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ERIC BERGESON COLUMN: Intolerance still exists

One ugly trend that runs through American history is the hatred many native-born citizens show toward recent immigrants who come here to better their lives and chase the American Dream.

One ugly trend that runs through American history is the hatred many native-born citizens show toward recent immigrants who come here to better their lives and chase the American Dream.

In the 1850s, it was the Irish. They were going to ruin our country. Signs showed up outside businesses in Boston: "No Irish need apply." If we let too many Irish in, went the argument, and we'll be answering to the Pope.

The Chinese on the West Coast who performed so much of the manual labor in early California were next. They were treated horribly. When they started succeeding and multiplying, novelist Jack London was amongst those who thought they should be exterminated.

Recent German immigrants suffered during World War I. Many were locked up on false charges. Neighbors figured, a farmer in Montana was plotting to blow up the dam in town. The man was put away for the duration of the war.

After World War I, Eastern European immigrants were portrayed as anarchists looking to blow up anything they could get their hands on. Many were imprisoned on false charges and unsubstantiated suspicions.


Japanese immigrants were rounded up by the hundreds of thousands during World War II, no matter if they were citizens or not. They were stripped of their homes, businesses and belongings and put in stark internment camps in remote locations.

Other immigarantsIt doesn't get much publicity, but many thousand German immigrants were rounded up and put in camps as well during World War II. One farmer in Jamestown, N.D., was put away in a camp for two years because he spoke mostly German and "showed inordinate interest in troop movements in the Jamestown area."

Today, of course, the main target of the suspicious and the paranoid are those evil illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico.

Lou Dobbs of CNN blasts away every night, alleging that there is a conspiracy afloat uniting "the well-funded illegal alien lobby" with large corporations who want to hire cheap Mexican labor. The aliens are "infesting" border towns and stealing social services.

The indignance at the illegals spreads over the internet. Hardly a day goes by that an e-mail doesn't arrive in my inbox charging that the illegal aliens get free college, free food, free job training, free everything. Most of the allegations are false, and all of them are mean-spirited.

It is one thing to insist that the law be enforced, that people who get jobs here have the proper documentation and fall under employment law. It is another to fill one's mind with paranoid theories that illegal aliens are plotting to freeload off our tax dollars and ruin our country.

Illegal immigrants are the poorest of the poor. They are just plain desperate. Their families are hungry. They live in squalor. They have nothing to lose gambling on a dangerous dash across the Rio Grande.

Yes, some illegal immigrants are criminals. But most who come here work hard so they can send some money home.


Tough questionsThere is no easy answer to the matter of immigration. Do we open the doors and flood the country with cheap labor, thus lowering our own standard of living? Do we shut our doors and become insular, selfish and stagnant?

Either way, there is never any reason to show anger or hatred towards impoverished immigrants. It is simply ignorant to think that our country doesn't benefit from the energy most recent immigrants bring.

One recent mass e-mail showed John Wayne in front of an American flag saying, "Don't tell me I have to press one for English!" The implication: immigrants who speak other languages are un-American and are polluting our culture.

Perhaps these sentiments resonate most with people who found learning one language struggle enough, or those who have conveniently forgotten their own immigrant heritage.

Nativism is nothing new. We've been acting this way for 200 years. But we got used to the Irish, we came to accept Germans and we even learned to endure Norwegians.

We don't have to throw open the doors, but we can easily afford to show understanding towards the desperate poor who simply want a better life.

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