House Speaker Paul Ryan has weighed in on Shithole-Gate.
— CNN (@CNN) January 12, 2018
Think he makes a very strong point but weakens that point with an anecdote that is meaningless in the context of 2018.
First the on-target part:
The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.”
I can’t disagree with that at all. Regardless of the truthfulness of what President Trump is alleged to have said, and I happen to think it actually cuts to the real issue of the immigration debate especially in light of the fact that assimilation has become a racist term, one of the things about being an adult, particularly one in a position of power, is that you lose the ability to say whatever comes to your mind. We have security and economic interests involving a lot of those “shithole countries.” And it is probably no newsflash to them that they are shithole countries. But it isn’t something that makes the job of American diplomats, intelligence operatives, or military officers any easier.
Then to the second part.
“My family like a whole lot of people came from Ireland on what they called coffin ships and came here and worked the railroads. The Irish were really looked down upon in those days,” Ryan said detailing how his ancestors emigrated from Ireland and ended up in Janesville, Wisconsin.
“I hear all these stories from my relatives about ‘Irish need not apply.’ [The Irish] could basically get constructions jobs, cops or firefighter jobs. And James and Catherine Ryan came over and literally worked the railroad until they had enough money to buy a farm, which happened to be outside of Janesville, Wisconsin.
“Then their son, my great-grandfather, started a railroad business with horse plows and it’s an earth moving business which to this day is run by my cousins. It is a beautiful story of America, and that is a great story.”
“That is a story we have today, that is a story we had yesterday. And that is what makes this country so exceptional and unique in the first place,” Ryan went on. “So I see this as something to celebrate and I think it’s a big part of our strength, whether you are coming from Haiti. We’ve got great friends from Africa in Janesville who are doctors, who are just incredible citizens.”
To be charitable, this is an apples and automobiles comparison.
When Ryan’s ancestors immigrated they did so in an era where the United States needed people. The first limit on immigration to the U.S. didn’t happen until 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Until that time, literally anyone could come to America and stay here so long as they could find a means of transportation. Indeed, that was U.S. immigration policy until the early 20th century. The hostility Ryan’s ancestors faced had no impact on their ability to come here or stay here. The same can be said, at various times, about Scots-Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and all manner of Eastern Europeans.
As the demand for labor decreased, and concerns about assimilation increased, limits were placed on who was allowed to enter the United States. Formal ports of entry were established at Ellis Island and Angel Island to screen and process immigrants. Quality became a concern. In 1882 mental defectives and infectious disease carriers were banned. In 1901 anarchists were barred from entering the United States. In 1917, we banned the illiterate. In 1921, national quotas were established and that brought down the curtain on the era of mass immigration. Which nations do you think did the best under the national quota system? The developed nations or the rest of the world?
Nothing Trump said would apply to Ryan’s “great friends from Africa in Janesville who are doctors.” Just the opposite. What Trump has been pushing is basing the ability to immigrate on merit. Who it would effect is a Somali street corner drug dealer in Minneapolis.
The fact is the United States today is a radically different place than it was in the 19th century and 19th century anecdotes are hardly useful. Today, an immigrant who doesn’t speak English and has no skills and doesn’t bring some resources with him has a greater chance of ending up as a welfare recipient, or in jail, than he does of becoming a self-supporting citizen. The jobs that used to be available to no-skill applicants are being automated or simply being made extinct by minimum wage laws. Across Europe we’re seeing the grim effects of allowing “wretched refuse,” to coin a phrase, with faint hope of finding gainful employment immigrate without constraint. You don’t need to look far in the United States to see the impact of creating insular communities with no attachment to the American ideal beyond physical safety.
What Trump said was crude and boorish and immensely unhelpful…especially to himself. And Paul Ryan is right to call attention to that. Beyond that, I don’t think Ryan’s family saga was any more helpful to today’s debate than was Trump’s statement.