Editorial – Nativistic nonsense

In a dramatic, yet understated article in the July 29 issue of the New York Daily News, Cardinal Timothy Dolan noted that the nation’s latest election campaign has marked a return to what he called “a terrible American tradition.”

That tradition is called nativism.

There was a time, the cardinal said, when nativism was defined by writer and scholar Ray Allen Billington as “organized, white, Protestant antagonism toward the Catholic immigrant.”

That’s a portion of American history that many Catholics have forgotten. There was a time when their families were the unwanted, the unemployable, the so-called “un-washed masses” that swarmed to our shores.

Nativists, wrote the cardinal, “believed the immigrant to be dangerous, and that America was better off without them.”

“All these poor degenerates did, according to the nativists, was dilute the clean, virtuous upright citizenry of God-fearing true Americans,” the cardinal wrote.

His said he often presented this history to university students he taught in American religious history classes.

Many of those students believed, he wrote, that nativism was behind us, that the influence of the people who formed such organizations as the Know-Nothing Party, the American Protective Association, the KKK and others were behind us.

They’d be disappointed to see that, at least in our latest national political campaign, nativism is again raising its ugly head, he said.

“I made the point to my students that nativism never really did disappear,” he said in the newspaper article, “but was a continual virulent strain in the American psyche” that would no doubt show up again.

And it has.

Listen to campaign speeches that carefully parse words to say, no, they have nothing against immigrants getting legal recognition in this country. But those same speeches avoid mentioning the possibility of citizenship.

All the candidates talk about “strengthening the border” to keep out the unwanted and, what one candidate called, “dangerous threats” to our nation.

Cardinal Dolan noted that currently there are two political approaches to immigration. One approach, he wrote, believes that immigrants are “toxic to everything decent in the United States.” That group, according to journalism professor Paul Moses, believes that immigration has “doomed” American society.

The second approach claims that, yes, we need to control our borders, fairly regulate immigration and be prudent in our policies and laws.

But that group also believes “that we are wise to consider the immigrant as good for our beloved nation,” he wrote, “that to welcome them is virtuous, patriotic and beneficial for the economic and cultural future of our country.”

“As a Catholic,” the cardinal wrote, “I take serious the Bible’s teaching that we are to welcome the stranger, one of the most frequently mentioned moral imperatives in both the Old and New Testaments.”

So does Pope Francis, and so should every Catholic who takes his faith seriously.

Many of us have forgotten that all our families were, at some point, immigrants. Unless our families are Native American, we all came from someplace else. Yet we ignore or even oppose efforts to aid those who’ve come to the nation searching for a better life.

“The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people,” Pope Francis said in 2014.

Even as you read this, the government has thousands of immigrant women and children detained in for-profit prison companies, though a federal judge ruled July 24 that the detention system “violates a settlement agreement dating to 1997 over how juveniles in the custody of the immigration agency are treated.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the ruling are hoping the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department will end the detention program.

It might. But this much is certain: Some politicians will continue to argue that immigrants are bad, that we need to build a wall to keep them out or that we ought to deport as many as possible.

As Catholics we should know better. As Catholics we should welcome the stranger.

As Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said in last year’s Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border, we should realize that “the hard work and sacrifices of so many immigrant peoples is the secret of the success of this country.”

“Despite the xenophobic ranting of a segment of the population, our immigrant population contributes mightily to the economy and well-being of the United States.”

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor Emeritus

Glenn Rutherford
Written By
Glenn Rutherford
More from Glenn Rutherford
Editorial — It can happen here
Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen here. Don’t let anyone...
Read More
0 replies on “Editorial – Nativistic nonsense”