The Immigrant Within

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As any really thoughtful statesman knows, it is one of the ironies of history that great decisions often have entirely unexpected consequences. Until men are given the gift of prophecy, “Forgive them; for they know not what they do” is an appropriate motto for those who judge political performances. But in some cases, “Congratulate them; for they know not what they do” might be as apt.

It is hard to say which version applies to the congressmen who passed the Johnson-Reed immigration restriction act of 1924. In that year they heeded a warning sounded by a New England poet some twenty years earlier. “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,” Thomas Bailey Aldrich intoned, and through them, he warned, poured a “motley throng” of immigrants. If not checked, they would soon tear the clustered stars from Liberty’s brow and trample them in the dust.

By passing an immigration act that sharply limited the number of admissible newcomers, particularly those of Southern and Eastern European origin, the lawmakers appeared to answer the cry of Aldrich and others like him. They shut the gate on further “unassimilable” additions to the American “melting pot.” Yet at the very time of this action another wave of immigration into the great cities was gathering momentum. No restrictive laws could bar it, for it was made up of freeborn American citizens. They were black men and women, moving from a poverty-stricken South to the urban frontier.

That was the first paradox. And there was a second. The children of the “motley throng,” who presumably could not be Americanized, became, in the forty years after the gates were slammed shut, largely absorbed into the major currents of American life. But, for complex reasons, the children of the “immigrant within,” the northward-moving black, still remained unmelted.

To understand these ironies is to learn much about the meaning of success and its connection with race and nationality in the United States.

 

The reaction against unlimited immigration arose in part from the sheer volume of the influx after 1900. Where some fourteen million newcomers had arrived in the forty years between 1860 and 1900, thirteen million more poured in during the fifteen years that followed. Such a torrent of immigrants was bound to disturb even a relatively tolerant society, with plenty of land and jobs for all. Americans of the pre-World War I era watched the frontier’s free land disappear and wondered anxiously if the bull market for labor might not, in due course, dry up as well. Nor were they quite as tolerant as their grandfathers had been. Doubts about the economics of immigration were supplemented by unhappiness with its changing sources after 1900. Post-1900 immigrants were no longer mainly from Germany, England, Ireland, or Scandinavia. They came instead from Italy and from the undigested religious and national minorities within the sprawling Hohenzollern, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Romanov empires. They were Jews, Catholics, and followers of the Eastern Orthodox rites.

The palpable “differentness” of the newcomers disturbed a basically Protestant population of Northern European origin. This disturbance resulted in a series of charges against them. They undermined American standards of living by working for a pittance. They were milking the United States of dollars to send home but returning nothing to their communities. They voted docilely at the summons of the ward leaders for a dollar or two a head. They were radical agitators. They crammed the jails and charity hospitals. They helplessly, hopelessly, lacked the Anglo-Saxon genius for selfimprovement and self-rule.

It was under the sway of such arguments that Congress passed not one, but a series of restrictive acts, beginning in 1917 and climaxing in 1924. But hardly was the ink dry on the lawbooks before the children of the fearfully regarded “new” immigrants began to make the grade in America, despite all the gloomy predictions. Except in the Depression era they found plenty of jobs. In the needle trades, in construction gangs, in steel mills and railroads, the Italians, Poles, Bohemians, Hungarians, Greeks, and other “ethnics” furnished muscle for growing industries. Others set up grocery stores, bars, barbershops, drugstores, laundries, or restaurants to serve the urban neighborhoods into which they moved. Still others made their way to farms, which provided food for the multiplying mouths of urban regions.

 
 

Economic success fuelled physical mobility. There were still unsettled areas around the cities that beckoned to those who disliked the crowded streets of the Promised Land. Around New York an Italian family could easily find, in Queens or Staten Island, a reasonably priced house with land enough for gardening. Or a Jewish storekeeper could escape the Lower East Side, if he had a good year or two, and find ocean breezes in Brooklyn.