Scott MacKay Commentary: Honor Our Past, Forge Our Future With Openness to Immigration

Feb 3, 2017

As the Trump Administration’s policies strike fear in immigrant communities, it’s a good time to reflect on how immigration has made Rhode Island. It’s also time for some of us to consign to history’s dumpster the immigration myths that too often ill inform the public.

Our state and nation have largely been accepting, even welcoming, to the oppressed seeking new lives on our shores. Yet this hasn’t always been the case. Too many Rhode Islanders argue that their relatives came here legally, learned English quickly and settled into two-parent families.

It’s true that from the Irish famine of the mid-19th Century, Rhode Island has opened its doors to newcomers from around the globe. Unless you are a native American, you all come from immigrant ancestry.

But the road traveled by immigrants was never smooth. Until the 1920’s, when the Protestant majority, alarmed over the arrival of so many Roman Catholics from southern Europe, pushed Congress to slam shut the immigration door, there was practically no such person as an illegal immigrant.

Immigrants were too often met with hostility. The Irish were referred to as ape-like; until nearly the turn of the 20th Century, the state’s largest newspaper, the Providence Journal, ran job ads that warned : No Irish Need Apply. Later, Italians were routinely labeled by the newspaper until the mid-20th Century in terms too derogatory to repeat.

Ku Klux Klan crosses were burned at anti-Catholic rallies in Smithfield in the 1920s. In Boston, convents were burned.

On the cusp of World War II, an isolationist United States- during the first wave of America First hysteria- turned away Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe. This led to more Holocaust deaths.

Many immigrants triumphed over discrimination. Their used hard work, the free economy, the church, the ballot box and the labor union to get ahead. History doesn’t repeat, the historians tell us. But it rhymes. Once again immigration is at the top of a national debate. Xenophobia and fear are again spreading.

In Rhode Island, it’s time to face facts, not alt-right fantasies. Immigrants are a growing share of our state at a time when our overall population has stagnated and is getting older. Seventy percent of foreign born residents are within the prime workforce age group of between 25 and 64; just 50 percent of native born residents are in that category.

More than 13 percent of Rhode Islanders  – about 137,000 people –are foreign-born. The largest slice of them (45 percent) are from Spanish-speaking countries, according to data from state planners.

You don’t have to be an expert in demographics to see where our state is heading. Check out a public school in an urban neighborhood such as Providence, where more than half the students are from Hispanic backgrounds. Or on our college campuses, where thousands of foreign-born students are learning. (Wouldn’t it be great if some of them stay here and start businesses or become teachers and engineers?) The University of Rhode Island has 500 foreign students, 29 of them here on visas from the seven countries targeted by Trump.

Hopefully you won’t have to go to a hospital emergency room. But if you do, don’t be surprised if the doctor treating you is here on a visa or attended a foreign medical school.  If you want to see what a modern workplace looks like, visit Taco, the Cranston manufacturer, where the employees reflect the globe.

Rhode Islanders constantly complain that their children can’t get jobs here when they graduate; all the new positions are in Boston, goes this familiar lament. Why do you think that is?

Decades ago, Boston was an economic doldrum, acity riven by ethnic and racial division. Today, an influx of immigrants has made Boston a worldwide center of innovation. More than 47,000 international students are on temporary visas in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association estimates that 3,600 hospital employees hold green cards or visas. Many of them work at the city’s internationally-known medical centers, such as the Massachusetts General Hospital or Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Almost 30 percent of Boston’s population was born in another country.

Obviously, every American wants to protect our security. Our government should carefully investigate those who seek to come here. But to honor our past and forge a prosperous future, our state and nation must keep open the golden door.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at Ripr.org