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A nation of immigrants

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Chances are that the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. thinks that the Monroe Doctrine has something to do with Marilyn, even if indirectly.

In fact, it dates from the time of James Monroe, the fifth president. Essentially, he drew a line along the east coast of the Americas south of the U.S. and said this is our backyard. Wars of liberation had just expelled Spain and Portugal and the president made clear that, from here on in, the U.S. would not tolerate any more meddling by Europeans in the hemisphere.

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Some Latin Americans were suspicious from the start, seeing this anti-meddling policy as itself meddling. Others thought it impractical. For instance, Simón Bolívar, aka the Liberator, admired the U.S. and its revolution, but would have preferred an arrangement with Britain, because only its navy could prevent interference from other European powers.

However, American power grew over the 19th century and into the 20th, and eventually the doctrine became an expression of its hegemony in the region. Many saw it as a positive thing, while others denounced it as “Yankee imperialism.” According to the critics, the U.S. was saying: “Let us be in charge and in return…well, we’ll figure it out.”

Certainly, there were times during the Cold War, when the U.S. tended to regard certain Latin American nation-states as satellites, in the way the USSR did the nation-states behind the Iron Curtain. So, the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968, and five years later the Chilean experiment with democratic socialism was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet, a brutal dictator who ruled for 16 years with American backing.

Still, where you have these types of imperial or paternalistic relationships, the political, economic and cultural links go deep -– which is why many Jamaicans, for instance, look to London as the metropolitan center and Algerians to Paris.

Likewise, there are historic reasons why people from El Salvador look north. Last week, we heard that the Administration in DC has lifted the Temporary Protection Status for 200,000 people from that country. Some would have it that El Salvador is some distant backwater that has no connection to the U.S., and that taking in so many of its people affected by the 2001 earthquakes was some sort of elaborate charitable gesture.

Complicit in coverup

That Central American nation was pretty important when its most famous citizen, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was greatly admired both by the Catholic church’s progressives, such as Ireland’s Bishop Eamon Casey, and by its conservative leadership in the Vatican. In 1978, the call for him to get the Nobel Peace Prize was supported by 119 British parliamentarians and 26 members of the U.S Congress.

El Salvador was so important that when three Irish-American women — now considered Catholic martyrs — were killed there with a colleague, the U.S. government was complicit in attempting to cover up the circumstances of their deaths.

Romero got no peace prize. Instead, the archbishop was gunned down saying Mass on March 24, 1980. And between 30 and 50 mourners among the quarter of a million who attended his funeral were massacred.

On Dec. 2, of the same year, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke (the daughter of Irish immigrants), lay missionary Jean Donovan (who’d studied for a year at University College Cork) and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, a Lithuanian American, were beaten, raped and murdered by members of El Salvador’s military.

Nobody knows for sure what Washington official — it first appeared in print in the early 1950s — uttered the line about a Latin American dictator: “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” Well, our S.O.B.s were very much behind those atrocities. And they were far from finished. Towards the end of the decade, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter were slaughtered by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion.

The Irish-American media has been playing an honorable role in bringing a little historical context to the immigration debate. Last week, Cahir O’Doherty over at Irish Central had a well-argued piece entitled: “President Donald Trump would have turned away the Famine Irish just like the Salvadorans.”

Now, of course, it’s not as if the cities of the Anglophone Protestant world welcomed with open arms boats filled with impoverished Catholics (or indeed that that the Polk or Taylor Administrations would have any done more when faced with a human catastrophe than those of Peel and Russell — my guess is less). But they were taken in, and the U.S. built its whole self-image around being a nation of immigrants and has looked back with pain and regret at those episodes where people faced bias or where targeted for belonging to a certain group. Nowadays alas, it’s lagging behind other advanced countries in its treatment of refugees.

In Irish Central’s very active comments section Cahir found some support for his position, but inevitably the little league Limbaughs were out in force, too. Some of the latter could barely disguise their glee at the prospect of the expulsion from the country of hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Democratic Party (or the Democrat Party, as they insist on calling it).

Mostly, though, the critics advanced the usual nonsense that the immigrants of the past were virtuous and plucky and today’s are not at all to be trusted. One person said that his ancestors faced “rigorous tests.” Really? What kinds of tests exactly, I wonder? You can be pretty sure that during the period of mass immigration from Europe, Czarist police agents, the Carabinieri in Italy, the Royal Irish Constabulary or the London Metropolitan Police weren’t troubled for too many background checks. I would have thought that, as in the case of the Salvadorans in this country for 17 years, staying out of trouble, raising a family, holding down a job or jobs and paying taxes are about as rigorous a set of tests as you’re likely to get.

Forlorn hope

Robert Viscusi, author of the novel “Astoria” and an English professor at Brooklyn College, once told me that the Italian-American story had been reduced for many to the “historiography of grandmother’s basil plant,” by which he meant it amounted to a few sentimental anecdotes that were completely detached from the reality of mass economic migration from Europe in the 35 years or so leading up to World War I.

People once viewed Southern Italy, from where 90 percent of that country’s immigrants came, as irredeemably poverty-stricken and backward and its people as racially inferior. The Italian North’s bigoted attitude towards the South was somewhat similar to the way some Americans today view El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti.

Bill Bryson writes in his history “One Summer: America, 1927” that the perception was whenever “problems arose, Italians seemed to be at the heart of things” even though their incarceration rates were lower than average for immigrant groups.

He is dealing with the backdrop to the executions of America’s two most famous anarchists on Aug. 23, 1927. “For working-class Italians assimilation was often a forlorn hope. Millions lived within but quite separate from America,” he says. “It is a telling point that after 12 years in the country [at the time of their arrests] Sacco and Vanzetti still barely spoke English.”

The pair were picked up in May 1920 during a period of considerable anarchist violence, which helped trigger the Red Scare of 1919-20. Notable events in the campaign of terrorism were the deaths of nine Milwaukee police officers and a female civilian in an explosion on Nov. 24, 1917, the near simultaneous detonations of large bombs in eight American cities on June 2, 1919, and and the Wall Street bombing of Sept. 16, 1920, which claimed 38 lives. The perpetrators in all instances were Italian.

In 1924, after decades of propaganda from eugenicists, Congress changed the laws to stop the flow of Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians, while favoring what were seen as the sturdier, more reliable and brighter peoples of Northwestern Europe.

So little changes. In a New Yorker essay about “Fox & Friends” also last week, Trump’s favorite TV show, Andrew Marantz wrote: “[Ainsley] Earhardt is clearly the brainiest of the three co-hosts, if only because she can get through a broadcast without any notable malapropisms or endorsements of eugenics.”