Immigrants Are Our History: So What Do We Do Now?

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Spending so much time conducting research in old books and newspapers, I’m often left shaking my head when today’s news headlines call to mind a favorite saying: “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.” We use the concept all the time for personal decisions.

Before making a purchase — car, washing machine, cable package, cell phone — have you ever referred to a magazine like Consumer Reports, read online reviews, or asked a friend how their own choice worked out? If so, you checked with history to avoid making a poor choice. It’s a simple concept: learn a product’s history and you’re not doomed to repeat it.

Why do we abandon that logic when it comes to other things? Take immigration, for instance. No matter where you stand, one important thing should be part of the deliberative process: knowing your (our) roots before forming your own opinion.

Consider the Adirondacks and North Country. Ours is a history of French lumberjacks, Irish potato farmers, Italian railroad workers, and the like. Their stories inspire regional musicians, authors, and storytellers, who honor their memory.

But the truth is, many of those immigrants were discouraged or prevented from coming to America during times like these, when the voices of millions said they weren’t wanted. When immigrants arrived to build railroads, cut timber, farm the land, and work in mines, they battled anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Slavic, anti-German, anti-Italian, and anti-Irish sentiments. We should all know the mantra by now: when things go wrong, politicians need a scapegoat. Historically, the easiest, most vulnerable targets were immigrant groups.

Anti-immigrant movements have surfaced repeatedly in our past, and there’s not a single instance where we look back fondly on them today. (You don’t hear much of, “Hey, remember the 1920s, when the KKK was here in the Adirondacks, trying to drive out Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and bootleggers? Thousands went to the meetings. Boy, those were the days!”)

And yet we keep doing it. The target changes, but the message is the same. Each generation uses the same excuses: “But this time is different!” And yet it never is. “But they might blow things up!” Also, not new. “But they’re taking our jobs!” Same old song and dance. History tells us that today, just like back then, immigrants didn’t take jobs from Americans: they took jobs that Americans wouldn’t do. Despite the time and expense, companies back then found it more productive to actively recruit workers from foreign lands and offer them jobs if they agreed to immigrate.

We should know these things before deciding how we feel about immigration. Make your own decision, and make it an informed decision.

Take my location, for instance. I’m in Clinton County, where someone deciding their stance on immigration should know our own history. Who is it that we’re against, and why? We should know about the Irish peasants who fled British tyranny (sound familiar?) and settled in this county by the hundreds. We should be aware that French farmers came here, stayed permanently, and with the Irish, formed the county’s economic base for more than a century. We should never forget that more than twenty nationalities were present in our former mining town of Lyon Mountain, which produced the highest-grade iron ore in the world for a century — ore that was critical to the production of America’s cars, airplanes, bridges, and implements of war.

In 100 years of mining there, more than 175 men were killed in accidents — immigrants whose American blood was spilled for the good of the country. Many dozens of those Lyon Mountain families consisted of more than ten children, spawning a wide web of descendants across the north. If you’re from Clinton County, there’s a good chance your ancestors, or ancestors of friends you love and admire today, belong to one of those immigrant groups. The same is true in other towns, cities, and counties of the region. Our histories are tied to immigration. So look at your roots, and consider them when forming an opinion on today’s immigration issues.

Some of our immigrant ancestors were itinerants, following work by the season—making maple syrup in the spring, picking blueberries in the summer, hops in early fall, and lumbering in the winter. Are we dishonoring that legacy of hard work by keeping “foreigners” out today?

When the issues are argued, we shouldn’t forget who we are, and who we were just a few generations ago. We have to figure out the answer to a very tough question: if we are the sons and daughters of immigrant parents, grandparents, or great-grand parents, is it hypocrisy for us to side against immigration?

And before you come up with an answer, remember the typical historical reply: “But this time is different!”

A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.

Photos: Immigration materials from the Library of Congress images collection.

2 thoughts on “Immigrants Are Our History: So What Do We Do Now?

  1. Jane E. WilcoxJane E. Wilcox

    We’re a nation of immigrants. Face it — the next time we see a person who’s a different color or religion from us or the next time we look in a mirror.

    Great blog post!

  2. Robert Wyckoff

    Found your blog post on a thread from the Wyckoff House and Association, where the discussion among us 10-12th generation cousins had begun to heat up about immigration. We, Wyckoffs and nearly everyone else in this country, except for descendants of the Native American peoples, ARE immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The more we know about where we came from, and why, the less we may be inclined to disparage today’s immigrants. 🙂


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