Shithole countries II: migration policies throughout American history

The United States of America is a country whose foundations were built upon migration. The first settlers didn´t arrive to a terra nullius, but to a populated country where they were the foreigners. Supported by their manifest destiny theory, they appropriated the land and everything it offered until the 13 colonies declared their independence in 1876 and a new country was born. One of the first waves of immigration was constituted by slaves, brought by the colonies to work in plantations. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Europeans arrived looking for profitable ventures, but workers except indentured labourers, including convicted criminals, were hard to find due to the harsh conditions, so the colonies resorted on slavery. Massachussets was the first colony to authorise slavery through an enacted law. The most common countries of origin of the slaves were Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Angola, Congo, Gabon, Ghana (called the Gold Coast or the Slave Coast), the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon.

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From 1849 to 1882 the country received a large flow of Chinese attracted by the gold rush after which they stayed in the country working on the railway construction and farms for lower wages than the locals. Voices were raised against Oriental immigration and there were riots, like the LA riot in 1871, which resulted in 15 Chinese citizens being lynched. As a result of the riots a clause was inserted and accepted in the new Constitution in California (1879) which forbade employment of any Chinese labourers. Later on, in 1882, the Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, that excluded Chinese labourers for 10 years and finished Chinese immigration for almost a century. In the same year certain restrictive policies were adopted banning paupers, convicts and the insane.

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The country received wave after wave of immigrants. As a result the population tripled due to the arrival of immigrants between 1860 and 1920, when most of them came from western Europe and were mainly protestant; they arrived from Germany, Ireland and England. Immigrants from these countries started decreasing in number after 1890 and Scandinavians decreased after 1910. In 1920, 38% of the foreign born population was made up of Poles, Serbs, Italians, Hungarians, Austrians and Russians who were Catholics, Greek Orthodox or Jewish and hostility to immigrants surfaced in the Sacco & Vanzetti case. There was another wave of migration of Southern and Eastern Europeans in 1923 and the number of nordic Europeans and those of Anglo-Saxon stock decreased. Madison Grant expressed his fear that they would be overwhelmed by lesser breeds who were considered as intellectually inferior to whites from northern Europe. Racists, xenophobes, anti-Catholic and anti-semites supported this quotas system to preserve the WASP proportion of the population. As a result, the Congress adopted the National Origins Quota Act, establishing a greater quota of western and northern Europeans, of whom there was a limit of 150,000 per year, mostly from Ireland, Great Britain, Scandinavia and Germany, barring Asians entirely. This quota survived until de 1960s. Simultaneously, a large number of Mexicans, exempt of the quota regulation went northward across the Río Grande.

300px-Sacvan Sacco and Vanzetti

All this comes to mind when one is faced with Trump’s project to build a wall between Mexico and the USA in order to prevent South Americans from crossing the borders seeking for a better future. Not to mention the slavery issue; Africans were forced out of their homeland for centuries to be exploited in the States and now African immigrants are blatantly shunned by the president. As Ebba Kalondo, spokesperson of the African Union responded to Trump’s unfortunate comment on January 9th: ‘given the gistorical reality of how many Africans arrived in the US as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice’.

Sources:

A Concise History of the American Republic – Morison, Commanger, Leuchtenburg

Associated Press

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Shithole countries

Most of us can still remember clearly Trump’s shithole remark, although his entire tenure has been so dominated by offensive statements that it may be hard to single it out. The shithole remark was uttered in the context of a meeting held on January 9th concerning a bipartisan proposal on the visa lottery, which granted a substantial part of it to misrepresented African countries and Temporary Protective Status nations such as Haiti. It was then, when these countries were mentioned, that Trump asked: ‘why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?’ This remark wasn’t neither denied by the White House spokesperson Raj Shah nor by the Senator Dick Durbin. However, this is not by any means Trump’s only xenophobic remark. Late in 2017, the New York Times reported that he had complained that Haitian immigrants ‘all have AIDS’ and that the Nigerian who went to the US would ‘never go back to their huts’ in Africa.

