Immigrants often face animosity, historians say

For historians who study immigration, the story of Bellingham’s 1907 race riot is heartbreakingly familiar.

Over and over again, new immigrant groups get accused of the same thing, said historian Joan Jensen. They’re too numerous, too different, and a threat to the economy.

Jensen, a retired history professor from New Mexico State University, just wrote a book about German immigrants coming to northern Wisconsin.

“Native-born people are saying, ‘The Germans are moving in and taking over. Property values are going down,’” she said. “I looked at that and thought, ‘Where have I heard that before?’ It’s a constant problem.”

Jensen also reads about tensions along the Gulf Coast, where many Latino families have moved in as the region rebuilds from the hurricanes.

“Taco wagons are the flash point in some points along the coast,” she said.

The fears people have about immigrants today sound a lot like the fears people had in 1907, said Paul Englesberg, who studied the riots as he develops curriculum for area school teachers through Western Washington University’s Asian American Curriculum and Research Project.

“This idea about exclusion (of immigrants) is still very strong,” he said. “There’s not much discussion about the benefit of immigrants.”

The East Indians who were driven out in Bellingham’s 1907 riots were single men who tended to live together in low-rent conditions, which earned them criticism for not assimilating in the community, Englesberg said. But people making meager wages and who aren’t conversant in the dominant language typically cluster together out of survival, he said.

Englesberg also notes the single white men who worked in lumber mills in 1907 probably didn’t have very clean houses either, “but you don’t hear about them.”

In 1907, rhetoric describing East Indians typically focused on what was apparently different about them. Much was written about their darker skins, their turbans, their beards and their exotic style of dress. But photos of them at the time show a much wider variety, including many East Indians in hats and jackets and no beards at all.

“Because Sikhs had the turban, much was made of this cultural deviation from American ways,” said John Wunder, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “It was visible evidence that cultural change and acculturation were not possible.”

Wunder sees the same patterns today when much is made about the appearance of conservative Muslims, including women who wear hijabs (head scarves) or burkas.

David Cahn, an organizer with Community to Community Development who wrote a thesis studying the connection between the 1907 riot and anti-immigration legislation, sees echoes of 1907 in today’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

“The way anti-immigration people are now obsessed with the U.S.-Mexico border, 100 years ago they were obsessed with the Pacific Coast,” Cahn said. “All these Asian immigrants were coming in, they thought it was a threat to the state of the nation at the time.”

Jensen often wishes television debate shows would invite a historian to participate in a discussion about immigration, to provide some historical context.

“Maybe it’s because we aren’t as good in appearing on TV,” she said, “but also, we tend to complicate things.”

But history also provides a choice, Jensen said.

“There have always been people who have worked very hard to accept people as equal when each immigrant group comes in,” she said. “We can reach back into one tradition, which is exclusion and fear and discrimination, and say, ‘We have to do this.’ Or you can reach back into the other tradition which said, ‘We have these other ideals and practices of accepting people and letting them prove themselves.’”