Several weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden, reluctant as he is to enter the presidential fray, denounced harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric spilling from the Republican nomination battle.

Biden rightly zeroed in on Donald Trump — “one guy … absolutely denigrating an entire group of people [and] working on this notion of xenophobia … in a way that hasn’t occurred … since the Know Nothing party … ”

Thinking about history’s lessons might well improve today’s immigration debate — reducing overstatements about both our current immigration problems and the debate itself. But we need to get history’s lessons right.

Trump’s nativist pandering is foul, but you don’t have to go back to the Know Nothings’ heyday before the Civil War to find its like, even among “guys” who aspired to the presidency.

Woodrow Wilson, who was actually in the White House a century ago during what’s often regarded as the golden age of immigration, had earlier described immigrants of his day as “multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men [with] neither skill nor energy nor … intelligence … as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”

Sounds a lot like Trump, only literate. And there has been plenty of tough talk about immigrants since Wilson’s day. Some of it even came in connection with a major 1994 crime bill pushed by then-Sen. Joe Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That law has been faulted recently (including by Clinton himself) mainly for its contribution to America’s soaring incarceration rate.

But according to Roger Daniels in “Guarding the Golden Door,” a history of American immigration policy, the Clinton crime bill was also “the first of four statutes in a two-year period designed to … ‘get tough’ with immigrants.” Among other things, the legislation established a “criminal alien center” to keep tabs on immigrant crime.

In recent years, on immigration as on many issues, Americans have grown more polarized and more clearly divided along party lines. But the idea that there’s anything new about the controversy is the sort of humbug that should be left to Trump, who likes to claim that nobody was talking about illegal immigration before his candidacy.

The truth, Daniels shows, is that for most of the past two centuries, generation after generation, Americans have been of two distinct and extravagant minds about immigration — “reveling in the nation’s immigrant past” while “rejecting much of its immigrant present.”

Somehow, “today’s” immigrants have always seemed different from the heroic newcomers of old — more alien to American culture and ideals. The Know Nothings thought Irish and Germans were different. Generations on end thought Chinese and other Asians different and long excluded them almost entirely. Wilson’s generation thought southern and eastern Europeans (including Jews) were different.

It’s a complicated, often unlovely history that demonstrates two main things.

First, while immigration indisputably built this country, successfully assimilating large waves of immigrants is and has always been a strain. Uneasiness and political tension about it is understandable and inevitable. And the desire to control the scale and nature of immigration is legitimate.

Fact is, immigration and its discontents may be yet another unsettling phenomenon (like polarization and inequality, among other things) that comes as a bit of a surprise to today’s Americans for the simple reason that modern America’s sense of itself was largely shaped by the profoundly dramatic but abnormal middle decades of the 20th century.

Daniels explains that restrictive immigration laws from the 1920s, combined with the Depression, World War II and the miraculous postwar economic revival of Europe, created an extended pause in immigration to America.

Fewer immigrants, Daniels notes, arrived in the U.S. in the whole 40-year period from 1930-1970 than had arrived in a much smaller America in the single decade of 1901-10.

Immigration pressures, in short, were no big deal in the America in which most of today’s adults grew up. But that was something new, and temporary; those pressures have risen anew. And of course today’s immigration is … different — as in truth every other wave has been, in its own way.

Maybe the most notable difference in recent decades has been that today’s resurgent immigration has accompanied an era when America’s native-born population — above all, whites — is no longer growing much. So immigration is contributing to a broader transformation — what’s been called “the browning of America” — that is inevitably challenging.

Meanwhile, the second large lesson of immigration history is something Michael Barone emphasizes in his book “Shaping Our Nation.” It is that every great wave of immigration in American history has come to an end as abruptly, unexpectedly and, at first, inexplicably as it had begun. We seldom see the forces that start and stop these things, Barone says.

Daniels describes how mistaken reformers were about the effect they expected from a landmark 1965 immigration overhaul that launched the modern immigration era (signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago this weekend, capping a year of historic lawmaking that also included Medicare and the Voting Rights Act).

The reformers expected a resurgence of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe, long stifled by 1920s-era quotas. But that never came, as economic conditions in Europe had brightened. Instead, the family unification focus of the 1965 legislation fueled the Asian and Latin American immigration waves of the past few decades.

And now, as Barone notes, there are signs that those waves — most recently the Mexican wave — may have run their course.

With our era’s low native birthrates, America will continue to need immigration in order to grow. It needs to resolve the status of illegals, reform its laws and enforce them more effectively, and think strategically about how to attract immigrants well-suited to succeed and contribute.

It couldn’t hurt any of those efforts if we could just calm down a little. There’s nothing really new here, in either the messiness of the immigration issue or the raucousness of the immigration debate. It’s the true American way.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.