According to family history, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother immigrated to Kansas from Germany in the 1880s.
They settled in a Barton County community already established by German immigrants who had started farms, created a Catholic parish and opened businesses. My grandfather was born in a sod dugout, before the family moved to a more traditional farmhouse.
My family’s story is not much different from that of many Kansans. Most of us are the descendants of immigrants, many of whom had more hope than money and more optimism than knowledge of what they were getting into.
They came to Kansas to build better lives for themselves and their families. They also built churches and schools, businesses and roads. In large part, they built Kansas.
That doesn’t mean they were always welcome. As nasty and divided as we seem today, our politics were sometimes even nastier.
For example, in the decade before the Civil War, slavery split the nation not just in two, but into numerous factions. The debate over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state caused a huge brawl on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As described by House historians, more than 30 House members were involved in the fight on Feb. 6, 1858, as debate over a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas devolved into insults and then fisticuffs. The ruckus ended debate for the night. Eventually the House narrowly accepted a competing constitution from Kansas abolitionists.
And slavery was not the nation’s only fault line. Immigration also angered many Americans in the mid-1800s. Famine in Ireland, railroad construction and the California gold rush were among several factors that brought immigrants to the United States — in larger numbers than today if measured as a percent of the overall population.
The American Party — also known as the Know-Nothing Party — was created to stop them. A 2017 piece in Smithsonian magazine encapsulated the party’s platform and influence this way:
“At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party … included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. …”
The Know Nothings gained political ground in the 1850s in part because the Democratic and Whig parties were falling apart over disagreements about slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, pondering his political affiliation, wrote in 1855:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty …”
The Know-Nothings faded from historical significance as the newly formed Republican Party gained traction, and as the need for soldiers in the North and South grew. According to a history compiled by a group associated with Ellis Island, the 1864 Republican Party platform stated:
"Foreign immigration which in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase of power to the nation … should be fostered and encouraged."
It’s clear that our immigration laws and policies need an overhaul. Sensible means of providing opportunities for immigrants while looking out for taxpayers and national security are clearly possible. After all, this country has been making immigration work for it for more than 200 years.
Our politicians’ refusal to adopt reforms that recognize our values and ideals seems less the fault of immigrants than of those politicians who traffic in fear and bigotry.
As a nation, we have always had such politicians. In the past, we have seldom allowed them to prevail.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.