Printer Friendly

The story of immigration in America: though it is not often acknowledged today, immigration policy of the past was designed to ensure that immigrants assimilated quickly and became Americanized.

The story of immigration is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Tales of immigrant efforts to achieve success and assimilation have enlightened and inspired generations of Americans and have served as object lessons in courage and determination. Americans are proud of their immigrant past, and rightly so. Even today over 43 million Americans still claim German ancestry and 34 million claim Irish roots. But despite our history as a nation of immigrants, Americans have never really been comfortable with the idea of mass immigration. At times we have tolerated it, usually when the economy is good, but at other times it met with strong opposition. After four decades of virtually unrestricted immigration, much of it illegal, Americans are reexamining the nation's most enduring issue.

Early Years

Americans wrestled with the immigration issue even before achieving independence. Built largely upon English stock, and hoping to stay that way, colonists viewed with suspicion even their Northern European neighbors with whom they shared royal lineal ties. In 1751, growing numbers of German settlers in Pennsylvania compelled Benjamin Franklin to denounce the ascendancy of German-speakers in that part of the country:

Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?

Despite some intermittent pressure from England, the colonies were largely successful at regulating the numbers and nature of arriving immigrants. Prior to the war for independence, new settlers accounted for only about one in twelve colonists, most of them coming from the British Isles, Germany, or Holland. Indeed, the best estimate for the total number of new settlers during the 18th century is only about 450,000.

By 1790, the newly independent colonies had developed into a distinctly Anglo-American culture characterized by a distrust of foreign influence that would simmer beneath the surface of the nation's collective conscious and influence the coming immigration debate. The bitter war with England served to strengthen an American identity distinguished by a dogged adherence to the ideals of self-reliance and personal liberty. America had emerged from the crucible of conflict convinced of its destiny as the only legitimate model of the republican principles of consensual governance. Indeed, it was the idea of American exceptionalism coupled with America's determination to expand territorially that made the very idea of immigration attractive to Americans and immigrants alike.

During the period between 1790 and 1815, immigration issues scarcely occupied the minds of most Americans. Only a trickle of immigrants arrived annually and a prolific native population had no trouble in increasing its numbers so that natives vastly outnumbered immigrants; and imported customs and languages did not overwhelm native ones. America was still an agricultural society and the massive railroad and canal projects requiring large numbers of laborers were years away from commencement. There was simply no need to augment the population with foreign labor. Nevertheless, a number of local and federal laws were enacted to restrict what little immigration did exist. The Alien and Sedition Acts were devised by the Federalist-controlled Congress mainly as an attempt to deprive Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party of a portion of its voting strength by postponing citizenship from five years to 14. This action adversely affected recently arrived Irish and French emigres who identified closely with Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. President Adams, however, never supported the laws, and they were allowed to expire or were repealed during the Jefferson administration. Some states took action to bar unwanted aliens, mostly criminals and the poor, but the federal government had yet to assume control over what was still a minor issue.

The Surge Begins

The decades between 1830 and 1860 witnessed the construction of the large canal and railroad projects that employed thousands of foreign laborers, the body of which Walt Whitman likened to "a vast surging army of workers." For the first time in the nation's history, immigrants began to be seen as indispensable to economic growth. An open door sentiment rooted in economic considerations and an abiding belief in territorial expansion gave birth to a philosophy that would guide American immigration policy throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1820 and 1860, more than five million immigrants made their way to America to take advantage of the young republic's rapid territorial and industrial expansion. By 1860, a third of the population was foreign-born or had foreign-born parents.

While America actively imported foreign labor by the thousands, a nativist element began to emerge among the established population. Segments of the Protestant majority, sensing a rising tide of economic competition, and unnerved by the cultural and religious distinctions between native and immigrant, openly questioned the nation's liberal immigration policy. Skilled native artisans, displaced from their former positions by rapid industrialization brought about by the availability of a cheap foreign labor class, found themselves in competition with the newly arrived immigrants. The new Irish and German arrivals, many of whom were Catholic, began to change the national demographic in a way that disturbed segments of the established Protestant majority.

Questions regarding the compatibility of Catholicism with republicanism became the primary focus of nativist discontent. Samuel F.B. Morse echoed nativist doctrine when he wrote: "Popery is opposed in its very nature to Democratic Republicanism ... and consequently to our form of government." Morse also questioned Catholic loyalty, asserting that the newly arrived immigrants were incapable of discerning "where their ecclesiastical obedience to their priest ends, and their civil independence of them begins." Catholic immigrants found themselves struggling to prove their national loyalty in an increasingly hostile environment.

