Immigration politics and St. Paul’s East Side


For more than a century and half, the East Side has been a center for working class and immigrant politics. Now, facing the challenges posed by the Great Recession and the growth of anti-immigrant politics in Minnesota, it is important that we learn our history and consider its lessons.

Immigrants arriving in the 1800s helped build the East Side

In the middle of the 1800s, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia settled on the East Side, fleeing bitter poverty, oppression, and political turmoil at home. Pursuing a range of skilled and unskilled work, they built the infrastructure for our urban and industrial development-from bridges, roads, houses, factories and warehouses to digging tunnels and laying railroad track.

They also built cultural, religious, and political institutions, from athletic and singing societies to benefit associations, churches and branches of old country political organizations. In the post-Civil War era, these immigrants and their children provided the foundation for the labor movement which consisted not just of unions, but also of cooperatives, reform associations (seeking the eight hour day, for instance), and political organizations. Workers relied on these organizations to help them get through the deep economic depression of 1873-1878, to represent them in dealing with powerful business leaders like James J. Hill and George Pillsbury, and to give them a voice in the direction of American society as a whole.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, new immigrants arrived on the East Side. While some came from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, more and more came from southern and eastern Europe-Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Rumania, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, and Greece. Some even came from Lebanon and Mexico, and they were joined by African-Americans from the U.S. South and Mexican-Americans from Texas. While many spoke different languages and practiced different cultural rituals and different religions from those initial im- migrants, they shared the experiences of having fled oppression and poverty, and they, too, were drawn by the Twin Cities economy’s need for manual labor.

There was still a need for the construction of infrastructure, and labor was also needed for its repair, for the running of trains, the brewing of beer, and for new industries, such as meat-packing and auto and appliance manufacture. Like their predecessors, they joined unions, took part in strikes, and sought a voice in the political arena.

Immigrants in earlier times seen as “aliens”

While these new immigrants became an integral part of the East Side’s working class in the World War I era, politicians and newspapers accused them of radicalism and disloyalty. Nativism exploded during the war years when Governor Burnquist created the Public Safety Commission and ordered all immigrants to fill out “alien registration forms.” When the economy slid into recession in the early 1920s, some of the immigrants’ working-class neighbors feared for the loss of their jobs and they joined in the intensifying cry for government restriction on further immigration. In 1923-1924, Congress enacted the Johnson-Reid Act which particularly targeted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, while local employers, schools and social service agencies launched “Americanization” campaigns.

Such interventions actually cemented relationships among working-class East Siders over the course of the 1920s and into the Great Depression of the 1930s. Whatever their national, ethnic, or racial origins, they claimed a shared identity as “hyphenated Americans,” celebrating it at the annual Festival of Nations (which decided in 1932 to include “Negro Americans” as an “ethnic” group), at union halls, booyas, and various community gatherings. Immigrants and their children from the East Side helped elect a Farmer Labor mayor in 1932 (William Mahoney, the editor of the Union Advocate), and a Farmer Labor governor (Floyd B. Olson). Along with West Siders and residents of South St. Paul, they organized new industrial unions and fed the revival of the labor movement. They were helping to build an economic, political, and cultural democracy on the East Side.

Last 30 years have put democracy to the test

This democracy has been put to the test in the past thirty years. On the one hand, much of the East Side’s industrial base has been eliminated. Unions have disappeared along with jobs, and the grandchildren of the traditional working class have moved away. The Great Recession of 2008-2010, coming on top of this period of difficult economic change, has posed a serious crisis for our community. Meanwhile, a new wave of immigration has swept into the neighborhood, generated by war (Vietnam, Bosnia, El Salvador, Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia) and economic globalization (Mexico, Guatemala, the former Soviet Union). Like their predecessors, these new immigrants have sought work and stability for their families, and they have built organizations and institutions and practiced their cultures and rituals. Health-care, the service sector, hotels and restaurants, and the like have sought their labor. When there have been opportunities, they, like their predecessors, have joined unions and sought a political voice.

The new immigrants’ arrival at a time of economic insecurity for other East Siders has made their welcome and integration challenging, not only for them, but for that economic, political, and cultural democracy that earlier generations of East Siders constructed. Given these hard times, we need to remind ourselves of our history, learn from it, and work together to create a new democracy for our present and our future.

Peter Rachleff has been a history professor at Macalester College since 1982 and has lived in Dayton’s Bluff since 1999.