Neagle: U.S. celebrates immigrant past, rejects present

By Sarah Champagne & Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writers
editor@TheCitizenChronicle.com

Not unlike the recent weather locally, the immigration debate has reached a sweltering point nationally. Recently, that debate was commented on by a local college professor as well as a United States District Court judge.

While immigration may seem to be a new issue to some, Nichols College professor Michael Neagle teaches, among other courses, a class on “Immigration in U.S. History,” and notes there is a long and difficult background to America and immigration. He recently spoke with The Citizen Chronicle about the immigration debate in both the historical context as well as today’s current events.

He said he wants the students enrolled in his immigration class to “have a better understanding about the historical roots of the contemporary immigration debate. They didn’t just start with Trump’s election, although the 2016 presidential campaign certainly brought the issue to the forefront.”

Neagle, who serves as program chairman of the History program, came to Nichols in the fall of 2014 with previous teaching experience at the University of Connecticut, The College of the Holy Cross, and the University of Rhode Island. In addition to the immigration history course, Neagle teaches several classes including “The War on Terror,” and “Media and Politics in American History.” He is also the author of America’s Forgotten Colony: Cuba’s Isle of Pines, and several other publications.

Asked about the rhetoric surrounding immigration debates new and old, Neagle said he sees “a great deal of historical continuity in the treatment of immigrants in the United States.”

“U.S. culture often celebrates its immigrant past while rejecting much of the immigrant present,” he explained.

The Honorable Kenneth P. Neiman, a magistrate judge for the United States District Court’s District of Massachusetts, offered some of his thoughts about immigrant culture during remarks while presiding over an Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony at Old Sturbridge Village.

“Whether it has been adversity or joy which has led each of you to America, the memory of a homeland with a familiar language and traditions will no doubt remain strong and, let me urge you, should remain strong even as you take on the mantle of United States citizenship,” Judge Neiman told more than 150 new American citizens on Wednesday. “Still, without question and without hesitation, each one of you needs to continue to knit yourself into the larger community. That way, we all benefit.”

Those naturalized on the Village Green at Old Sturbridge Village came from the countries of Albania, Australia, Barbados, Belarus, Bhutan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, China, Colombia, Cote D’ivoire, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Spain, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zambia. Each has its own culture and history, its own language, and the religious experience of each is varied. The stereotypes may vary some, but many are the same.

“Popular depictions of migrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Middle East today bear remarkable echoes of that of the Irish and Chinese in the 19th century and, eastern Europeans and Asians in the 20th century,” Neagle said. “Many of the stereotypes are the same: that immigrants are taking jobs, depressing wages, bringing crime, carrying disease, and ruining the culture. The difference over time has been the ethnic or national group targeted.”

There are a number of reasons, Neagle said, for xenophobic mentalities to emerge.

The health of the U.S. economy is one. In times when unemployment has been low and the economy has been healthy (e.g, late-1960s, late-1990s), anti-immigrant sentiment is less apparent. But in times of stress — such as the aftermath of the Great Recession and the slow recovery of full employment — immigrant workers can be easy targets of rage. There’s also an undeniable racial component to anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s no coincidence that President Trump reportedly referred to Haitians and Africans coming from ‘shithole countries’ while lamenting why the United States can’t attract more people from Norway. Fears of ‘race suicide’ were prevalent among early-20th-century immigration restrictionists, as well.”

While various restrictions, quotas, and other legal hurdles have been put into place for immigrants seeking to come to the United States throughout its history, Judge Neiman urged naturalized citizens to take advantage of their rights and fulfill their obligations as Americans.

“You have the right — and, in my opinion, the obligation — to vote, to speak your mind, and to participate in the governance of this country. And, as importantly, you will have the right to sit on juries and, again, the obligation to do so when called,” he offered. “Do not take these rights and privileges lightly. They are precious. They must be exercised in order to remain vibrant and alive. And all of us — old citizens and new citizens alike — must ensure that these rights are passed on to future generations.”

For some, cultural and linguistic differences are a problem or area of concern — both for those coming to the United States and those born here. In order to be eligible for naturalization, individuals must be aged 18 or older and fill out the necessary paperwork, be a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), have lawfully resided in the United States for at least five years, have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months, be a person of good moral character, be able to speak, read, write, and understand the English language, have knowledge of U.S. government and history, and be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance.

Judge Neiman told those who had just been sworn in as American citizens that there are many others who are seeking to come to the United States who will not be as fortunate, regardless of their circumstances.

“Unfortunately, for many others in our country — whether they harvest crops in our fields, help construct our buildings, work in our restaurants, or even seek asylum — American citizenship remains too distant a dream. We must make sure, therefore — especially now when the public discourse about immigration has become so toxic — that the ladder which you have been able to climb to arrive to this day is not pulled up behind you,” Judge Neiman said. “That way, we can fulfill the promise of what George Washington himself said in 1783: that the ‘bosom of America is open’ not only to the ‘opulent and respectable stranger,’ as he put it, but also, he said, to ‘the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.’ Those are inspiring words.”

Neagle noted that he wants his students to weight varying questions and viewpoints when they form their opinions on the immigration debate.

“It’s important for students to recognize and understand differing perspectives about immigration — to understand both the immigrant and the nativist. I ask them to consider a number of questions: Why do people from around the world try to come to the United States? What are the challenges they face? How have they met those challenges? Why have they faced so much resistance over the years? What have been the interests and fears behind immigration restriction?” Neiman explained. “With such background and context in mind, I think students are then better prepared to offer thoughtful and realistic solutions to contemporary problems.”

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