How quickly we forget

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Article Immigration
We owe it to today's immigrants to be honest about the difficulties and prejudices against the huddled masses who came before them.

On my father's side, my great-great grandparents came to this country from Germany sometime in the middle of the 19th century. What their Catholic immigrant lives were like, I could not say. Their stories lie too far back in the generations, lost in the mist of history.

Instead in my family we make do with substitutions. My grandfather once told me about how his next-door neighbors, a German couple, ceased speaking German completely, even at home, when World War II broke out. My grandmother-who grew up Methodist-remembered as a teenager discovering a cross burning in the middle of the street. She recognized the house it marked as that of a Catholic family she knew (probably immigrants, the main target of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and '30s).

These anecdotes, all a safe distance from my own family, are all we know of immigrant struggles. The rest of the story is long forgotten.

I call it immigrant amnesia.

In the recent national debates about immigration, surprising levels of resentment have surfaced against immigrants, particularly against the undocumented. People talk of "invasion," of being "overrun." A Colorado congressman calls the undocumented a "scourge that threatens the very future of our nation." An acquaintance in Seattle makes no distinctions about people's legal status, only telling me that many Californians have moved north to "escape the Mexican problem."

Scattered sentiments I hear from white Catholics in parishes across the country express similar ambivalence about immigrants and immigration, though almost never to such extremes. In Northern California and New York City, only a small number of people ask, "Why do we need Masses in Spanish? They need to learn to speak English."

In the Midwest I am told uncertainly, "Well, Father says they have a right to be here, but there's all these car accidents and they don't have insurance." Once in a while Catholics of Euro-American heritage accompany these comments with statements about their own immigrant ancestors. "When my great-grandparents came to this country, they learned English."

That's when I begin to wonder about immigrant amnesia.

Most Euro-American Catholics in the United States today are descended from immigrants who came to the United States in two great waves: the first mostly Irish and German (1820-1870), the second Southern and Eastern European (1880-1920). In the first decades of the 20th century, however, anti-immigrant sentiment-particularly focused on curbing the expansion of Southern and Eastern European Catholic and Jewish populations and on deporting Asians-was encoded into law. Immigration ground nearly to a halt, further dampened by the economic climate of the Great Depression. It did not pick up again until the 1960s when the civil rights movement put an end to the discriminatory laws.

A slowdown in European immigration, however, is what allowed Euro-American Catholics to get fuzzy and perhaps a bit romantic in our memories of our own immigrant ancestors. For most of us it all happened a long time ago. To know what their lives were like now, we turn to history. Did our ancestors really learn English right away? What do we really know about their lives?

Déjà vu all over again

If suddenly you found yourself chatting with a German immigrant from the late 19th century, you would find people like my great-grandparents under increasing pressure to learn and speak English. In many German areas Catholic schools were German schools, bilingual at best.

A German Jesuit in Boston, Ernst Reiter, had advised German immigrants to speak only German to their children, lest bilingual children humiliate their parents with their superior English. Many Catholics over the decades-Germans, Poles, Italians-feared that letting go of their native language in a Protestant country would mean losing their culture and their religion.

One immigrant writer even called English a "Protestant language." Even the Irish, generally anxious to assimilate, had classes and societies for the Irish language. And in the midst of the controversy, the church often served as a mediator, helping immigrants to hang on to their language and culture while also learning English and American ways.

A look into history also tells us that our European immigrant ancestors did not always pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. While nothing like our contemporary government safety net existed in their time, a patchwork of immigrant aid societies, national parishes, St. Vincent de Paul chapters, private and government social agencies, asylums, settlement houses, and poorhouses offered a great deal of aid to the many who arrived with nothing. Over time many immigrant groups made a mark in local politics, securing local government jobs and benefits for their people.

Many descendants of European immigrants today also live with the impression that our ancestors came to the United States with the intention of staying and becoming Americans. In fact, then as now, people came for all kinds of reasons. Some came for political and religious refuge, such as Catholics escaping the persecution of the Kulturkampf in Germany and Poland, others for economic opportunity, as with the desperate Irish of the late 1840s potato famine.

Some stayed and some did not. A famous battalion of Irish soldiers in the U.S. Army deserted during the Mexican War, feeling they had more in common with their fellow Catholics in Mexico. Often people stayed because they had no choice. Theirs was not a world of democratic nation-states, dual citizenship, international telephone cards, and air travel. And we should not forget that almost half of the Italian immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1920 returned to Italy.

Then there was discrimination, both in society and even within the church. In the 1850s political activists who called themselves "nativists" (or "Know-Nothings" for their secrecy) feared competition for jobs and worked to prevent Catholics and (especially Irish) immigrants from taking political office. In the decades that followed, the Irish were dogged by stereotypes that they were lazy, politically dishonest, ignorant people controlled by their priests.

The next wave of immigrants had it even worse. In 1916 Madison Grant, an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York, argued that Southern European peoples were genetically inferior to Northern Europeans and should be barred from entering the United States. This extremely popular argument contributed to the restrictive laws that followed.

Anecdotes of prejudice abound from that time. A priest working with Italian immigrants in Vermont was driven out of town. Fellow Catholics denounced Italian devotions as superstition, and when Father Nicola Odone came to St. Paul, Minnesota at the archbishop's invitation, he was told to set up shop in a dank corner of the cathedral basement.

For those of us of European descent, all these things remain part of our story. In fact, there is much more that could be said. Many memories have been lost over the generations, some assiduously wiped out by families who wanted to forget. Who can blame them?

Rewriting history

Yet now we find ourselves at a different place, where the sufferings and complicated lives of immigrants past could push us to empathy for the sufferings and complicated lives of immigrants in the present. If only we could remember. The Israelites were told in Exoduc, "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 22:21). 

History cannot give us precise answers for present controversies-the appropriate level and manner of funding for the border patrol, the immense difference in standard of living between the United States and Mexico, and what to do about the 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But it can make us more compassionate. When we hear of immigrants being called "lazy" or their devotions "superstitious," when they have to celebrate Mass at 3 p.m. in the church basement-even though theirs is the largest Mass-maybe an awareness of the past would not only help us see the discrimination in all this but also to think to ourselves, "Isn't this exactly what happened to our own ancestors?"

The post-1965 wave of immigration is changing the Catholic Church in the United States, just as previous waves did. Change is always hard. But hopefully a little less immigrant amnesia and a little more realistic idea of the past help us understand how we are all connected. As Catholics, we ultimately believe we form one human family, even if from many diverse and different backgrounds. As the great French theologian Yves Congar taught us, coming to know and appreciate both our commonalities and our differences does not destroy but rather builds up our unity as God's people.

The Founding Fathers of the United States knew this as well. They chose a motto to remind us: E. pluribus unum. Out of many one.

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 72, No. 4, page 33-35).