America as an Immigrant Nation (and they didn’t all come from Norway)

Photo: St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Monica Ayers.

philadelphia immigrationSt. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia was founded by an Irish immigrant, Fr. Matthew Carr, as the first Augustinian presence in the United States. It has a special place in my heart, for many reasons. Villanova University, my alma mater, traces its roots to the academy that existed there in the early 1800s. After graduation I joined the Augustinian Friars and lived at the church’s friary during the summer prior to my novitiate. Years later, having left the Augustinians a better man for having been with them, I married my wife in that magnificent church, and it remains our parish home today.

Fear of Immigrants is Nothing New

As with many Catholic churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, St. Augustine’s served a largely immigrant population, mostly Irish Catholics who had fled persecution and sought the religious freedom that America promised – in the city designed by William Penn with an emphasis on the promotion of religious tolerance, via its five public squares. The church is within walking distance of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitutional Convention was held.

Throughout America’s history this ideal of religious tolerance has unfortunately remained unmet. The story of American Catholics offers a vivid illustration of this shortcoming. The reasons are complex, and have some historical roots in the Catholic-Protestant fights that have existed since the Reformation. But in America the disdain for Catholics was as much an anti-immigrant sentiment as it was an anti-Catholic one. When Irish and Italian immigrants began immigrating to the United States in larger numbers in the 18th century, they were viewed as a threat by the “natives,” and violent encounters were commonplace.

The Irish Catholics who found a home in St. Augustine’s have a story that should sound familiar. They were not the most educated Irishmen. They frequently had large families, allowing them to quickly take over communities. They would compete for jobs, particularly those being lost in the wake of industrialization.

If these concerns were not enough, these immigrants also held a religious allegiance greater than their patriotic one. In 1844, when the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia, Francis Kenrick, requested that the city grant Catholic students permission to bring Catholic translations of the Bible to school instead of Protestant ones, and that they be excluded from certain religious education classes, the group known as the Nativists saw the need to save the community from religious extremists beholden to the “bloody hand of the pope.” This led to a violent conflict known as the Nativist Riots, and among other acts of violence, members of the Know Nothing Party, also known as the Native American Party (or Nativists, so as not to be confused with Native American Indians), burned St. Augustine’s to the ground.

This history is useful to keep in mind whenever the contentious issue of immigration comes to the fore of our political discussions, because it reminds us that as a nation of immigrants, built on the backs of immigrants, we have from the beginning acted with some hostility towards immigrants, hostility usually rooted in fear and ignorance.

The Anti-Immigration Canard

The fear that led to the torching of St. Augustine’s and St. Michael’s in Kensington, along with other attacks aimed at Irish Catholic homes and institutions, was rooted in the same instinct for security that drives much of the anti-immigrant sentiment today. They’re going to steal our jobs. They’re a drain on our economy. God forbid they’re Muslims, because then they want to impose sharia law and take over our country in the name of Muhammed or the caliphate or some other Muslim term we don’t understand except for what the uninformed (or worse, the maliciously mis-informing) have taught us to believe.

The instinct for security is a good and necessary one. It is a mistake, however, to believe that a liberal attitude towards immigration is at odds with a recognition of the need for security, nor does an openness to immigrants and refugees mean that we should place the needs of our own citizens as secondary to the needs of those seeking a better life here. These represent false dichotomies. We already institute the highest level of scrutiny and screening, and we continue to enhance our screening capabilities. We have the ability to increase the flow of immigration to the United States without sacrificing the security of our people. We can continue to honor the greatest of our historical virtues while keeping our citizens safe and secure.

An Economy Starving for Increased Immigration

The irony of today’s nativism is that, despite the claims that it represents a desire to protect American workers, to strengthen our economy, and to make America great (again), the effect is the opposite. We currently face a unique, tri-fold economic challenge: one, we have a near-record number of unemployed persons in the United States; two, we are approaching full employment, a somewhat complex concept, but the consequence being there is no more room for jobs growth without some change in circumstances; and three, we face a record number of job openings.

This may seem absurd, as if each of the three are mutually contradictory. Each of these factors, however, speaks to different components of the job market. The record number of unemployed is a count of all those able to work but not employed, and includes millions of Americans who have ceased looking. That latter group, those no longer seeking, are not represented in our low unemployment rate, which only considers those who are unemployed but actively searching. We are potentially approaching full employment (some economists argue we are already there) because while our economy is strong and growing, we have added so many jobs that a point potentially approaches where economic growth will not be enough to justify increased hiring. It’s an issue that is addressed in various ways, from monetary policy to free market principles, but one of the most effective ways is to break down any barriers businesses face to increased growth. This brief sidetrack on the economy leads us to our third point, which is germane to the discussion of immigration.

We have a record number of job openings because we do not have the workers in our workforce whose skills match the requirements of the jobs to be filled. Online job boards are filled with thousands of jobs that have been open for months. It is common for companies to place a job posting, then after it is unfilled for several months to repost it with slight modifications. The inability to fill these positions stifles a company’s ability to grow, growth that would also lead to an increase in jobs requiring the sorts of skills that our record numbers of unemployed possess.

The fact that we do have a record number of job openings and lack the workers to fill them is a direct appeal to increased immigration. Our economy demands it. Until such time as we have the labor force here with those skills, we are hurting businesses by depriving them of the increased flow of immigration that they need. And while the needs reflected in these job openings largely represent immigrants with higher degrees of education and specialized skills, most of these aren’t coming from countries like Norway.

Many will argue that this only means we should focus on a merit-based immigration policy. We should only accept, or we should heavily prioritize, the acceptance of those immigrants who can demonstrate the ability to fill an immediate unmet need. It’s those other immigrants we need to keep out, the ones who want to steal our jobs and change our nation. The undesirables. These are the ones coming from the countries that our president recently referenced with such eloquence.

This argument fails, because the overwhelming number of jobs that this latter group of immigrants are filling are jobs that our current unemployed aren’t seeking anyway. They are jobs in agriculture, hospitality, and services. Even in industries like manufacturing and construction, where we are consistently led to believe immigrants are coming to steal our jobs, there is no significant competition between white American men and, say, foreign-born Hispanic immigrants, as they serve different occupations within those industries. The idea that immigrants are stealing our jobs is a canard.

Become What We Believe – An Augustinian Appeal

St. Augustine, the fifth century bishop and theologian who is the namesake of that Philadelphia Irish immigrant church, understood the Catholic concept of Eucharist largely in terms of the Church’s role as the Body of Christ. One body, many parts. Not entirely unlike the American motto, e pluribus unum: out of many, one. While presiding at the liturgy he would pray, “Believe what you see, see what you believe, and become what you are: the Body of Christ.” It was nothing less than a call to unity in the midst of diversity.

We are an immigrant nation, and despite the tensions, bigotry, and at times violence that has colored our immigrant history, it is nonetheless the source of one of our greatest strengths. The diversity that immigration engenders in America is a great testament to the principle that forms the cornerstone of our existence as a nation, the idea that all men are created equal, endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By appealing to canard that immigrants today are a threat to both our economic and physical security, which often is nothing but bigotry disguised as patriotism, we deny that which makes America great, and we reject the immigrant soul that has animated the growth of our nation from the beginning.

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