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Local View: Immigrant-bashing began with Founding Fathers -- not with Trump

Does anybody remember that 1960 was World Refugee Year? I do! I was selected by Secretary of State Christian Herter's bodyguard to represent European refugees at a ceremony at the U.S. Post Office, which issued a stamp honoring the year. Unlike President Donald Trump's pronouncements of an immigrant mob descending upon America, the ceremony extolled the virtues of immigrants.

John FreivaldsYep, I was one. A neighbor of ours in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, was a bodyguard of the secretary of state. He heard about the ceremony and told Herter I was just the guy, a Latvian, to represent Europe.

Here's what the stamp's designer said: "The stamp features a family group facing down a long dark corridor toward a bright exit symbolizing escape from the darkness of want and oppression into the brightness of a new life."

Yep, that was America then — and it will reappear again.

Benjamin Franklin said this of Germans: "Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant and stupid of their own nation. ... And as a few of them understand the English language, and so I cannot address them from the press and pulpit, it is almost impossible to remove any prejudices they entertain. Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it. ... In short, unless the stream of importation is overturned, they will soon outnumber us. ... Even our government will become precarious."

Another of Franklin's objections: German immigrants' "swarthy complexion," he said, complaining it was an affront to the "purely white people" who originally settled America.

Enlightened Americans are continually patting themselves on the back for having an open society. While immigrant prejudice exists in parts, it also exists in cosmopolitan America.

I am here by virtue of the Displaced Person Act of 1948, signed by President Harry Truman. He wasn't happy with it as it discriminated against Jews and Catholics, but he allowed Baltic refugees in. Faced with opposition from Southern congressmen, it was the best he could do.

I was surprised when, coming back from an overseas trip, I was confronted by a bus driver in Washington, D.C. ( not Fergus Falls, Minn.), who called the police to have me arrested for speaking a foreign language on his bus. By chance, I had met a Latvian friend of mine at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and we talked Latvian. We were sitting not too far in back of the increasingly nervous driver who, at once, turned back to us and exclaimed, "You can't do that?" Perplexed, I asked, "Do what?" He replied, "Speak a foreign language on this bus!" The driver was a white Anglo and I was blond (now grey) and 6 feet tall with blue eyes. This wasn't racial. I was shocked to be told such a thing in Washington, D.C. He ranted on and on, and when we got to our destination he went to a phone and called the police.

Two cops appeared, and as they approached us, he yelled out, pointing at me, "There he is; he was speaking a foreign language on my bus, and he was speaking it quickly."

I wasn't scamming welfare, selling drugs, or robbing or raping anyone. I was just talking.

After this I wrote everybody I could think of, including this guy's boss, and got apologies, and he was fired.

Today, Mexicans and Arabs are among those who can be yelled at for speaking their language. During World War II, Japanese in the U.S. were put in camps.

Ted Turner, who started CNN, forbid reporters from using the term "foreign language." Turner explained, "They weren't foreign to those using them."

As a Latvian immigrant, I have scores of other stories. Just remember: Everyone came from immigrants, and we came thousands of miles to work and raise families in peace — not to get welfare and food stamps.

John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minn., is the honorary consul for Latvia in Minnesota and the author of six books. His website is jfapress.com.

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