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Sadly, all these remarks shouldn´t startle us much, since Western history has always been linked -and still is through TNCs- to facts supporting Trump’s statement, given the West’s systematic exploitation of non-Western peoples and their natural resources. What may strike us the most is the way that unfortunately common transhistorical concept is expressed. One would expect the president of the most influential and powerful country to be a bit more articulate. However, it goes to show that Western culture is more of a plutocracy than it is a meritocracy. But there may actually be a purpose behind Trump’s bluntness and poor expression. In Noam Chomsky’s words:

‘Trump’s role is to ensure that the media and the public attention are always concentrated on him. He’s a conman, a showman, and in order to maintain public attention you have to do something crazy. So, everyday there’s one insane thing after another and while this is going on, in the background, the wrecking crew is working (…)’

Let’s not fool ourselves; many other Western presidents, politicians and voters endorse implicitly this statement -as we have witnessed in Europe with the wave of increasingly restrictive migration policies- although they publically reject it for the sake of political correctness.

Sources:

The Guardian, The New York Times, The Times, Huffington Post.

 

The three discoveries of America

For thousands of years, the American continent remained undisturbed by the presence of humanity. It was isolated from the migration of human tribes, as proved by the lack of fossil remains previous to those of the Homo Sapiens. The first humans arrived in America probably from Asia across the Bering Strait between 25,000-40,000 years ago. This would constitute the very first discovery of the continent.  The human tribes from Mongolia spread throughout the continent in the course of thousands of years and several distinct ancient American civilizations, each one with their own idiosyncrasies, were born as a result.

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The next incursion of humans from other parts of the world took place in the 11th century AD. In the 9th century, Scandinavians from Norway occupied Iceland and in the 10th century, the Icelander Eric the Red discovered Greenland. Of course, he wasn´t the first human in Greenland, where he found a colony whose economy was based on livestock and the export of walrus ivory and falcons. Then, one of Eric the Red’s men called Biarni Heriulfson saw land to the West of Greenland around the year 986, and Eric the Red’s son Leif decided to explore it, reaching its coast in 1001. Leif spent a winter there, in Newfoundland, and then returned to Greenland. Around 1010-15, another Icelander, Thorfinn Karlsefni, together with a group of Eric the Red’s men, explored the coast of Newfoundland -known then as ‘Vinland the Good’- and attempted to settle there, spending two or three winters with the natives. But the natives proved to be quite hostile and the Norsemen returned to Greenland and made no further attempts. Again, the American coast remained undisturbed until 1492.

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Driven by social convention, people celebrate the discovery of America on the day Columbus reached the American coasts in 1492, but he didn´t really ‘discovered’ anything that hadn´t been discovered a long time ago. In the same celebratory mood, we could choose the fist option and establish a day 40,000 years ago to throw a commemorative party, or decide on Biarni Heriulfson’s sight of land in the year 986, or select Leif’s expedition in 1001 rather than Christopher Columbus’s arrival. The debate is open.

Source: A concise history of the American Republic, volume I.

The interbellum years II: the crisis.

Hoover came into power 1929. A critical year. He believed that technology and expertise would lead USA to a permanent state of prosperity. Industrial production had increased by 30% during the last ten years, but the characteristic prosperity of the 20s was an illusion and ended in financial disaster. In 1929 the unemployment rate rocketed and 60% of families fell below the poverty line. Several factors contributed to this long crisis:

  • structural weakness of the banking system.

  • Inability of borrowers to repay loans, which lead to a epidemics of bank failures.

  • Unequal distribution of wealth and income (23-29 the income of the wealthiest 1% increased dramatically). Concentration of resources in hands of the wealthy, who didn’t need to spend their money. As a consequence assembly line production, which was aimed for a very different niche, remained stored and the stock surplus lowered prices, which was in turn translated into unemployment and financial failure for the companies. No unemployment insurance: the relief burden fell on state and municipal governments and private charities. Crisis hit during a shift from traditional industries to newer (steel and textiles to processed food, auto-mobiles and tobacco, heavily dependent on the stock market).

  • Farm prices depressed since the end of WWI, when European agriculture revived.

  • Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements and defaulted on their debts putting pressure on the banking system.

  • Protectionist measures: residential construction rose in 1924 and 27 and plummeted in 1929. One of the reasons was the restrictions to immigration. Republican tariff policies damaged foreign trade.

  • Economists and bankers introduced measures founded in past experiences no longer relevant.

  • The Federal Reserve, in order to curb stock market speculation slowed down the growth of the money supply then allowed it to fall after the crash, producing a liquidity crisis. Reduced amount of money available to consumers to spend.

