Watch Out! American History Shows Repression & Violence Is Never Limited To ‘Just the Immigrants’


Family members of political prisoners protest outside the White House in 1922. (Shutterstock)

The targeting of immigrants is intimately linked to a long and ignoble record of labor civil rights repression in the United States. 

By Harry Blain
Foreign Policy in Focus (11/30/18)

The Republican pre-election strategy of exploiting “the caravan” was irredeemably ugly.

It’s hard to say what was worse: the shameless and farcical framing of a helpless stream of people as a national security threat, or the president’s off-hand suggestion that these people might actually be funded by the prime villain of most anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: George Soros.

Few commentators have failed to point out the obvious effects of this gutter-politics playbook: the debasement of public discourse on immigration policy; the wink-and-nudge of encouragement offered to the most sinister fringes of the American far-right; or the aggravation of racial animosity against people of color in the United States.

Yet this country’s history also points to other, often overlooked tendencies. Politically, institutionally, and legally, the targeting of immigrants has almost always figured prominently in wider attacks on labor movements and civil liberties. To a large and alarming extent, it’s the same story today.

“Aliens and Dissenters”

The story of American “nativism” is replete with contradictions and ironies.

The Protestants fled from the Catholics — and then oppressed them. The Irish and the Italians fled various forms of privation in Europe — and then fought to keep each other down in New York. West Coast politicians hated the Chinese and respected the Japanese in the late 19th century — and then reversed the equation in the 1930s and ‘40s. Mexicans were defined as “white” by the Census Bureau until 1930 — and now they’re a much-favored punching bag for white supremacists.

Almost everyone, at some point, has fought to keep someone else out. And Donald Trump is far from the first to realize that this impulse can cut across class lines: uniting the honest Midwestern auto worker with the duplicitous New York real estate developer — or, in another time, the president of the American Federation of Labor with the cynical Washington legislator.

These ostensibly strange coalitions have always had rational foundations: less competition, from the perspective of “native” labor; and political rewards, from the perspective of past and present Trumps.

But this is only part of the story. Indeed, some of the strongest moments in the history of the North American labor movement have been defined by cross-ethnic unity.

Notably, the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century followed an unprecedented wave of immigration throughout the previous four decades. This created a massive “sleeping giant” of unskilled urban and rural workers across the country, which the “Wobblies” — at least initially — were able to organize into a potent political force. From the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to the copper mines of Bisbee, Arizona, the IWW put extreme pressure on the pillars of corporate power that had seemed so immovable since the Civil War.

The ability of the IWW to harness the collective strength of immigrant labor was not lost on its enemies in government. Particularly under the cover of World War I and the “Red Scare” of 1919-20, the Woodrow Wilson administration oversaw the summary deportation of around 250 “foreign radicals” and the detention of thousands more, while Congress soon passed legislation permitting the deportation of “aliens” who merely “sympathized” with revolutionary ideologies. …

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