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The Long View On American Attitudes Toward Immigration


We'll speak to author and journalist Peter Schrag about the brief but amazing history of America's ambivalence toward immigrants.

In theory, America prides itself on being a nation of immigrants. But when it comes to those immigrants in reality America seems to have conflicted feelings. In our day, those conflicts manifest themselves in legislation like Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 and protests against the building of Mosques. But, the tension between established Americans and new arrivals have marked U.S. History, from its beginnings.

A new book, "Not Fit For Our Society, Immigration and Nativism in America," gives us a long view on American attitudes about immigration.


Peter Schrag and journalist and author of "Not Fit For Our Society, Immigration and Nativism in America."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Barack Obama is giving a major speech about immigration today. He's calling for a national conversation on immigration reform. Taking the long view of American attitudes towards immigrant, each though we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, when it comes to the reality of immigrants in America, we seem to have conflicted feelings. These conflicts manifest themselves in legislation like Arizona's senate bill 1070, and protests against the building of mosques. But it's interesting it find out that the tension between established Americans and new arrivals has marked U.S. history from its beginnings. A new book gives us that view on American attitudes toward immigration and nativism in America. It's a pleasure to welcome author and journalist Peter Schrag. Good morning Peter.

SCHRAG: Good morning, and nice to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what does it mean, the title of your book, not fit from your society? Where does that come from?

SCHRAG: It comes from -- actually the statement was made as part of a judgment against Anne Hutchison, who was excelled from Massachusetts bay colony back in the year 1637. And it was made by governor John Winthrop as part of the judgment expelling her. And she was expelled for being basically not sufficiently respectful of the ministerial establishment in Massachusetts at the time.

CAVANAUGH: So it's remarkable. It goes back to the very, very beginnings of the United States of America, when we imagine that everyone considered themselves an immigrant.

SCHRAG: Oh, that's correct. And of course that was -- the idea of being an immigrant in the year 1637 I don't think was ever thought about. But yes, of course. And of course Massachusetts bay wanted to be -- was very doctrinaire in term was religious belief and religious practice. And so the question about who was fit to be here was right from the start.

CAVANAUGH: Now, where do our society's ideas come from about who should be allowed to come to the United State and be regarded as know American, and who needs to be feared and basically discouraged from entering the country?

SCHRAG: Well, it varies very much according to what time we're talking about, the groups we're looking at, and often of course it was the -- the people who were here and had been established or were assimilated who then regarded newcomers as being unfit to come. And at different times there was the yankees, it was wasps, it was feeling that way about the Irish, the Germans, and then later the Italians issue the Slavs, the Jews, the Greeks, you name it. And each group, and of course again, this is mixed, and as you said earlier on, we've been -- we have had very mixed feelings about immigrants of we want them. We want them to take jobs, to fill -- to do work. At the same time we're not sure at other times or sometimes at the same time whether they belong here.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with author and journalist Peter Schrag, his book is called not fit for society. And it's about America's conflicting attitudes towards immigrants from the very beginning of America to today. One of the things document in the booking Peter, is this scientific basis that erupted sort of at the end of the nineteenth century into the early 20th century, about why some people were not fit to be Americans.

SCHRAG: Oh, absolutely. And that -- the eugenics, which was of course the sort of phony science of the time, established or tried to establish various genetic characteristics that would make people more fit or unfit. And of course they happened to coincide perfectly with the prejudices of the time. And the fact that eugenics became a big factor coincided with the very large waves of immigration at the end of the nineteenth seven. And of course surprisingly, we found that the people we didn't think were fit for us again, these were then the southern and eastern Europeans, again the Jews, the Greeks, the Slavs, the Italians were regarded as genetically in some ways unfit.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that happens today, when you talk to people about immigration, Peter, is that many people will say I support people who come here legally. This is a nation of immigrants. And I'm all for that. However I have a big problem with illegal immigration. Does that -- does that dichotomy make a great deal of sense to you? Is that a rational argument against immigrants?