As early as 1835, Catholic Church leaders began to defend their faith against nativist charges. In a series of debates with Presbyterian Minister John Breckenridge, Reverend John Hughes (later Archbishop of New York) spoke proudly of the patriotic efforts of American Catholics Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Fitzsimmons, who signed the Constitution. By recalling the memories of Fitzsimmons and Carroll, Hughes provided Irish Catholic immigrants with a link to America's past and an identity rooted in its struggle for American independence. Recently arrived Catholic immigrants did not have to wait for the creation of new national heroes; they already existed in Carroll and Fitzsimmons.

Whether or not Catholics played a pivotal role in the war for independence hardly mattered; most important was the fact that they believed that they did. It was a familiar step along the path to assimilation. By the time Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in this country, they already identified with, and admired, America's republican principles. Catholic historian John Talbot Smith has written that it was this admiration for American principles that hastened assimilation, and that the Irish Catholics eventually became "more American than the Americans" in their appreciation for the "blessings of civic freedom."

An affinity for America's republican ideals undoubtedly helped Irish Catholics to adopt an American identity, but it was the uniquely American model of assimilation, based upon a mutually agreed upon set of rules, that ultimately transformed the majority of foreign immigrants into American citizens.

Immigrants typically met with an unyielding and often hostile environment that demanded newcomers to make behavioral adjustments, to accept national social structures and American ideals, and to assume an American identity. Although patterns varied somewhat, the typical model began with economic accommodation by the host country, followed by adoption of the English language, progressive acculturation (usually on the immigrant's terms), and finally assimilation. It was anticipated that alter initially forming exclusive ethnic communities, immigrants would eventually integrate into the wider population after a period of cultural adjustment. Moreover, the immigrant was expected to pursue citizenship and permanent U.S. residence, although by some estimates 30 percent returned to their native countries. It was a tenuous arrangement that would hold until the mid-20th century. In return, Americans tolerated episodic waves of alien immigration.

American-style Assimilation

Newly arrived immigrants formed ethnic communities that allowed them to eventually adjust to their new environment. These ethnic communities provided employment, comfort, and fellowship. In time, immigrants erected institutional organizations within these communities based upon customary models that communicated a message of acculturation. Immigrants formed fire companies, established fraternal and civic organizations, and took part in national and local celebrations that linked their activities with American customs and practices. Ethnic communities acted as transitory buffers giving immigrants time to merge with the dominant culture.

Breaking linguistic ties was the first step in the assimilation process. Despite some initial resistance, particularly from Germans, most foreign-language immigrants readily accepted the necessity of learning the native tongue. Lamenting the seemingly slow pace of linguistic mastery among New York's Jews, Abe Cahan, editor of the influential Yiddish daily Forward, wrote: "The Forward 'Mailbox' receives numerous letters from immigrants who have cut off their beards and forgotten the name of their birthplace in Russia but they are hapless because they still don't know English." Cahan understood that it was not enough to discard the visible trappings of the old world; one needed to learn English in order to succeed. Language was the great unifier that served to break down ethnic barriers and promoted civic and economic interaction between immigrant and native.

If language was the great unifier, the public school system was the primary instrument of its transmission. Public school children were immersed in an English language environment and learned the language quickly. One young German boy writing a letter to Germany from Milwaukee in 1854 explained to the recipient that he wrote in English because he was not able to "speak, read and write perfectly in the German language." In just five years he had mastered English and abandoned his native tongue.

When the common-school movement was launched, its leaders worked assiduously to create an assimilative environment. To hasten the process, American educators adopted a common curriculum that conveyed the spirit of "Americanism" and its twin pillars--republicanism and capitalism. William T. Harris, superintendent of St. Louis public schools, wrote in 1871 : "The spirit of American institutions is to be looked for in the public schools to a greater degree than anywhere else." At the time, public schools inculcated the shared concepts of American society, established behavioral expectations, and promoted interaction between disparate social and ethnic groups. Immigrant school children were taught a rugged version of American history that instilled an unshakable belief in the American political system.

