I don’t know when it became a compliment to be called a “hunk,” but when my Slovak grandparents immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, “Hunkies” was an ethnic slur hurled at them. Hunkies were believed to be stupid and inferior to the native Anglo descendants.
My maternal grandparents were among the millions of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe whose arrival sparked an outpouring of nativism and prejudice. President Trump’s soul mates of that day would have used a term like “shithole” to describe my ancestors’ homeland. Because they were poor, unschooled, unskilled, and Catholic, Eastern and Southern European “undesirables” were thought to be polluting American culture.
The Immigration Restriction League began in 1890 to push for laws to exclude supposedly undesirable aliens. The league argued that Eastern and Southern Europe was dumping madmen, criminals, paupers, and illiterates on the United States. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was reported to have said, “The Slavic immigrant threatens to contaminate America.” The American Protective Association charged that the Vatican was behind the economic panic of 1893 because it was attempting to undermine the American economy by flooding the country with Catholic immigrants.
It’s true that the Slovaks were unlettered. Four years of school were the most their Austro-Hungarian rulers allowed them, and illiteracy was common. My grandmother’s ability to read and write her native language was scanty, if it existed at all. The men lacked skills but were willing to do hard and dirty manual labor to make a living. (Sound familiar?) They tended to find jobs in coal mines and steel mills. My grandfather worked for decades at Illinois Steel Company. Lung diseases were rampant among the laborers in steel mills, and he died of lung disease just two years after retiring.
Also, the immigrants practiced a version of what Republicans today call “chain migration,” joining relatives and others from their villages in tight-knit neighborhoods with shops, churches, schools, and taverns where they could speak their language. Immigration opponents observed these ethnic clusters and alleged that the immigrants didn’t want to assimilate.
Nativist sentiment won out with the passage of the immigration laws of the 1920s that restricted immigration to a percentage of people from a particular country who were in the United States in 1890. The restrictions virtually slammed the door on Eastern and Southern European immigrants.
Following President Trump’s shithole countries comment, I’ve been thinking about my siblings and cousins, just two generations removed from hardscrabble Slovak farms. Three in four of us are college graduates. A few have advanced degrees, and one is a dean at UCLA. We’re all financially comfortable. Sometimes when I’m in the home of one of my affluent relations, I look around and think about how amazed our underprivileged grandparents would be to see the riches.
But that’s the way America is supposed to work, isn’t it? The land of opportunity, where people can come with nothing and make something of themselves. I don’t buy into the myth totally, but it did play out in my family.
Now the country is again talking about categorizing immigrants as desirable or undesirable based on their skills. The debate may be even uglier this time around, since skills is a cover for skin color.
The vast majority of immigrants do not come to our country to mooch off the rest of us. They come to make a better life for themselves and their children. They contribute to making America great.
Do we need a reminder that, unless we are Native Americans, we are all the descendants of immigrants? For our privileged circumstances today, we ought to be grateful to the ancestors who came to America and made them possible — and open to allowing others the same opportunity.