant America worried about the infusion of Catholics. They portrayed the Irish as subhuman, alcoholic, and violent.
Americans formed political parties to combat immigration. The Nativist Party campaigned to stop the immigrants before the Pope could take over America. They competed with the Republican Party. The Republicans took on slave power as opposed to imaginary Papal power and beat out the Nativists. Mississippi was a greater threat to America than Rome. Eventually, the Irish assimilated into America. They became part of the urban political establishment and fought in the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, immigrants flooded to America from Southeastern Europe. They were Slavs, Italians, Greeks, Catholics, Jews, and others from the region. Native Americans believed these new migrants violent, subhuman, and unwilling to assimilate. The migrants took factory jobs increasing tensions. Unlike their predecessors, they had dark hair and eyes. Since they were darker, people believed they came from a lower race.
Scientific racism categorized ethnic groups and nationalities. Southeastern Europeans were toward the bottom of the evolutionary scale. Concern over immigration helped lead to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. By the twenties, the Klan ran Indiana and carried considerable influence nationwide. During Reconstruction, Washington cracked down on the Klan. During the twenties, they helped pass their agenda. Two major immigration bills severely restricted Southeast Europeans from moving to the United States. Despite the bigotry, Southeastern Europeans eventually assimilated.
During this period, Americans also wanted to restrict Asian immigration. During the late nineteenth century, Congress buckled to California and halted Chinese immigration. Californians did not want Chinese laborers to immigrate and take their jobs. Likewise, they pushed to limit Japanese immigration twenty years later. In this case, an embarrassed Theodore Roosevelt asked the Japanese to curtail their citizens from coming to America. Japan remembered the slight.
Seventy years after Roosevelt, and fifty years after the immigration acts of the twenties, angry Americans protested the infusion of Southeast Asian peoples. In some cases, people wanted to forget the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese boat people served as a reminder of a national disgrace. In other cases, people worried about job competition. This last point became a major point of contention in the inner cities.
African-Americans resented Asian businessmen from setting up shops. At the same time, Asian clerks and African American customers experienced cultural misunderstandings leading many in the black community to feel disrespected. In every sense, they felt the Asians, mostly Korean, refused to assimilate. Similar experiences occurred in Detroit between Arabs and blacks. This led to some particularly virulent racism from the music community during the eighties and nineties. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, gangs and rioters targeted Asian businesses.
Nearly twenty years after the Los Angeles riots, immigration has once again become a major issue. This time, people worry that Mexicans will take their jobs and refuse to assimilate. The drug war in Mexico complicates matters. The lawlessness and violence has forced some to flee to the United States in hopes of a better life. At the same time, this violence has spread onto American soil as drug runners have killed Americans. Over 20,000 have been killed in the Mexican Drug War. These factors led Arizona to pass a tough immigration law to defend their citizens.
The years travel by and the faces change, but the immigration issue never dies. Each generation believes the threat immigrants pose is something new. However, the issues of economics, job competition, assimilation, and various stereotypes seem to recur. There will always be newcomers looking to start over and there will always be people wringing their hands in fear.