Mine is an immigrant family. As a child, I learned the stories of how my family crossed oceans and borders to get to Wisconsin.
Abner Nichols came as an economic refugee in the 1820s. The tin mines were no longer providing work in his native Cornwall, so he headed to Mineral Point to mine lead. Despite his Cornish accent and penchant for pasties, he became Wisconsin’s territorial treasurer and a member of the first state legislature.
My mother’s people arrived in Wisconsin by a more circuitous route. They were French Canadians who had crossed into Vermont to fight the British Empire in the Revolutionary War and later in the War of 1812. For his service, Capt. John Levake received a small land grant and settled in Wyoming Valley in the 1840s. My Irish ancestors, the Moores, arrived a bit later in the town of Clyde, where most of them are buried in the churchyard at St. Malachy’s.
My ancestors were latecomers to the historic home of the Ho-Chunk and Menominee tribes. French Canadians, British colonials and a handful of African-American freedmen had arrived before them. Yet they were welcomed to Wisconsin. The story of that welcome is a precious piece of our immigrant story — a call to duty to welcome new generations of Wisconsinites.
So readers will understand how offended members of my family were when Scott Walker decided to infuse his gubernatorial re-election run with the worst of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry.
Walker’s new television ad is as grotesque as anything we have seen from Trump. It features the sort of slurs — describing immigrants as “illegals” and “aliens” — that were once used to denigrate Irish immigrants and people like my great grandmother, who left Eastern Europe and settled in Lone Rock more than a century ago.
Walker is attacking his able challenger, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, for doing something that responsible Democrats and Republicans have done: supporting in-state tuition for the “Dreamer” children of immigrants. I shudder to think how my ancestors would have fared if the Walker of another time had barred them from our state’s schoolhouses and universities.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera Action, says: “Walker is attacking Dreamers and hardworking immigrant families to distract voters from holding him accountable for his budgets that benefit the wealthiest at the expense of health care and public education.”
I suppose that is true. But it is still heartbreaking to hear a governor engage in crude demagoguery. Walker, whose presidential ambitions have so frequently overwhelmed his commitment to this state and his common decency, is now importing the bigotry and xenophobia that infects our national politics to Wisconsin.
The bottom line for voters on Nov. 6 is stark: While Scott Walker is embracing the worst of Donald Trump’s destructive politics, Tony Evers is upholding the values of the state that my immigrant family has called “home” for almost two centuries.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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