Globalist Perspective

Republicans, Immigration and the Lessons of History

Is anti-immigrant resentment meant to deflect attention from economic stagnation?

"Looking Forward," drawn by Joseph Keppler, appeared in Puck on January 11, 1893.

Takeaways


  • Ostracizing a key part of the nation's workforce may prove to be devastating to the economy, culture and character of the United States.
  • For well over a century, immigrants have helped strengthen the U.S. economy, as well as the pocketbooks of all Americans.
  • It was uneducated and unskilled immigrants who helped build a bustling and continent-spanning economy.
  • Republicans cannot escape the realization that the lack of economic gains among middle-class Americans has given rise to a palpable sense of stagnation.
  • During previous waves of immigration, there was a profound growth in the personal wealth of the richest Americans — just as there is today. History apparently does repeat itself.

It is no secret that the economic success of the United States can be credited to the work of immigrants. One has to wonder, therefore, what has caused the recent substantial increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, especially among the 2008 Republican presidential candidates.

One leading contender in particular, Mitt Romney, has been looking to make political hay with the issue. That is all the more surprising because one would assume he knows better, given his past role as a successful CEO.

But one has to wonder whether the underlying motive driving the political calculus of today’s Republican candidates, with the exception of John McCain, is an attempt to stir up feelings of resentment in native-born voters.

It seems rather like a bid to deflect attention from the fact that the gains of the U.S. economy have largely bypassed the middle class.

For well over a century, immigrants have helped strengthen the U.S. economy, as well as the pocketbooks of all Americans.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, the United States experienced an influx of uneducated, unskilled immigrants — culminating in huge waves from Southern and Eastern Europe by the beginning of the next century. These immigrants, who often worked in horrid conditions, helped build a bustling and continent-spanning economy.

At the time, the big fear raised about these immigrants was that they would bring socialist tendencies to the United States. In reality, they did not manage to undermine the position of those in power.

The same is also true of today’s immigrants. They are not a realistic threat to the established political order of the United States.

What did occur during previous waves of immigration, however, was a profound growth in the personal wealth of the richest Americans — just as there is today. History apparently does repeat itself.

The size of the largest fortune in the United States back in 1790 was Elias Darby’s $1 million. By 1868, Cornelius Vanderbilt held the largest fortune — $40 million — though that quickly grew to $105 million by 1875.

In the 1880s, William H. Vanderbilt had the largest annual income, around $10 million. By 1900, Andrew Carnegie took in $23 million annually, and in 1907 John D. Rockefeller’s annual income was close to $100 million.

Rockefeller was the first man to break the billion-dollar mark — reaching that particular stratosphere of wealth in 1912.

One can see from these increases in personal wealth that as the number of immigrants entering the United States grew, so too did the wealth of the so-called Robber Barons.

Many of the Robber Barons were themselves either immigrants — like Andrew Carnegie — or were only a few generations removed, as in the case of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

Those men were in many ways the founders of the modern-day Republican Party — which became the party of business through early ties to finance, railroads and industry.

Modern-day Republicans are still pro-business and still predominantly represent the wealthy. But today’s presidential candidates indulge in a political calculus that is, unfortunately, adamantly anti-immigrant.

Apparently, rather than see middle- and working-class voters vent their frustrations over economic stagnation against the established political order — or especially against those at the top of the income scale — key players in the Republican Party have chosen to present an alternative target.

The group that is most defenseless, and which therefore makes the easiest target, is the immigrants. It is a transparent political ploy that helps to shift attention, as well as blame, from the lack of economic gains.

The strategy is to claim that immigrants steal jobs from Americans who find themselves struggling in today’s economy. That way, any feeling voters might have of treading water and of rising economic insecurity is directed squarely at the immigrants.

One cartoon from the 19th century captures the situation brilliantly.

Drawn by Joseph Keppler in 1893, the cartoon depicts a ragged immigrant fresh off the boat confronted by a group of five rather rotund and prosperous men waiting on the pier. One of the men holds up his hands at the end of the gangplank, as if to block the newcomer from stepping on shore.

What’s remarkable, however, is that the men on shore all cast shadows on the wall behind them — shadows that resemble their own immigrant ancestors.

The cartoon satirizes those who have succeeded in America, but would deny newcomers the same opportunities.

The immigrants of today are not so different from those that came to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most lack English and are not trained to work in highly skilled jobs.

Given the lessons of history, the practice of ostracizing a key part of the nation’s workforce may prove to be devastating to the economy, culture and character of the United States.

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About Nathan Richter

Nathan Richter is pursuing a master’s degree in management at Peking University’s HSBC Graduate Business School, in Shenzhen, China.

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