Nevada’s Been Both Ahead and Behind Nation’s Refugee Discussion

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

In the wake of the horror that struck France, Governor Brian Sandoval said that he was asking Nevada agencies to determine the number of Syrian refugees already in the state and awaiting a federal response to the situation. A few hours later, he wrote to President Barack Obama to request that the president “direct a comprehensive review of the refugee eligiblity, security oversight and resettlement processes in our nation … and to consider necessary refinements to these policies and practices given the recent tragedy in France.”

So why did Sandoval spin from a logical reaction to a fearful, bigoted one? Yes, there are political explanations—his fellow Republicans (Senator Dean Heller and Representatives Mark Amodei, Cresent Hardy and Joe Heck) all came out against the program and voted accordingly in the House. (To be fair, Heck’s opponent in the race for Harry Reid’s Senate seat, Catherine Cortez Masto, shamefully agreed with the idea of stopping the refugees.)

Winston Churchill was on to something when he said, “It is always more easy to discover and proclaim general principles than to apply them.” But there’s a historical explanation, too, involving the U.S. and Nevada: fear of the other, and different ways of expressing it.

The immigration debate that has long roiled American politics has been a continuum of America’s history and Nevada’s. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were aimed, in part, at French immigrants. Many Americans had no use for the Irish who arrived after the potato blight of the 1840s. The “Great Migration” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries included southern and eastern Europeans who faced discrimination, and westerners long had no use for the Chinese (except to exploit them) and considerable fear of the Japanese (long before World War II). Latinos and Latinas today are the latest examples—recall that Donald Trump was trying to foment outrage against them before diverting his attention to Muslims, and that his party was almost completely silent in response.

Nevada has been both better and worse. The Comstock Lode’s discovery of silver ore led to polyglot cultures in Virginia City. In a lot of places, the Irish, especially Irish Catholics, faced discrimination and worse. In Nevada, the Irish comprised a large segment of the population and included some of the state’s most popular figures. But in Eureka, Italian immigrants who stood up for themselves in the late 1870s were victims of violence, and some left Nevada entirely.

Early 20th-century Nevadans were divided over Basques, who worked cheaply as sheepherders (ranchers liked that) but tried to maintain their culture here before returning home. Eventually, Nevadans celebrated the Basque culture, in large part because of the writings of Robert Laxalt and the political success of Paul Laxalt, whose grandson, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, has joined a lawsuit against Obama’s immigration policy.

Italians and Jews became crucial to the gaming industry and consequently enjoyed economic and political power. But they faced trouble, too. In the early 1950s, Senator Pat McCarran, D-Nev., the son of Catholic Irish immigrants—was the driving force behind legislation to target “subversive” immigrants. McCarran complained about “hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies …. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States …”

President Harry Truman vetoed the bill and was overridden. Truman’s veto message observed, “Today, we are “protecting” ourselves … against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic. … We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again ….”

A Harry from Nevada, Reid, said last week, “We are America. We come to the defense of the defenseless. We come to the aid of those in need. And right now, we are needed. Make no mistake—we will always put America’s safety and security first. We also will never lose sight of our principles.” He even applied those principles. How sad that so many of Nevada’s other elected officials and would-be elected officials cannot say the same. Maybe they would feel differently if the Syrian refugees claimed to be tourists?

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