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Immigration Debate Borders on Idiocy 

An old and ugly argument resurfaces

Before discussing this week's topic — anti-immigrant bigotry — let's look at a few headlines from overseas.

Aljanci wypowiadaja sie za stworzeniem wielkiej Polski. Amerkya wykryla spisek bolszewicko niemlecki prezeciw Polsce.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Actually, you didn't. Those headlines were taken from a 1919 issue of the Pittsburgh Leader, one of the city's many now-defunct local dailies. The Leader was written in English, but it regularly carried international dispatches in foreign languages, so readers from Italy and Eastern Europe could follow the news back home.

You wonder how such an open-handed editorial policy would go over now. When Denver's Rocky Mountain News published a single article in Spanish this June, "Some readers really didn't like it," editor John Temple acknowledged in a column. Several cancelled their subscriptions; others called it "offensive."

In fact, the Leader published in an era much like our own. The First World War had inspired the kind of jingoism that's become so familiar in the "war on terror." (In a preview of the "freedom fries" fiasco, anti-German patriots referred to sauerkraut as "liberty cabbage." Take that, Kaiser Wilhelm!) And nativist sentiments were on the rise. In a 1995 Pennsylvania History article, historian Philip Jenkins reports that by the 1930s, Allegheny County had more than 30 Ku Klux Klan chapters. The trend, Jenkins says, was a response to postwar "mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe."

In today's Philadelphia, meanwhile, a cheesesteak stand has made headlines — in English, naturally — by noisily refusing to serve Spanish-speaking customers. Sen. Rick Santorum promptly made a show of having lunch there, demonstrating the instinct for divisive photo-ops that brought him to Terri Schiavo's bedside. Closer to home, as CP reported in May, North Versailles club Casa d'Ice routinely displays anti-immigrant messages to drivers on Route 30.

Illegal immigration actually isn't much of a problem around here. (Neither is any kind of immigration: According to Census Bureau estimates, Pittsburgh lost more than 4,000 people last year.) So Casa d'Ice guards against such threats to the Republic as … having to "Press '1' for English" when calling the electric company.

I'm not sure why pushing "1" is more aggravating than, say, having to sit on hold for 20 minutes listening to "The Girl from Ipanema" (who would be an immigrant too, incidentally). And if companies provide Spanish-language assistance to customers, I'm not sure that's worse than what the Leader did for many of our ancestors.

I am sure there will always be self-promoters willing to take advantage of such resentment. Take Santorum: His very first campaign commercial, the opening statement of his 2006 air campaign, is an anti-immigrant screed.

After asserting that his Italian ancestors immigrated "with dreams of a better life for their family," Santorum contends, "Unfortunately today, some enter our country with more sinister intentions." Noting his support for increased border patrols, Santorum insists, "To do anything less is not only dangerous, but an insult to those who came into America by following the rules."

Note how Santorum blurs the distinction between terrorists and the vast majority of immigrants, who have nothing more "sinister" in mind than better lives for their families. Note too how he touts his own immigrant past, before casting aspersions on the immigrants of today. That, at least, is a change in anti-immigrant sentiment from the Leader's day.

Back then, those who opposed immigration claimed they were the natives; today's anti-immigrant voices don't even try. Instead, they claim the right to denounce immigrants because their ancestors came from elsewhere. Why shouldn't today's newcomers experience intolerance? Pappy Santorum had to. And he came here legally.

Of course, there was an entire ocean between Pappy and the Land of Opportunity. If prosperity had been just a riverbank away, even he might have snuck across. The Potters of yore would have considered it, I'm sure. At least until the current generation of slackers, they were funny about wanting a better life.

But you haven't really lived the American Dream, it seems, until you've tried crushing the dreams of someone else. English-born immigrants did it to the Irish and Italians. The Irish and Italians did it to the blacks. And thanks to opportunists like Santorum, we know what's ahead. Mexicans and other Hispanics, it's your turn.

Or, as a brave newspaper in another reactionary age might have put it, es tu turno.

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