In the mid 1800s many German immigrants began to arrive in Texas as a result of the inducements offered to facilitate the settlement of a huge parcel of land that had been acquired for that purpose by a group of German noblemen. German immigration to Texas accelerated after the Civil War but in 1918 many German immigrants began to feel unwelcome. Germania Street in Dallas, Texas was renamed Liberty Street.
That same year, 1918, a German-born would-be miner came to a community in Illinois looking for work. "He had applied to become an American citizen, but because he had not received his naturalization papers, he dutifully registered with the government as an enemy alien." At a gathering in a nearby town he uttered some remarks that, although never accurately recorded, struck some of the locals as "disloyal utterances against the United States and President Wilson."
Later, in spite of his vehement written and oral protestations that he was loyal to the United States, alcoholic spirits mixed too liberally with patriotic spirits led to his lynching. In the ultimate act of irony, the man was buried wrapped in an American flag, as he requested. In spite of what amounted to a confession by the man who assumed leadership of the mob, all eleven defendants who were brought to trial were acquitted in only a matter of minutes.
Whatever the real reasons were for the German immigrant's death, it brought into sharp relief the peculiarities of the American character: a love of country and belief that this is a fair and tolerant nation, coupled with the ability to compartmentalize incidents that contradict those beliefs.
Crystallizing passions now surge around a new wave of legal and illegal immigrants and protestations of loyalty in the face of some evidence to the contrary. Social tensions have been created by economic changes combined with massive arrivals of poor immigrants, many of them illegal.
Strangely enough, many of the earlier immigrants had no plan to become Americans and came here for seasonal employment from as far away as Europe or Asia and then returned to their homelands when the job was done. An estimated 63% of Italians who came here from 1902 to 1923 returned to Italy after performing seasonal work. Likewise, 46.5% of Hungarians, 36.3% of the Croatians and Slovenians, 48% of the French and 46% of the Greeks went back.
The current concern about illegal aliens and excessive legal immigration is not a totally new phenomenon. The U.S. has always been ambivalent about newcomers. By the 1780s, when our nation was still in its infancy and relatively unsettled and unpopulated, Thomas Jefferson warned of the danger of indiscriminately promoting rapid immigration. A century later, Congress passed an Immigration Act establishing a head tax on immigrants and barring convicts, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges. In 1891, Congress created a bureaucracy to process the arrivals of new immigrants and authorized the deportation of illegal aliens.
Mirroring some of the concerns of today, a statement of certain labor unions in 1908 could be paraphrased as follows: "As long as California is white man's country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited invasion of immigrants and illegals there will be no more California."
German Americans, passionate to show their loyalty and patriotism, actually sent leaflets to their Fatherland intended to help convince their former compatriots to surrender and bring an end to WW I. No similar sentiment is noted today among those of the same ethnicity as the legal immigrants and illegal aliens. What does that silence say about their loyalty and patriotism?
President Wilson, although endeavoring to keep hostility to citizens of German descent from getting out of hand, stated,"The gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags [and even under our own flag] but welcomed by our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the arteries of our national life."
(This post is based in part on excerpts, anecdotes, quotes, and ideas from Michele Wucker, "Lockout", Perseus Books Group, Cambridge, MA, 2006)