But not all groups readily embraced the public school experience. Catholics felt threatened by an educational paradigm developed and directed largely by Protestants, and began early on to establish their own schools. Despite objections from the Protestant majority, urban Catholic schools flourished and attracted a large number of immigrant children. Eventually, the dual school system gained acceptance primarily because Catholic schools modeled their curriculum after that of the public schools. Except for the addition of religious instruction, Catholic schools were near-identical representations of their public counterparts, complete with the common assimilationist themes.

New Immigration: New Restrictions

Between 1880 and 1889, over five million new immigrants entered the United States. The unceasing demand for cheap industrial labor coupled with political and religious persecutions in Eastern Europe combined to create an entirely new type of immigrant.

America's first wave of immigrants was principally drawn from northern and western Europe--Teutonic and Celtic in origin. But starting in the 1870s a larger portion of Latin, Jewish, and Slavic peoples began to make their way to America's shores. In 1900, they accounted for 70 percent of the immigrants to this country. Like their predecessors, the majority settled in Northeastern and Midwestern urban centers. In some cases, these urban communities attained populations that dwarfed their European counterparts. In 1890, New York City boasted an Irish population twice that of Dublin!

Despite America's record of successful assimilation, this new amalgam of exotic immigrants prompted resurgence in nativist sentiment and restrictionist policies. During the last quarter of the 19th century, a number of laws were passed prohibiting entry to prostitutes, lunatics, and certain convicts. Over the years other identified undesirables were added to the list. In 1882, the Chinese became the first ethnic group to experience exclusion when Congress, under pressure from California legislators, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. President Chester A. Arthur initially vetoed the act because it would have suspended immigration for 20 years, but he accepted a 10-year deal that included certain exceptions to the ban. In addition to suspending Chinese immigration for 10 years, the act barred all Chinese from gaining citizenship. In 1907, Congress approved a law authorizing the deportation of immigrants receiving public assistance. Ten years later, the Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited entry to all Asian and illiterate immigrants. Such partial restriction efforts, however, produced little substantive effect and immigration continued at a record pace, peaking at over eight million entries for the 10-year period between 1900 and 1909.

After World War I, a wave of socialist-inspired labor riots and even bombings in America prompted many Americans to demand further immigration restrictions. The specter of an imported brand of foreign radicalism, seemingly confirmed by the robbery and murder convictions of Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, loomed over the nation's urban centers. Restrictionists also argued that continued admittance of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean would adversely upset America's cultural demographic. In reaction, Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, restricting annual entry to a yearly maximum of 357,000 made up of three percent of the foreign-born of any nationality according to the 1910 census. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 went even further. Seeking to preserve the demographic balance of the United States, it reduced the percentage to two percent of the numbers in the 1890 census. This new law, which went into effect in 1927, limited annual immigration to 150,000 based upon the national origins of the white population as counted in the 1890 census. The Immigration Act of 1924 sharply reduced annual immigration numbers and became a permanent characteristic of American immigration for the next 40 years.

The New Colossus

The Immigration Act of 1924 gave America time to assimilate and absorb the mass of immigrants who entered the country in the great waves of the early 20th century. Schools continued their job of inculcating the common themes of assimilation: self-reliance, appreciation of American culture, personal responsibility, and egalitarianism. Combined with the passage of time, the assimilation model exerted a profound effect on America's foreign-born population. Most immigrants followed the classic American assimilation model: they settled in ethnic communities, worked hard, often married outside of their ethnic group, moved beyond their ethnic boundaries, and adopted an identity rooted in the American Idea. For the vast majority of immigrants and their descendants, self-esteem was found in personal accomplishment, not in some vain attempt to replicate the cultures from which they had escaped. To be sure, some maintained ethnic pride by keeping alive vestigial remnants of their former cultures through music, dance, art, and religion, but cultural diversity was generally relegated to the private realm or the occasional public celebration. By the 1950s, the United States had achieved what no other country had the cultural and political assimilation of millions of immigrants from disparate cultures.

The vast majority of Americans were content with the results of the Immigration Act of 1924. America's successful record of immigration control and assimilation served as a global model. But a fundamental shift in policy occurred with the passage of the Kennedy-inspired Immigration Act of 1965. Rooted in an idealistic view of the immigrant, the act sought to abolish the ethnic quotas established in 1924. In a ceremony held at Ellis Island, President Lyndon Johnson declared that the act would redress the injustices allegedly perpetrated against those from Eastern Europe and "developing countries." Overnight, U.S. immigration policy went from one designed to ensure demographic balance and assimilation to one crafted to address ethnic disparity.

