Thursday, June 21, 2018

On immigration: You came yesterday. We come today.

In the 1939 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, a French guard scowls at a band of strangers. "No Gypsies can enter Paris without a permit!" he insists. "It's the new law."

One of the Gypsies shrugs and says: "Foreigners! You came yesterday, we come today."

Just as moviegoers that year were lamenting the plight of the film's Gypsy heroine Esmeralda, Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis were seeking sanctuary in Miami. Authorities turned the ship away.

These are a few examples from the past that come to mind as we face our current controversy over immigration laws. Just in the last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio, sketched the broad outlines of how they believe the nation should enforce its borders while creating a path to citizenship for many immigrants here illegally. And a day later President Barack Obama unveiled his own proposals.

Historically, in our nation of immigrants and in Florida — a state where most residents come from someplace else — we still debate the question of which newcomers are allowed in. Immigration has defined and divided Florida, a place known for cultural and racial diversity for much of its 500 years.

Upon arriving in Pensacola in 1819 as three centuries of Spanish rule ended, Rachel Jackson, the feisty wife of Gov. Andrew Jackson, expressed horror. "The inhabitants all speak Spanish and French. Some speak four languages," she deplored. "Jamaican blacks bearing prodigious burdens on their heads; a fish peddler filling the street with incomprehensible cries."

While colonial Pensacola and St. Augustine boasted diverse populations, substantial numbers of immigrants did not arrive in Florida until the late 19th century.

Key West was an ethnic island in the Deepest South. So many Cuban exiles fled to Key West that by 1890 "Cayo Hueso" was Florida's largest city. "To a person who has never visited this island," rhapsodized Abbie Brooks, "it is almost impossible to imagine that only miles from the mainland of Florida is a city so nearly in appearance to the Spanish dominions of the Old World where hardly a sentence of English is heard."

In 1886, a new and even greater immigrant community took hold in Tampa. Ybor City became the center for the manufacture of Cuban cigars and home to thousands of Cubans, Spaniards and Italians.

In 1906, agents lured Greek sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands to Tarpon Springs. Thousands of Greeks joined their compatriots, making Tarpon Springs one of the most exotic Greek enclaves in the United States.

In the past, Floridians' attitudes towards immigration alternated between acceptance and revulsion. Consider the plight of German immigrants during World War I. Germans had been idealized as model immigrants — industrious, literate and patriotic. And while their numbers in Florida were negligible, the specter of the barbarous Hun sparked fear. Gov. Sidney Catts, the self-proclaimed "Cracker Messiah," warned Floridians of papal plots. He monitored the activities of German monks at St. Leo Monastery in Pasco County. In Tampa, authorities seized control of the German-American Club. In 1918, Florida's Board of Control voted to eliminate German language courses. Americans reeling from the upheavals of war looked for a safety valve. Congress drastically restricted "undesirable" immigrants — Italians, Eastern European Jews and Slavs, and Asians. In 1926, Floridians passed an amendment that banned Asians from inheriting or purchasing property.

World War II served as a watershed in healing old grievances. What seemed like searing ethnic and religious discord in America before the war paled in comparison to the horror American GIs encountered in Asia and Europe. Many Italian, Polish and Jewish Americans felt the war validated their faith in the American Dream.

Postwar Florida became home to large numbers of Jewish immigrants and transplants. The Jewish population of Miami exploded, rising from 8,000 in 1940 to 140,000 in 1960. "More than anything," Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote upon his first visit to Miami Beach in 1948, "palm trees symbolized the American paradise."

On New Year's Eve 1958, Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista turned over power to a young rebel, Fidel Castro, who was no stranger to Florida. In 1955, the revolutionary raised funds in Tampa for his revolution.

Few realized it, but Miami was on the threshold of change so immense that words such as "revolution" seem inadequate. The first waves of Cubans were embraced and assisted by Miami and the U.S. government. Defiantly insisting that they were exiles, not emigrants, the new arrivals represented Cuba's elites. The Cuban Refugee Program provided the most generous benefits ever offered to American immigrants.

