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Is Trump Turning the GOP Into the "Know Nothing" Party?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

"Immigration reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier.....new arrivals... crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared..." Anyone who reads this excerpt from Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, may think he was describing today's Europe or United States. Actually, he was talking about the United States in the mid-1850s and the "new arrivals" referred to newly arrived German and Irish Catholic immigrants.


By the mid-1850s, the U.S. received a large influx of immigrants, including two million German immigrants and over one million Irish immigrants. The City of Boston was called the "Dublin of America" because one of every three people living in the city were Irish. These immigrants were often regarded by native born Americans as unwanted competition for jobs, especially low paying jobs. In addition, many Americans regarded Irish Catholic immigrants as threats to our "republic values" because they feared Catholics would be more loyal to the Pope in Rome than to an American president.

A group of anti-immigrant native-born Americans formed the Native American Party, commonly known as the Know Nothing party because their party members' standard reply to questions about their activities was, "I know nothing about it." The Know Nothing Party advocated severe restrictions on immigration, the exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office in the U.S. and for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. In addition, they argued the nation's business owners should employ true Americans by denying employment to immigrants. Riding the popular anti-immigrants sentiment, the Know Nothing party won a series of local and congressional elections. It even nominated Millard Fillmore as their presidential candidate for the 1856 election. Fillmore lost the election, carrying only one state: Maryland. The party quickly declined after that.


Why is a history lesson on the "Know Nothing" party important? Because Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric sounds similar to the rhetoric once uttered by members of the Know Nothing party. Trump began his presidential campaign by taking a strong anti-illegal immigration stand. He accused Mexico of sending "people that have lots of problems" to America including rapists, drug runners, and other criminals. In his recently issued immigration policy plan, Trump expanded his anti-immigrant rhetoric to include legal immigration. He declared an "influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans," and he calls for a halt to the issuance of new green card until Americans are back to work.

Trump's soaring popularity among GOP voters forced some other Republican candidates to take a tough stand against legal immigrants as well. The most noticeable one is Scott Walker, who spoke favorably of a plan from Senator Jeff Session to reduce legal immigrants. Trump deserves credit for making immigration an important election year issue. But he is also running the risk of turning a fraction of the Republican party into the modern day "Know Nothing" and it is not a good thing.

We have 42 million immigrants in this country, including the 11 million illegal immigrants. This means the majority of our immigrants came here legally, followed the rules and met our requirements. Unfortunately, legal immigrants don’t have much of a voice in the current immigration debate. When most policy makers talk about immigration reform, they largely ignore the legal immigration group. It is important whenever we talk about immigrants and immigration reform, we need to draw a clear distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.


Legal immigration benefits our economy. Legal immigrants have a higher propensity to start businesses than native-born Americans. That shouldn't come as a surprise because only people who are risk-takers will pick themselves up and move to another country. Immigrants are 13% of the U.S. population, but they own 20% of the small businesses. In Silicon Valley, 44% of the high-tech businesses has at least one immigrant founder. These immigrants are creating jobs and contributing to America's Economy. For example, the Manhattan Institute analysis showed that in 2012 alone, immigrant founded businesses employed approximately 560,000 workers and generated $63 billion in sales. The same analysis concluded that " To help move our economy forward, we must embrace a more flexible system that allows more potential workers to enter the country legally. This will benefit native-born Americans, who will see broader job opportunities."

Thus, we must reform our immigration system. I strongly support securing our borders, enforcing immigration laws and reforming welfare eligibility for immigrants. But reforming immigration laws is different from being anti-immigration. As Rick Perry pointed out in his address suspending his presidential campaign, "We can secure the border and reform our immigration system without inflammatory rhetoric, without base appeals that divide us based on race, culture and creed. Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ. We can enforce our laws and our borders, and we can love all who live within our borders, without betraying our values."


One such conservative values is our faith in a free enterprise system, which is not a zero sum game because when everyone is empowered to better their lives through hard work, we can grow the pie. Rick Perry continued "we cannot indulge nativist appeals that divide the nation further." What we should do is to support a political leader who has the courage and wisdom to craft a new legal immigration proposal based on free market economic principles which not only keeps the bad guys out, but also attracts more America -loving and hard working immigrants to come to America and help grow our economic pie.

If we want such a leader in the office of Presidency, we can't afford to alienate legal immigrants, who now constitute about 10% of our population. As Bobby Jindal declared in a recent speech "The real danger is that, ironically, Donald Trump could destroy America's chance to be great again" by doing just that. Trump is turning the Republican Party into the modern day "Know Nothing" party and it is time primary voters stop him from accomplishing that.

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