THE BLOG
01/27/2016 03:44 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Immigrants Old and New

There is deep concern about Middle Eastern immigration these days. Like so many Americans, comedian Bill Maher opposes letting Syrian refugees into the West because this time their values are so different; they don't understand Western values and cannot assimilate. This cohort is totally unique, unlike past generations of newcomers, and cannot accommodate our way of life.

So let's expose the dirty secret of immigration: it's a difficult process, filled with messy stories, and lots of crime. For all groups, throughout our history; none have ever adjusted well. And Americans have always reacted against them. In those regards, the current wave of immigrants is no different than those of the past.

Let's look at Jews, often cited as the model group. They have incredibly high mobility rates, a love for education, little inclination for alcohol. All true, but only part of the story.

In 1908, Theodore Bingham, police commissioner of New York, authored an article in the September issue of the North American Review. This distinguished figure, an expert on urban crime, announced that fully 50% of the criminals in that great city were Jews, a fearsome crime wave. He wrote that, "It is not astonishing that... perhaps half of the criminals should be of that race when we consider that ignorance of the language, more particularly among men not physically fit for hard labor, is conducive to crime....Among the most expert of all the street thieves are Hebrew boys under sixteen who are brought up to lives of crime...."

While there was an abundance of bigotry here, there were also nuggets of truth. Jews were impoverished, living in despicable conditions, laboring at slave wages in vicious jobs. Many, particularly younger ones, turned to crime as a way out.

This was not the only obstacle Jews faced in being accepted as Americans. They were widely perceived as a foreign group, with values alien to our country. A stateless people, Jews could never understand or participate in loyalty to a nation with its own firm and rich traditions.

Italian immigrants were even worse. They prayed to a foreign ruler in Rome, knew nothing about democracy. Coming from backwards rural regions, they had no experience with modern urban, industrial values and would have difficulty assimilating, if that was even possible.

They were also prone to violence; many accounts describe "the way of the stiletto", the knife every Italian was supposed to carry and use to redress any slight (just for the record, my wife is descended from Neapolitans and she has cut herself in the kitchen a few times with a paring knife). Similar to the message Donald Trump sent this year about Mexican-Americans, Bingham declared of Italians, "while the great bulk of these people are among our best citizens, there are fastened upon them a riff-raff of desperate scoundrels, ex-convicts and jailbirds...such as has never before afflicted a civilized country in time of peace."

In the past, Americans took these beliefs--that the foreigners back then were a dangerous element--even more seriously than they do today. If you think there's animosity towards today's ethnics, in earlier years they didn't just tweet, they lynched them. In 1891 in a New Jersey mill town, when the leading company hired fourteen Russian Jews 500 residents rampaged through the Jewish section, forcing most of them to leave the area for good. That same year, in New Orleans the Superintendent of Police was murdered in a way that pointed to the local Sicilian population. Instead of calming rising hysteria, the mayor issued a public statement, "We must teach these people a lesson that they will not forget for all time." When a jury refused to convict, a mob hung eleven Italians in that city.

And that's just a start of the list of unassimilable immigrants from that generation. Poles were again rural and ignorant, and hence a threat to twentieth-century ways. They could never understand how to be Americans, to swear allegiance to a country as they had no experience ever doing so: Poland had disappeared as a nation-state in 1793, and was not resurrected till after the First World War.

Fears of immigrant terrorism existed back then too. In 1886 in Chicago, at a rally for the eight-hour day, someone threw a bomb into the ranks of police. The explosion and subsequent gunfire by officers into the protestors' ranks left seven police officers dead and four civilians. Although the identity of the assassin has never been fully determined, newspapers and the public widely trumpeted that it was the act of immigrant anarchists, probably German-Americans.

Long before Americans believed migrants should be kept out because modern social media corrupts them, Commissioner Bingham warned how, "There is always the possibility of some crack-brained fanatic being inflamed by the anarchist who only talks to a desperate deed," and then cited his example of a typical dangerous manipulator, "like that of Silverstein in Union Square...."

Americans knew this, and reacted accordingly, based on the very real evidence before them, just like today. They believed these groups could never be part of the American tapestry. In 1928 the author of an article in Current History, a highbrow periodical, emphasized that, "the Catholic Church is opposed to the principles of democracy."

All of these groups seemed very poor candidates for assimilation to most Americans. All of them engaged in crime, adjusted with difficulty. And all joined the American tapestry beautifully. Those who claim only the last part happened, not the full story, are guilty of nostalgia. And of underestimating how the new immigrants will fare in this country.