  • USA, UK and most countries in Europe and Latin America insisted on clinging to the Gold Standard after WWI: each currency had a fixed value in relation to gold. It made their economies slow down.

market crash suicide

The Stock Market Crash took place in October 1929. As a result, Hoover was blamed and the new way of life was named after him by his opponents: shanty towns built by the homeless was called Hoovervilles. There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. Newspapers were called “Hoover blankets”, and empty pockets inside out were “Hoover flags”.

hooverville

Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929; most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased the demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and consisted of tents and shacks. The authorities did not officially recognize these “Hoovervilles” and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private properties, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity.

According to Hoover recovery was just round the corner. But the reality was that families lived on soup and beans only, without meat and fresh vegetables for months. Family providers were in question and they walked long distances looking for a job while their families had to stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check. The crops rotted in the fields, as prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile. The blacks were the first to lose their jobs and Mexican Americans were deported. Those who were poor before the crisis subsisted better because they were used to subsisting in poverty, but middle class was hit hard. Many professionals and white collars refused to ask for charity and those who fell behind on mortgage payments lost their homes. As health care declined, people stopped going to the doctor, because they could not pay assistance. Banks approached collapse and customers rushed in to withdraw their deposits causing bank failure.

The interbellum years I: from prosperity to poverty.

Right after the WWI, the USA lived a period of prosperity without precedents and became the richest country on Earth. National per capita annual income increased by 30%. The manufacturing process in factories was greatly modernised, increasing production per worker/hour by 75%. A new culture of consumer goods emerge superseding the old rural values. Migration from rural areas to cities in search of new opportunities grow, and people are eager to buy the new goods advertised by the media. Advertising, electrodomestics, cars and purchase on credit by installments buying plans offer exciting possibilities. The is what Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”. Birth of mass entertainment and blooming of many magazines and publications. Writers like Dorothy Parker wrote short stories in these publications.

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Many American authors went to exile, as living in Europe was cheaper, but also in search for values and beliefs (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound). This generation of writers was baptised by Gertrude Stein as the lost generation and their main trait is their disillusionment and disenchantment after the war. In “This side of paradise” (1920) Fitzgerald describes a young generation at a dead end: “fully dedicated to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shake.” This generation of writers had faced the horror of war, had witnessed massive death and destruction and they lost all faith in institutions, history and the human being. Abstract ideals such as progress and liberty were no longer to be trusted. They felt a vacuum after the war, and the new optimistic idealism was totally meaningless and decadent to them. The superficial materialism of postwar society with its modern commodities, consumerism, conformity and contentment was no substitute for values like altruism, solidarity and heroism. They felt nostalgia.

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“Johnny got his gun”

When the WWI finished, Woodrow Wilson was in office. During his two terms, several important changes were introduced in society through legislation, and none of them were ‘spur of the moment’ laws, but the consequence of a long time of previous brewing:

  • The Eighteenth Amendment was approved in 1919, a controversial law, the Prohibition introduced restraints in civil liberties, it had been in the background since the times of the Puritans and encouraged by the Methodist Church and the Temperance Movement, who made it gain momentum. The Prohibition was officially working until 1934, when it was officially repealed. The crime rates increased, as the upper class was willing to break the law to have access to alcohol (Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”, 1922) and organised crime bloomed, enriching those who dominated the illicit business, such as Al Capone. Speakeasies, bootleggers and bathtub gin were born and will always remain as symbols of those times (as seen in The Great Gatsby”, 1925).

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (women suffrage) was approved, after a long period of struggle by the Suffragist Movement. Victorian values regarding sex and relationships was rapidly fading and women enjoyed more freedom in this respect (as described by Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker).

  • The Emergency Tariff Act and the Emergency Quota Act, signed in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, established protectionist measures aimed at hindering the introduction of European imports and also set migration quotas related to race and origins, restricting the entrance to certain ethnic groups (it’s consequences are mentioned throughout “Manhattan Transfer”, by John Dos Passos). This severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

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When Harding dies from a heart attack in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took up the torch and ratifies the measures taken by the latter. Due to a decreasing number of Nordic immigrants, writer Madison Grant warned that the Anglo-Saxon stock was about to be overwhelmed by lesser breeds (mainly South and East Europeans, Asians and Africans) with inferior genes, and Harding revises Harding’s Immigration Act, polishes it and ratifies it as the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, establishing a quota of 2% of each national group. The quota subsisted until the 60s. Hostility towards immigrants increased and paved the way for a KKK renaissance in rural USA which would eventually spread to cities, across all social classes.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis.

