Dennis Persica: La. has long immigrant history

Louisiana, like the nation it’s a part of, is a multicultural treasure trove.

Created by France, ruled for a time by Spain, it has been the landing spot for people from many nations and continents.

Germans were among the earliest workers brought here. So were Africans, coming as slaves. After that came Acadians, Irish and Italians.

In 1864, a Greek merchant community in New Orleans would create the first Greek Orthodox church in North America. Jews, mostly German in origin, arrived in the mid-1800s. Later, their Eastern European counterparts would come.

If you’re old enough, you may remember, as I do, when Cuban families fleeing the Castro regime landed in New Orleans in the 1960s. Many of their children wound up in schools with us. A decade or so later, the same was true of the Vietnamese.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the region has seen an influx of Latinos, many of whom helped clean up and rebuild our neighborhoods when there were few others around to do that.

And now we come to the UACs — inelegant government talk for unaccompanied alien children, the ones who undertook thousand-mile journeys across Central America in the heat of summer to get to the southwestern United States.

Their entry has been controversial, not unlike the plight of earlier immigrant groups.

Protestants in the United States feared the Irish influx would Catholicize the country. Italian immigrants were suspected of being criminals.

The immigrants did a lot of the dirty work, usually at low pay. Irish and Chinese helped build the railroads through the West. Latin Americans worked the farms and fields, and do so to this day.

The Irish also helped dig canals in New Orleans, and many died doing that. Italians replaced slaves on Louisiana farms after Emancipation. Their willingness to take on menial jobs put them in direct economic competition with the Irish, and the struggles sometimes ended in violence and death.

Anger directed at immigrants is nothing new, unfortunately.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, himself the child of immigrants, last week directed his anger instead at President Barack Obama, demanding to know which parishes are housing about 1,000 UACs. Jindal wrote Obama that he is “gravely concerned about the safety and well-being” of the minors being housed in Louisiana.

Well, assuming Jindal is expressing genuine concern, that’s at least a far piece from some of the comments we’re hearing from other conservatives on this issue. Ann Coulter took off on a Twitter rant against Catholic leaders who urged compassion for the immigrant children. She later likened Latin Americans to Hamas, proposing we take a page out of Israel’s book.

An Arizona politician who bragged about stopping a bus full of immigrant children said he could see “the fear on their faces.” It turned out to be a bus full of American children going to camp. Awkward.

In his letter, Jindal told Obama that placing the children in “unknown locations” in Louisiana “gravely hampers” response plans during hurricane season.

There are probably a lot more than 1,000 out-of-state people coming into Louisiana at any given time during the summer. Are we supposed to believe that the state keeps track of all of them to make sure hurricane-evacuation plans can include them?

The announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services specifically says the 1,071 children have been released to sponsors. They are likely in individual households, not large group settings that the state has to make plans to evacuate.

Are the governor’s grave concerns about their well-being just a smokescreen, a kinder, gentler expression of the uglier reactions we’re seeing across this nation of immigrants?

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.