In 1980, in spasms of pathos and chaos, black Haitian bodies washed ashore in South Florida. A new term entered the lexicon: "boat people."

If tony beach communities recoiled at the influx of Haitians, Miami welcomed, at least initially, the first wave of 125,000 Marielitos. The Cuban port of Mariel became the focal point and namesake for the tumultuous events. Pawns of a bankrupt Cuban revolution, Marielitos were poorer, blacker and younger than previous emigrants. The lasting image of Mariel may be the 1983 film Scarface, which introduced Tony Montana.

In 1995, Congress revised the Cuban Adjustment Act, implementing the so-called Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot policy that granted asylum to Cuban refugees who touch the Florida shoreline. The legislation spoke to the clout of the Cuban lobby and freedom's call.

Miami is not simply a great American city; it remains one of the world's great immigrant cities. Today, 60 percent of the 2.4 million inhabitants of Miami-Dade speak Spanish at home. They may speak Spanish at home and work, but Americanization wields a powerful hold upon the second and third generations. For a half century, overthrowing Fidel dominated political dialogue, and Cubans voted solidly Republican. In the 2012 elections, Cuban Americans split their vote evenly between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

New waves of immigrants — Nicaraguans, Dominicans and Hondurans — have succeeded Cubans in Miami. To identify the most recent arrivals, old-timers recommend listening to the accents of new waitresses.

This Latinization, once confined to South Florida, has spread across the state. Large communities of Mexicans have settled in places such as Immokalee and Wimauma, Zolfo Springs and LaBelle. Today, 400,000 Mexican immigrants reside in Florida, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. However, the Mexican population is fluid, and the number of illegals fluctuates wildly depending upon the economy.

The fastest-growing Hispanic group in Florida is not Mexican or Cuban, but Puerto Rican. Disenchanted by a lack of opportunities on the island and in New York, Puerto Ricans began moving to Central Florida in large numbers in the 1980s. The 2010 Census documents what real estate agents have long understood: 875,000 Puerto Ricans reside in the Sunshine State, including more than 300,000 in Central Florida. Pundits credit the Puerto Rican vote with tipping the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to Obama.

Political unrest in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil has quickened the movement of people and capital to South Florida in search of political and economic security.

Immigration to Florida is not confined to Hispanics. Guatemalans who work as day laborers in Jupiter define themselves as Maya, not Hispanic. Vietnamese fishermen have thrived in the Panhandle. Asians, primarily from India, Korea, and the Philippines, compose Florida's fastest-growing immigrant group.

A century ago, Florida cities were often synonymous with cigars or oranges. Today, Miramar, Lauderhill and Sweetwater radiate the smells and sounds of Jamaica. Sunny Isles Beach boasts its "Little Moscow," while Doral has earned a reputation as "Gateway to South America."

Immigration remains a hot-button issue in Florida. Had it not been for immigration during the Great Recession, the Sunshine State may have actually lost population. While it's an imprecise science, demographers estimate that Florida had nearly 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants in 2007, a figure that declined to 825,000 in 2010. Still, the numbers of legal immigrants during that time period increased notably.

The issue of illegal immigration is less volatile in Florida than the in Southwest because Puerto Ricans hold American citizenship, and Cubans, even undocumented Cubans, are provided sanctuary once they touch dry land.

A surge in multiracial families has complicated traditional census categories. Until 2000, the census form listed categories of black, white, Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander. Chinese Jamaicans and Indo Brazilians typically check the box for a new designation, "some other race."

Immigration continues to test our noblest ideals — compassion, freedom and egalitarianism — with our base fears. As the Old Testament reminds us, "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."

Gary R. Mormino, a professor emeritus of history at USF St. Petersburg and co-founder of its Florida Studies Program, is scholar in residence at the nonprofit Florida Humanities Council (, which sponsors public programs around the state exploring Florida's history and culture.

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