SCHRAG: Well, obviously you can't have totally unlimited immigration. So you have to have rules. But our definition of who's an illegal, who is illegal again has changed over the years. In the early years of this, before the 1920s, essentially, there were no illegal immigrants except for the Chinese, who were barred by law categorically beginning in 1882. But the big immigration quota laws really were not passed until the 1920s. Before that, the only people who were categorically excluded, and there were long lists, were people who were in some way diseased or they were an cus, or they were regarded as -- they had criminal histories or whatever. But the idea of categorically legal immigrants as we now, the quotas that we established in the 1920s, that was something that didn't exist before that. In fact, in the years after the civil war, the states sent people over seas to recruit immigrants. Sos I say, we've had very different definitions of that. And of course we can't admit every comer. But the definitions of who's fit and who's not fit have changed according to the times, the need, the economy. So it becomes kind of a tricky proposition. Yes, it's certainly true that we want to be strict about enforcement, but whether we can force immigration controls at the border with more fences, more walls, more ballards, more electronics, more border patrol agents is a question. We maybe able to do it at the work site. But I think the best way to do it would be to have much stronger labor law enforcement about wages and hours, fair pay and all of that. I think that would do much more to reduce the temptation of employees to exploit illegal immigrants and to hire them in the first place.

CAVANAUGH: As I said before, president Obama is going to be giving a speech today about immigration reform, trying to start what he calls a national conversation on immigration reform for America's 21st century economy. Peter, what is -- how is president Obama being viewed on immigration up till this point?

SCHRAG: Well, I think anybody in his position is gonna be viewed with some skepticism by both sides. Both by the anti-immigration groups who think he's not doing enough to toughen the border. And by people sympathetic to immigrants who are saying quite vocally that in fact in some ways, this administration has been more rigid, more tougher in immigration law enforcement than the bush administration was before it. For example the administration said that they were gonna focus on the deportation of criminals, of people who are felons and so on. But in fact the sweeps and the deportations have been both numerically larger and have been -- have included many people who don't fit those criminal categories. There's been demands on Obama to look the other way in the deportation of students who are brought here as young children who might be eligible for the dream act if it ever passed. And he may say something about that today. It's hard to -- I'm nervous about speculating about what he may be saying at this very moment. But the criticism from the left, if you'll pardon the categorization, is that he's been actually more vigorous and tougher in enforcement than his predecessor.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think, Peter, that the lack of what some are calling a coherent immigration reform system, an immigration system of letting people into our country, some sort of national policy that everybody understands and thinks is pretty fair. The lack of that is actually fuelling the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that we have seen in recent years.

SCHRAG: Oh, absolutely. Clearly there's been -- and in some ways, national policy or lack thereof reflects the ambivalence of the country itself. We have -- and even the poles today reflect as you said this divided sensibility about what we want and when we want them, and who we don't want. So you have poles showing for example and a majority of Americans supported the Arizona SB1070 law, at the same time they say if you're here and you're an illegal immigrant and you work hard and you don't commit crimes and so on, you should have a right to eventually become a permanent resident.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Would you call your book, not fit for our society, a hopeful book.

SCHRAG: Yes, I think it's hopeful, absolutely, in the sense that we have gone through all these episodes in the past, again and again and again. And the people who -- and somehow we've come through them. Again, the people who are demonized at one time have become the exemplars of American citizenship and American success at other times. And you can think of any group you want. And Peter who are not supposed to come in the first place or who are annathemized in one way or another, have become model citizens later.

CAVANAUGH: Our prejudices keep getting proven wrong. You could we'd give them up.

SCHRAG: Well, absolutely. But as I say, the ambivalence is astounding and troublesome. But I think that -- but even if you look at, for example, the last few years, you look at what happened in California in the early 90s, when we passed proposition 187, which was supposed to deny all public services, including schooling to illegal immigrants 67 I don't think that could happen again in California now. It's happening many places in other places around the country as they begin to see these newer faces coming and appearing on the streets and in the shopping malls, and what not. So what we went through, other states are going through right now. I'm not sure we'd go through it again.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking to us about your booking Peter.

SCHRAG: Their.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with author Peter Schrag about his book, not fit for our society. Information and nativism in America. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days.

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