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"Author examines history of immigrants"

By Jonathan Edwards | Enterprise staff writer | September 21, 2010


The recent wave of nativism washing over certain parts of the country is part of America's long history of hand-wringing over foreigners, according to author Peter Schrag. 


The Statue of Liberty welcomes outsiders, and some of the most basic American rhetoric is about equality, tolerance and acceptance, said Schrag, who will address the local group, Saving California Communities, Thursday evening in downtown Davis.


Earlier Thursday, Schrag will sign copies of his new book, 'Not Fit for Our Society,' at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St.


Yet throughout more than 300 years of its history, America has demonized immigrants, painting them as stupid, dirty, diseased, less than human. Today, Latinos are the target of the country's xenophobia, but the nativist story is the same narrative used for centuries.


'They brought disease. They brought crime. They took jobs from Americans,' Schrag said, explaining that the 'they' in that sentence changes with time. If you're talking about the late 1800s, Chinese railroad workers bore the brunt. In the early 1900s, it was Southern and Eastern Europeans. By mid-century, as World War II got going, Germans and particularly the Japanese came under fire.


Now it's Latinos. Many states are now going through what California experienced in the early 1990s, when Proposition 187, which was later ruled unconstitutional, passed with 59 percent approval in 1994. The law would have barred undocumented residents from using public services.


States like Iowa and North Carolina are confronting the issue now, as 'people for the first time are seeing these brown faces and hearing a lot of Spanish spoken on the streets, in the mall or wherever.'


Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo is a man particularly fascinating to Schrag. The grandson of an Italian immigrant, Tancredo pushed hard for immigration reform and ran for president in 2008 on an anti-immigration platform.


Yet he 'talked so proudly' about his Italian grandfather coming to America in the early 20th century when Italians were 'the targets of the most intense prejudice about them being unfit to become Americans,' and were stereotyped as a dumb, diseased gangsters.


'The irony of that should make people think twice about the casual dismissal of new groups being ... inferior.'


But the xenophobic flames die down as people get 'familiar with these new faces, new voices, the new culture.'


At the same time, immigrants assimilate and give birth to second- and third-generation Americans, who are further folded into American culture.


'People begin to assimilate, become part of the community, start businesses, join churches, buy homes,' Schrag said. 'Then things seem to abate, which (they) always (have).'


After his book-signing, Schrag will talk about reforming California state government at 7:30 p.m. at the Odd Fellows Hall, 415 Second St. The home-grown nonprofit, Saving California Communities, will host the event, which is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Davis. The lecture is free and open to the public.


Schrag is a former editorial page editor and columnist for The Sacramento Bee. In 2004, he published a book titled 'Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future.'


- Reach Jonathan Edwards at or (530) 747-8052. Comment on this story at


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