Immigration debate echoes colonies' struggles

Joe Beach, editor of the Capital Press



Capital Press

William Swindell was the first of my forefathers to come to the New World. He arrived in Virginia in 1621, and worked as a metal worker on the Berkeley Plantation about 20 miles up the James River from Jamestown.

He was killed on March 22, 1622, when the Powhatan Confederacy conducted a series of coordinated attacks on the settlements along the James River in an attempt to drive the English off traditional Indian lands. This first attempt at American immigration enforcement proved unsuccessful. While the Powhatans killed nearly half of the Virginia colonists, the English came in ever greater numbers and within a generation overwhelmed the native population.

By the time my last European-born ancestor came to the United States, the immigrant experience as we have come to understand it was already well established.

Alexander Heidenreich was born in Rostock, Germany, and ended up in Toledo, Ohio, in 1864. He spoke little English, so was relegated to the one job many Americans with means did not want -- Civil War draftee. He was inducted into the 165th Ohio Infantry and served the remainder of the war as a paid substitute for Leopold Tettweiss. After the war, he settled in a German neighborhood of Terre Haute, Ind., and became a brewer. He died a naturalized and Americanized citizen whose sons and daughters spoke only English and married the similarly assimilated sons and daughters of other immigrants.

William came here for the same reason Alexander came, and hundreds before and millions after them. America afforded the opportunity for greater freedom and economic success than would ever be possible in the Old Country. For the most part, it is not the satisfied, well fed and well-to-do who bet everything on the chance that their hard work and tenacity will yield greater rewards.

This is the American story. It's the same for everyone who chose to make the trip. It was true in 1621, and it's true in 2010. It's true whether they came legally, or crossed the border without authority to work without documents.

The United States passed its first immigration law in 1875. Over the years, Congress has changed the law several times to match the nation's attitudes. Once laws were passed, those who entered without following the rules became a practical and political problem.

Solutions have run the gamut. In 1954, federal authorities began a crackdown on illegal farm laborers who bypassed the guest worker program of the day. It led to the deportation or voluntary repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals. At other times, Congress has offered amnesty and paths to citizenship for illegals meeting certain criteria.

No one knows for sure, but most experts say there are between 12 million and 20 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. They are at the center of today's debate.

Strictly speaking, William Swindell was an illegal immigrant -- an uninvited guest who overstayed his welcome. The Indians lost their grudging tolerance of the English, but lacked the resources to dislodge the colonists. Having thus failed, they lost control of their country forever. Those who were not killed were forced to adopt a foreign culture that did not respect or recognize their traditions.

Winners write history. Because of that, we see William as a victim, not a criminal, and the colonists as heroes who were undaunted by the hardships of the frontier. The English and the other European settlers later instigated a revolution, founded a country and made possible all that we know.

We give little thought to the viewpoint of the Powhatans and the other native people, though it is one that we likely can understand at least as well. What must they have thought as wave after wave of desperate strangers came to their shores to consume their resources, to displace their people, to change their language and customs?

The debate has changed little in 400 years. The only thing that is different is our perspective.

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