Born in Minessotta in 1885, Sinclair Lewis was the first North American writer to be awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930. His works are X-ray pictures of the American Dream and its ruthless capitalism between the wars. His views can turn out to be extremely modern, as he depicts working women to perfection, in portraits full of respect and dignity, disregarding social class. After graduation in Yale, he had several different jobs and wrote in all kind of styles, from pulp novels to stories for magazines. He even sold plots to Jack London, such as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., London´s unfinished novel. He was an alcoholic and was interned in Austen Riggs Center in 1937. He died in 1951 from advanced alcoholism. I have always wondered how could he become an alcoholic during the Prohibition!

His first great success was Babbitt, written in 1922. Set in a fictional town, Zenith, where George Babbitt – a villager by birth and a foster son of Zenith – wishes to embody the exemplary successful Zenith man, with not an inch of Catawba – his village- in him. Babbitt is proud of himself and what he has achieved in life, by walking upon the well-trodden path. His life, given his materialistic spirit, is described in terms of what he possesses: a nice car where he can even fit a modern lighter, a house worthy of a decorations and interiors magazine – which does not feel like home, though -, his suits… Babbitt is the embodiment of capitalism itself in his daily life: he speculates with properties for a value exponentialy greater than their real one. He doesn´t care for community values, even though he pretends he is a moral man, as his speculative deeds have a negative impact in his beloved community.

Whenever Babitt has to express a personal opinion about any topic, he needs first to research the approved and official sources: the Advocate Times, the Evening Standard and the Chamber’s newsletter as well as learning about the decisions taken by the Republican senators in Washington. They guide his thoughts and opinions and he finds it difficult to have an opinion about something which hasn´t yet elicited an article on one of these sources. As soon as he reads the opinions included in the aforementioned papers, he finds himself able to express his individuality – his favourite page in those papers is the Mutt&Jeff cartoons, though – . His beliefs and his morals are equally dictated by the Presbyterian Church.

muttandjeff-Mutt & Jeff-

Sanctimounious Babbitt is relieved that prostitution, speakeasies and other illegal activities are restricted to certain ghettos in town, so that “decent families”can feel safe. But there is a high degree of hypocrisy in this statement, provided that, when he organises a party with his friends, he goes to one of this ghettos and buys alcohol for the occasion.He and his friends talk about the Prohibition Act, implying that it is justified, so that those consumers who can’t really afford it do not get tempted, but they feel that it thwarts their freedom as middle-class citizens who can pay for beverages and lead exemplary and productive lives.

Babbitt’s closest friend, Paul, breaks the former’s peace of mind -only interrupted by a recurrent dream – with his questioning the kind of life they both lead. Paul talks about the lack of a sense of purpose in life, about boredom and frustration in married life, which makes him feel trapped and disappointed after living by the rules as a good boy all his life. Babbitt does not love his wife, either. He never really did, although he is sometimes able to feel tenderness towards her. When they first met, Myra was a “nice” girl who didn’t allow him to kiss her and the first time he did, she assumed that they were engaged. He wasn’t able to say no. Married life was comfortable for him, though. Thus, as a self-righteous person, he reacts in a somewhat paternalistic manner to that, only to start questioning his own life afterwards:“Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.”

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-“Flapper” B/W photograph by J. Baldwin. Oil painting copy by Gisela P.-

As a result of this, he tastes what he had previouly preached against, and becomes an adept at breaking the rules by partying, drinking alcohol and trying to have affairs with women with not much success. However, he does not go so far as to burn the bridges towards respectability. As he gets more and more involved with liberal practise, he starts showing public signs of sympathy towards liberal theorists as well, being ostracised as a consequence. When he is on the brink of tilting the scale wholly to the liberal side, coming to terms with the fact of risking his job and marriage, both of which are at stake at this point, his wife illness brings him back to the path of virtue; he embodies the parable of the prodigal son. His experience is not futile and empty, though, as it turns him into a more tolerant citizen and enables him to come to terms with the following generation.