I read with interest the article titled “Where do Descendants of Immigrants Stand on Modern Immigration?” written by Brent Currie and published in the Armenian Weekly on September 11, 2019. For years now I and, I would guess, many other Armenians have read interviews with Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and pondered how a grandson of Genocide survivors could possibly voice such anti-immigration views as “If You Want Less Income Inequality, Then Enforce Immigration Laws” [@MarkSKrikorian September 13, 2019].
Krikorian thinks immigration encourages nationalism. He has attended workshops by John Tanton and termed a racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was against the Dream Act, which would have granted permanent residency to immigrants who entered the country as children. Actually, he would like to stop most immigration, admitting only Einsteins and perhaps those married to citizens. He supports Trump’s policy of deporting any “illegal aliens” found in the US (”so they don’t put down roots in America” (New Republic, June 19, 2019). This includes asylum seekers who are running from violent spouses or violent criminals. (One victim of domestic violence was murdered by her spouse as soon as she was removed from the United States.) The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated his organization (CIS) an anti-immigrant hate group “for its repeated circulation of white nationalist and antisemitic writers in its weekly newsletter and the commissioning of a policy analyst who had previously been pushed out of the conservative Heritage Foundation for his embrace of racist pseudoscience.” [medium.com]
Krikorian argues that today’s immigrants should be rejected because while the supplicants trying to enter may be the same, our country is now different. His argument: immigration weakens our national identity (although it’s unclear what he thinks that is) and limits opportunities for our upward mobility. But, of course, he neglects the fact that immigrants are not generally competing with citizens for jobs; they often tackle jobs that most Americans don’t want. Without immigrant help, strawberries rot in the ground, summer resorts cannot open, nail salons close, sewing machines are unmanned, taxi drivers are harder to find, the list goes on. Nor are immigrants overrunning our country. According to bushcenter.org (yes, that Bush), immigrants only account for 13.5 percent of the total population. Almost 12 million workers are employed by Fortune 500 companies started by immigrants, and they are more likely to have college degrees than native-born Americans. Those who don’t are willing to start at the bottom—witness Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, at one time an undocumented immigrant who started by picking tomatoes, corn and broccoli and is now a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital. Armenians should recognize this trajectory: it was followed by some of our grandparents and great grandparents when they first came to the US.
So what is that about—this hatred, perhaps fear, of immigrants? It is certainly not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the same kind of behavior was evident after the Armenian Genocide. The fact that Krikorian’s family immigrated here safely is more a fluke of history than evidence of a nation’s humanistic immigration policies. As we are fond of saying, America is a land of immigrants—having made short work of the indigenous people who got here first. Our doors were relatively open to immigrants, especially those of European heritage, for many years. Between 1880 and 1920, Americans took in more than 20 million immigrants. However, xenophobia boiled over by 1917 as America entered the war, and the US passed the Immigration Act of 1917 that established a literacy requirement for immigrants and stopped immigration from most Asian countries. Between the late 1880s to 1914, over 50,000 Armenians immigrated to the US through Ellis Island, but once the war started, immigration became virtually impossible.
It is not an accident that the Armenians were abandoned by the west during and after the Genocide. Once the war was over, the US lost no time is cozying up to Turkey who controlled access to Mosul oil. Indeed, an early and infamous example of “fake news” titled “Turkey Reinterpreted” was written by US Rear Admiral Colby M. Chester and published in the New York Times September issue of Current Affairs to mute stories of the desperate fate of the Armenians during the Genocide so the United States would not turn against the Turkish government:
The Armenians in 1915 were moved from the inhospitable regions where they were not welcome and could not actually prosper to the most delightful and fertile part of Syria…where the climate is as benign as in Florida and California whither New York millionaires journey every year for health and recreation. This was done at great expense of money and effort.
Colby was the admiral who controlled the fleet in the waters off Smyrna in 1922 and under whose direct orders US naval personnel were prevented from saving the desperate Armenians and Greeks who had thrown themselves into the sea to escape the fires that the Turks had set in the city. This admiral knew the truth. It was simply inconvenient when getting rich is the goal. In October 1922 Albert MacKenzie in the New York Times Current History refuted Chester’s comments, calling them “pernicious,” which of course they were. MacKenzie does not pull a punch: he attacks Chester’s assertions with the clarity and power of one who spent eight months traveling the interior of Turkey after the Genocide, pleading with the authorities to allow the “spectres that have survived” to be taken to the American hospital. “Oftentimes permission was refused.” The Turkish Inspector “begrudged them their lives.” One by one MacKenzie obliterated Chester’s assertions with his own direct experience. This is no “benign” climate, for example; this is the killing fields. Chester’s lies were a deliberate scheme to change the narrative in order to curry favor with the Turks, and he and others got away with it, so much so that when news started leaking out a decade or more later from Germany that Jews were being attacked, the press was hesitant to report it on the front pages at first because they did not want to be “fooled” again. In 1915 we were the “starving Armenians” in newspaper headlines about the Genocide. While that did not affect US policy, it did produce some action in the nonprofit sector as Americans donated money to save Armenian children from the “ravages of the Turkish sword” as the posters demonstrated. However, once the war was over, those stories stopped, and the deserts of Der Zor became Florida beach sand. Suddenly the Turks were our nation’s friends, and Armenians trying to escape were ignored. We have been fighting this “fake news”—various forms of genocide denial—for over a century.
Until 1921 US immigration law was relatively generous. While being “oriental” was a distinct disadvantage, as seen in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (which affected Armenians at one point until they “proved” in court that they were Caucasian), the country did not have a quota system—until 1921. In that year an immigration law was passed that set numerical limits on who could enter the US: immigration was restricted to three percent per year of US residents from their country of origin as of the census of 1910. In 1924 when the act was revised, those figures were changed to two percent based on the census of 1890, making immigration even more difficult. On December 20, 1921 the Associated Press in Washington published a story that demonstrated the tragic results of this restrictive immigration policy: 17 Armenians, women and children, were murdered in Constantinople. They had come to the United States to seek safety but were deported back to Turkey as being in excess of the quota. Among them were the mother and sister of a young Armenian student who was studying in Boston.
Why go over this painful ground one more time: because Mr. Krikorian wants to make distinctions between people then and people now. He thinks that we are different, that we cannot accept large numbers of immigrants, that our economy cannot absorb such people. He should talk to the hotel owners on the east coast, the farmers in California, the lawn care personnel in American suburbs. I am singling out Krikorian because he makes himself quite the target, but I have heard other Armenians voice such opinions, and I find this shocking. Far more important than jobs or racial tensions or nationalistic fervor is what many of us just cannot accept: caging small children, allowing people to die in our custody and sending innocent people back to their home countries to die whose only “crime” is trying to save their lives and those of their family members. If being genocide survivors confers anything upon us, it should be empathy. Without that no important lessons have been learned—by anyone.