For a year now Orcas has been posted with signs that say, “Hate Has No Home Here.” Some are along the roadside; others by churches and Eastsound businesses. Their slogan represents one position in the ongoing debate about immigrants and immigration to the United States. Not long ago, the sign on the Olga Road, across from Country Corner, was removed and laid flat in a nearby parking area. That prompted me to think through what I know about immigrants and immigration.
I offer a historian’s perspective on two basic questions: who truly is an American? Who truly is white?
Laws and perspectives on immigrants, and who is and is not considered acceptable, have changed dramatically in our nation. For example, in the early 20th century immigrants from some European countries were considered undesirable, and not white. At one time immigrants from Ireland were called Black Irish. Who today would label all Americans of Irish background as not white? Other examples: all four of my grandparents, and my father, were labeled non-white when they arrived as immigrants. Yet when I was born my birth certificate read “white.” If I’d been an immigrant in the year I was born (rather than native born), I would have been labeled non-white. If my father (a legal immigrant) had arrived nine years later than he did, he would have been considered an illegal. Until the 1970 census, people from Mexico living in the United States were classified by the U.S. census as white.
My point from these examples is, just because the laws today define someone as undesirable, or illegal, or even not white, doesn’t mean that that will be true a year, or five or 10 from now. Who is defined as illegal is not written in stone; it’s a moving target. The history of immigration to our nation says to me it’s important to be flexible, to be respectful, and to consider the larger context — as well as the current law. That some people are in the United States illegally is not all that needs to be considered when making decisions about immigrants.