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Immigration and elections: An historically volatile combination


Thursday, March 31, 2016

With the divisive debates and angry rhetoric surrounding immigration during this election year, one might think anti-immigrant sentiment is a hot new topic in the United States. As it happens, in this country of immigrants, immigration has frequently been a contentious point among candidates and their supporters.
 
The rhetoric espoused by candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, or former presidential hopeful Rand Paul – all of whom called for some level of ban on migrants from Muslim countries – seems particularly harsh this year. Fortunately, however, it has not yet reached the Election Day low of 1855, when more than 20 people were killed and dozens injured in the aftermath of an Election Day riot in Rand Paul’s home state of Kentucky.
 
The Louisville riot broke out on the last day of March, 1855, when members of the “Know Nothing” political party confronted a group of mostly Irish and German immigrants. The Know Nothings was a party whose fundamental platform was that immigrants, especially those from a Catholic background, threatened the core of what being “American” really meant. They believed that the wave of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Central Europe was an attempt by the Vatican to “take over” the United States. 
 
In the early 1850s, Know Nothings achieved significant success in elections throughout the country, as well as in Kentucky. However, concern in Louisville about immigrant turnout at the polls led the party to station people at the polls who demanded predetermined Know Nothing passwords. People who dressed or spoke in a manner that seemed “foreign” were intimidated and bullied when attempting to vote.
 
Eventually what started as a plan to intimidate voters devolved into mob violence. The heavily armed Know Nothings outnumbered the immigrant groups and set about beating, stabbing, shooting – even lynching – suspected Irish and German Catholics. They burnt immigrant homes and business, however the mob was turned back by local officials when they set their sights on the Catholic Church.
 
Accounts do not detail who actually struck the first blow in Louisville, but waves of Know Nothing – related violence rippled across the country. In the following year, Know Nothings attacked immigrants in Cincinnati, Chicago, Columbus, New Orleans and St. Louis. 
 
Clearly there is a danger in ill-considered anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is not just that it may result in violence or even death – whether in the cities of the U.S. or abroad because individuals are denied visas due to such sentiment – but denying immigration on the basis of ethnicity or religion is dangerous to the United States’ constitution and economy. Such external discrimination can be used to justify discrimination against immigrants who are here legally, making significant contributions to American society. 
 
Moreover, if anything has become clear about U.S. business in the last two decades, it's that the tech sector and entrepreneurship have been largely immigrant-driven. Blindly closing U.S. doors due to fear-mongering does little more than hobble American businesses and stifle economic growth. 


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