As even those who’ve never seen a baseball game in their lives will be aware, Yogi Berra died last week. He was as famous for his mangled pearls of wisdom (“It ain’t over till it’s over”) as for his superlative play. Then there was that funny name, derived from his contemplative pose while waiting his turn to bat, which would be pinched by a certain cartoon bear.
But one other thing must be mentioned at this moment when immigration, or rather how to keep immigrants out, is the burning political issue here. Berra was born to Italian immigrant parents. He grew up during the Great Depression in a hardscape St Louis neighbourhood scornfully referred to as Dago Hill. Yet America ended up loving him as no other.
The day he died, it so happened, another and even more famous son of immigrants to the New World set foot on US soil. In the very first public sentence of his visit, at the welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Pope Francis reminded President Obama and the 15,000 others present of that fact. The next day, addressing Congress, he urged America to stay true to its traditions of tolerance and equal treatment for all, citizens and new immigrants alike.
And that remains the image which elicits a warm glow in American hearts – of their country as a melting pot of humanity that has instinctively given shelter to the huddled masses from all over the world, searching for a better life. But Francis was also suffering from a case of diplomatic papal amnesia. These fraught times are but the latest of several when immigration has seen America not so much a melting pot as a boiling one.
It is a cliché, but no less true, that the US has gained mightily as a nation of immigrants. Each new wave, from different corners of the earth – from the Mayflower pilgrims to the Irish, Germans, Italians and other Europeans, from the Mexicans to the Vietnamese and Koreans and other Asians of today – has provided a fresh jolt of energy and diversity, a willingness to work hard and do the dirtiest jobs, pursuing the American Dream.
And, in the process, immigrant children became Americans. Berra the boy, for instance, might have been insulted as a “little dago”. But he fought for the US, took part in the D-Day landings and later even served as a goodwill ambassador to Italy, all the while rewriting the record book of the most American sport of all.
But it’s never been smooth sailing. From the earliest days, anti-immigrant sentiment has simmered here. Back in 1798, Congress was passing the Alien and Sedition Acts (part of which remains in force even now) aimed at keeping out undesirables. The middle of the 19th century heralded the advent of the Know-Nothing – later the American – Party in protest at another wave of immigrants bringing a different culture to the then overwhelmingly Protestant US – this time Catholics from Ireland and Germany. The latter has provided the largest single ethnic group by ancestry in the US, though you might not guess so. Two world wars have bred an understandable reluctance to trumpet German-ness here.
The next great influx was from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which produced its own xenophobic backlash in the shape of the 1924 Immigration Act, which sharply cut back inflows. That xenophobia, too, was backdrop for the execution in 1927 of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian-born anarchists convicted of murder charges of which they almost certainly were innocent. There were measures against the Chinese, not to mention a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” with Tokyo. (We won’t kick out the Japanese immigrants already in the US, as long as you don’t send us any more.)
In 1965, these restrictions were eased, and legal immigration again took off. Today, 41 million American citizens and green card holders, 13 per cent of the population, were born abroad. The issue now, however, is not legal, but illegal immigration, above all from Mexico and Central America, which may total 11 million.
The agitation has been going on for decades. I well remember covering the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, close to the Mexican border, as speaker after speaker railed against immigration, conveniently overlooking the fact that without hundreds of immigrant cleaners, catering workers and the like – some of them doubtless illegal – their gathering could not have taken place at all.
As usual, some of the opposition comes from crazies who believe Mexico has a plan to “reconquer” the American south-west, or that the US, Canada and Mexico are about to merge into a North American federation. But the bulk of it belongs to mainstream, primarily Republican, politics, reflecting the fear of a section of the white population that it is being swamped.
Wasp-run America has long since disappeared; now a party that relies on whites for the bulk of its votes is terrified that even the W is set to vanish. Already whites are a minority among babies, and barely hold their own among the under-fives. Census forecasts are that by 2043, America will be a majority-minority country.
And so to the Tea Party movement, and to Donald Trump with his claims that rapists and murderers are flooding across America’s southern border; and to the demands for a fortified 2,000-mile fence along the Mexican border, and the outcry against “anchor babies” born to illegal immigrants that give their families a legal foothold here.
Some Republican 2016 candidates even call for reversal of the constitutional amendment that guarantees “birthright citizenship”. They are the modern incarnation of those 19th-century know-nothings: white, male, Protestant and, if they go on this way, likely losers at the ballot box next year. But should they win, the country itself will be the loser. Somewhere, among the children of those turned away, there’ll be another Yogi Berra.
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