Montana Viewpoint: ‘Send them back’ isn’t new, but vile nonetheless

Jim Elliott

A crowd chants “send her back” referring to a United States congresswoman. They reason that because she is an immigrant, and because she criticizes the status quo, she is unAmerican. If those are the two criteria they are working on, then we might as well all go back.

Except for the original Americans, the Native peoples, we are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. No one asked us to come here, we just came, and ever since, every new wave of immigrants has been reviled and disparaged by those who came before them.

Today, we don’t want Hispanic immigrants. Before that we didn’t want Italian, Irish, German, Polish, Greek, you name it. In short, our ancestors who came to America were not made welcome here.

We also meet the second criterion. If the comments on news stories are accurate, if the “opinion makers” of right and left are representative, it is hard to find someone today who does not have something critical to say about America or Americans. Basically, it can be distilled into, “America is going to hell and it’s all because of ‘them.’ ”

You don’t have to call what they say fascist or Nazi or racist or socialist or communistic or anything else. It is just plain scapegoating. It is mean. It is rude. It is unbecoming. It is behavior our mothers would not condone; it is a dangerous anger which has only the purpose to drive us apart. 

In 1754, Benjamin Franklin published a cartoon of a snake severed into eight pieces, each of which represented an American colony or region. Its legend was, “Join or Die.” There was then a belief that a snake cut into pieces could recover if its parts were reassembled before sunset. Franklin was urging the American Colonies to join in common cause against the British government before it was too late. 

We are at a similar point, today. America has enemies. Enemies that are happy to see us fighting amongst ourselves, because when we do that, we ignore the threats these other nations pose to our nationhood.

Look, everyone who came to America voluntarily (millions of Africans did not) came here to find a better world for themselves and their families. No one came here looking for a handout, and no one offered them one. They didn’t ask much other than to be able to live here and earn a living, even if it was not much of one. They took jobs that were below the dignity of earlier immigrants. They did the work that no one else would do. They still do. This is the story of all our ancestors.

 “Send them back” is nothing new. It has been around for most of our nationhood, showing that rudeness and intolerance is part of the American culture. But so is compassion and acceptance, the difference being that we direct the former toward people we don’t know and the latter at people we do know. Every generation of immigrants has felt threatened by the next generation of immigrants. You would think that looking back we would know that and give up on worrying about it, and we might, if a bunch of rabble-rousers didn’t make such a big deal of it.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.