Those Damn Immigrants . . . Again


William Loren Katz is the author of forty U.S. books, including the 8-volume school text, A History of Multicultural America. He has been affiliated with New York University since 1973. His website is WILLIAMLKATZ.COM

Immigrants have been a favorite American scapegoat for racists who wish to reach beyond their time-honored target—people of color.  Waves of anti-immigration sentiment flooded the country in the 1840s (largely against Irish Catholics), in the 1880s (largely against Chinese) and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (largely against eastern and southern European Catholics and Jews).  In the 1920s, anti-immigrant fever had Congress passing two discriminatory laws that close the gates to the undesirable.  Today, bigotry rides high again.

Bigots assume a patriotic stance by pointing to the night George Washington crossed the Delaware and allegedly said “Put none but Americans on guard tonight.”  But this fable makes little sense. Would the first commander-in-chief issue an order that would further divide his country, and especially his ragged, freezing army that included thousands who were not Protestant, who were not white, and who did not come from England?  In Washington’s boat that night was Oliver Cromwell, who fought bravely at Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown—one of eight thousand volunteers of African descent.

The British faced a multicultural “rabble,” Irish, “motley crew” that had no respect for law and order, and lacked proper uniforms and military training.  Who were they?  In Carlisle, Pennsylvania seven of the first nine companies to sign up for the patriot cause were almost entirely Irish and two were largely German.  In Charleston, South Carolina, twenty-six Jews living on King Street joined up to form “The Jews’ Company.” Many blacks also joined the British after Lord Dunmore offered them freedom and a musket.

During Valley Forge’s terrible winter, Washington’s soldiers survived because local German immigrant farmers provided food for the ragged troops, and German and Moravian women volunteered to serve as nurses.  His encampment had so many Irish soldiers they won the right to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – after Washington warned them to avoid “rioting and disorder.”  And Washington’s disheartened, freezing men were whipped into an army by Freidrich von Steuben, a German whose barking orders had to be translated from German to French to English.

Irish immigrants not only provided thousands of foot soldiers but also fifteen hundred officers, including twenty-six Generals. General John Sullivan, the son of Irish immigrants, stood with Washington at Valley Forge, and another of his trusted officers was Christian Febiger, a Danish immigrant. Still another was General Johann de Kalb, a giant of a man from Germany, who served under General Horatio Gates.

Major Cosmo Medici of Italy survived forty-one months of battles and eleven months as a prisoner of war.  Poland’s Thaddeus Kosciusko became a general, a personal friend of Washington and a war hero.  After the war he returned home to lead his own people against Russian tyranny.  Count Casmir Polaski saved the patriot forces at Brandywine, formed a “Polish Legion” staffed by officers from France, Germany and Poland, and became “the father of the American cavalry.”  His chief officer was Colonel Michael Kovats, a Hungarian, whose soldiers were largely came from Germany and Hungary.

African Americans helped Ethan Allen capture Fort Ticonderoga and served alongside whites and Native Americans in Francis Marion’s guerilla forces in the Carolinas.  “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance,” reported a captured Hessian soldier.  At Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, a black sharpshooter, brought down Major Pitcairn, the British commander, and another, Salem Poor, was cited for battlefield bravery by Captain William Prescott and thirteen of his officers.

A host of “foreigners” bore arms in defense of the new republic— soldiers and sailors from Spain, Cuba, France, Mexico and Puerto Rico.  Louisiana’s Spanish Governor Bernard de Galvez sent food, guns and medicine across his border to the patriots. During the siege of Savannah, seven hundred black soldiers from Haiti helped stem the British assault.

Even unwanted aliens helped.  Of the approximately thirty thousand Hessian mercenaries hired by the British, many changed their mind. A third deserted while still in Germany, and others surrendered the first chance they had.  When Hessian prisoners were taken on a tour of Pennsylvania’s fertile fields, many volunteered to stay as farmers.  One was Private Kuster, an ancestor of U.S. General George A. Custer.

Immigrants from many lands—Europeans, Africans, Hispanics and Native Americans—fought and died so the United States of America might live.  The British learned this to their sorrow.  When he surrendered at Yorktown, a shaken Lord Cornwallis ordered his band to play “The World Turned Upside Down.”

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Joseph Mutik - 6/15/2010

The reality is that there is a lot of hypocrisy in the USA and the majority of Americans don't want to end illegal immigration when almost everyone makes money out of it. Americans don't want to pay more for food, houses, landscaping, home cleaning etc. Even today the federal law asks employers to check if the social security number of an employee it legal but there is no punishment if they don't. Arizona didn't have to make police noise around the illegal immigration but to send employers who hire illegals (when the social security # doesn't fit the name on the card) to 1 or 2 years in prison. If they can't be hired the illegals will go to other states and as soon as the federal law will include the punishment of employers, the illegals will have to go back. The reality is that big and small businesses are interested in keeping the situation as is because they all make big profits from illegal workers that don't belong to trade unions and don't have benefits.
All the noise around the Arizona law is a cynical way to fool the voting citizens of the USA and make them believe that someone wants to solve the illegal immigration problem.
The history of immigration as described in the article is true but irrelevant to the present situation.
Immigration (legal or illegal) was always a very great value for the US economy and many other aspects of American life.
I came to this country legally on a H1 visa which after about 3 years was changed to a green card and later I became a US citizen. When I got my green card I found in a very short time a job that about doubled my salary. The conclusion is that even legal immigration brings profits to some employers.
No politician wants to antagonize the business world by really solving the illegal immigration problem and lose the electoral contributions from the business world.
If the US government would really want to solve the problem the solution is quite simple using the present communication technologies. But of course the question is if Americans are ready to pay higher prices for different products and also if the US economy is ready to find a legal way to replace the illegal workers.

Grant W Jones - 6/14/2010

This article is the typical ad hominem and strawman attack from someone who refuses to address the serious issues stemming from America's immigration mess.

Bill Heuisler - 6/14/2010

Mr. Katz,
Beginning your essay by castigating those who oppose illegal immigration as bigots is not only silly, but pointlss.

Let's assume you're writing about illegal aliens in the Southwest. Let's further assume you're accusing all who oppose illegal immigration from Mexico of being bigots.

First, the Arizona Law uses the same language as the Federal Law, but does not allow search and seizure without probable cause (as does the Federal law). Second, at least one third of the law enforcement officers who will be enforcing the AZ Law are first, second or third generation Mexican Americans. Third, fully one half of Mexican American Tucsonans support the new law and resent those who will not go through the legal process of U.S. citizenship like they did.

Last, southern Arizona has been invaded by criminals, armed thugs who herd innocents through the desert, smuggle huge amounts of drugs and who shoot any person who gets in their way.

Your implication of racial bigotry is as ignorant as it is insulting to those of us who live in Arizona.
Before calling names, Mr Katz, why not state exactly what you would do in the face of such lawlessness.
Bill Heuisler

David Austin Walsh - 6/14/2010

Conor Friedersdorf, in an Atlantic piece aptly titled "Provocation of the Day," wrote that we owe a "karmic debt" to modern immigrants because of the opportunity the United States gave to our immigrant ancestors: http://www.theatlantic.com/special-report/ideas/archive/2010/06/provocation-of-the-day-our-karmic-debt-to-immigrants/57995/

Michael Schack - 6/14/2010

recommend one take a look at the famous painting by the artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851.Looking closely you might see a canvas of America. In the boat is what seems to be a woman in a scarlet winter blanket wrapped around her. Her dark hair being blown by the wind., Next to the tiller is a man wearing a Scottish tam o shanty. One of the rowers looks African American.