The act was not expected to generate much change, but during the 1960s, few Western Europeans were seeking to immigrate to the United States and the majority of Eastern Europeans were living under communist domination and therefore could not immigrate. Consequently, Asians and Latin Americans accounted for the majority of those seeking visas. A family-preference allowance permitted new arrivals to bring relatives too, rapidly filling the quotas for the new wave of immigration. For the first time in our nation's history, the majority of immigrants did not come from Europe. During the next 20 years, the ethnic composition of the country changed more than at any other time during the 20th century. The immigration surge begun in the late 1960s continues unabated today. Between January 2000 and March 2005, immigration added an estimated 7.9 million new arrivals (legal and illegal), constituting the highest five year period in American history--almost eclipsing the peak ten-year period between 1900-1909!

E Pluribus Unum?

Two developments that emerged concurrent with the shift to unrestricted immigration challenged the old assimilation model. In a definitive break from America's English-only model, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 which begat the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education (NACBE). Ignoring nearly 200 years of educational and assimilative success, the NACBE claimed that "maintaining the [student's] native language in no way interferes with English language acquisition." Almost overnight a tiny group of "experts" and nascent multiculturalists rejected assimilation and declared English-only education discriminatory and ineffective. Mastery of the English language, once regarded as the great national unifier and bridge to success, came to symbolize cultural oppression. Today, bilingual education caters mainly to Hispanic students--the very same group that now suffers a higher high-school dropout rate than any other ethnic group in California. Sadly, bilingual education continues to consign a great number of immigrant children to failure, despite protests from their parents who, like their European predecessors, are aware of the necessity to learn English as quickly as possible.

Fast on the heels of the bilingual movement came a New Order philosophy that would stand the old assimilation model on its head. Rejecting Israel Zangwill's "melting pot" metaphor, academics and educators, assisted by the government, now push a multiculturalist agenda that mandates the preservation of ethnic distinctions at the expense of assimilation. Hand in glove with the pathological exaltation of diversity is the assertion that Western culture deserves no place of pride in the academic environment, maintaining that all cultures are subjectively equal. A direct corollary is the presence of a disturbingly hostile academic dogma that discredits or repudiates American accomplishments, seeking to expose American ideals as rank hypocrisy. In the span of a few decades, America has gone from being viewed as one of the most idealistic countries to being viewed as one of the most corrupt. Education, once the phalanx of assimilation, is now the guarantor of ethnic division and mediocrity. In the words of Victor Davis Hanson, multicultural dogma "turns the stubborn problem of assimilation into a social tragedy stretching across generations."

Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and a liberal policy that ignores illegal immigration have combined to create a new type of immigrant, one who rejects assimilation and the enduring natural supremacy of the American Idea. A recent NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School survey revealed that 57 percent of all immigrants polled agreed that the U.S. "should be a country made up of many values that change as new people come here." Only 39 percent said the U.S. "should be a country with basic American values that immigrants take on when they come here."

Prior to the last quarter of the 20th century, the nation was largely successful in assimilating immigrants, managing illegal entry, and in forging a common national identity. We were confident in the transformative power of our institutions. The old model, while not perfect, served the nation relatively well. In the face of intermittent waves of mass immigration, America successfully maintained a unified culture and identity. Americans were never ethnically homogenous, but it was inconsequential whether one's last name ended in a vowel or a consonant. The assimilation model ensured that the newcomer became an American in matters that counted--language and identity. Successful assimilation in a multi-ethnic society was measured by standards of national and civic unity grounded in an unmistakable pride in the American Idea.

Immigrationists reflexively cite our nation's history as the moral and economic justification for a continuance of the unrestricted immigration policies. But to base the argument on historical precedent is a dangerously dishonest fantasy. It forces one to ignore the major distinctions between historic and contemporary immigration policies, as well as the divisive tendency of multiculturalism, and our nation's traditionally ambivalent view of immigration. Unless America's leaders agree to examine immigration in light of its historic record and present state of health, it will remain the nation's most misunderstood and unresolved issue.

Michael E. Telzrow is a historian/museum professional living in De Pere, Wisconsin.
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Telzrow, Michael E.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 20, 2006
Previous Article:High school student saves toddler from drowning.
Next Article:Making do in a tough spot.

Related Articles
Beyond the family way.
Tragic government: strengthening the state to avoid the unavoidable.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters