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A Nation of Immigrants

June 2024
39min read

It’s a politician’s bromide—and it also happens to be a profound truth. No war, no national crisis, has left a greater impress on the American psyche than the successive waves of new arrivals that quite literally built the country. Now that arguments against immigration are rising again, it is well to remember that every single one of them has been heard before.

The uproar over Zoë Baird has subsided by now, and readers with short memories may profit by a reminder that she was forced to withdraw as President Clinton’s first nominee tor Attorney General because she and her husband had hired two “illegal aliens” for babysitting and housekeeping chores. The episode put immigration into focus as a “live” topic for op-ed and talk-show manifestoes before it faded, only to return to the headlines when Clinton embraced the Bush administration’s policy (which he had denounced during the campaign) of turning back boatloads of Haitian refugees before they reached the Florida shore. But in June of 1993 the front pages carried the tragic story of a freighter, ironically named the Golden Venture, that ran aground just outside New York City. Its hold contained a crowd of Chinese workers being unlawfully smuggled into the United States, a crude practice supposedly long obsolete. Ten of them drowned trying to swim ashore. Later in the summer several hundred more “illegal” Chinese, California-bound, were intercepted and imprisoned aboard their ships until the U.S. government persuaded Mexico to take them in and ship them back. So it is that immigration regularly returns to the news. It always has. It always does.

Only America takes special pride in describing its nationality as independent of race or blood.

The question of what our policy toward the world’s huddled masses should be is especially topical at this moment. The Statue of Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door, but in a time of economic downturn, there is no longer an assured consensus that the door should be kept open very far. Restrictionism is back in fashion. For every journalistic article like that of Business Week in July 1992, which notes that “the U.S. is reaping a bonanza of highly educated foreigners” and that low end immigrants “provide a hardworking labor force to fill the low-paid jobs that make a modern service economy run,” there is another like Peter Brimelow’s in the National Review. His title tells it all: “Time to Rethink Immigration?” The burden of his argument is that America has admitted too many immigrants of the wrong ethnic background (he himself is a new arrival from Britain), that neither our economy nor our culture can stand the strain, and that “it may be time to close the second period of American history [the first having been the era of the open frontier] with the announcement that the U.S. is no longer an ‘immigrant country.’” In short, we’re here; you foreigners stay home. Nor are journalists the only voices in the debate. Last August California’s governor Pete Wilson got media attention with a proposal to amend the Constitution so as to deny citizenship to an entire class of people born in the United States, namely, those unlucky enough to be the children of illegal immigrants.

If, as I have, you have been “doing” immigration history for many years, you’ve heard the restrictionists arguments before and expect to hear them again. And you are under the obligation to answer back, because what is at stake in the argument is nothing less than the essential nature of the United States of America. We are different. We aren’t the only country that receives immigration or that has to deal with resentment directed toward “aliens.” The popularity in France of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party and the surge of anti-foreign (and neo-Nazi) “Germany-for-Germans” violence in Germany are evidence of that. It’s also true that in a world of swift intercontinental travel and instant global communication, immigration policy cannot really be made by separate governments as if they lived in a vacuum. Such problems as there are demand multinational solutions.

Nevertheless and notwithstanding, the United States of America is different. Immigration is flesh of our flesh, and we need to be reminded of that. Some sneer at the statement that we are a nation of immigrants as a cliché; all nations, they assert, are made up of mixtures of different peoples. So they are, as new tribes and races displaced old ones by conquest or by random migration. But the United States was created by settlers who arrived from elsewhere, who deliberately and calculatedly invited and urged others to follow them, and who encouraged the process in ways that were unique. Of course, countries like Canada and Australia depended on immigration for survival and success, but only the United States made the acquisition of citizenship swift and simple; only the United States made it a matter of principle to equalize the conditions of new citizens and old; only the United States takes special pride in describing American nationality as, by definition, independent of race and blood—as something that is acquired by residence and allegiance regardless of birthplace or ancestry.

Confirmation of that statement is in the record, and the record needs to be reviewed. It is not a flawless one. Of course the people of the United States have not always extended an equal welcome to all races; of course there have been spasms of hostility like the current wave—in the 1790s, in the 1850s, in the 1920s. They are also part of the record, but on the whole the record is exceptional and ought to be known and understood before any new major changes in policy are made.

Every Passover Jews the world over sit down to the Seder table to retell the story of Exodus from Egypt in order to pass on to their children and renew in themselves their sense of who, what, and why they are. There was a time when the Fourth of July was an occasion for re-creating the days of the American Revolution, in order to serve the same purpose for Americans. (I hope that it makes a comeback, despite the assaults of a misguided “multiculturalism.”)

Now is the proper occasion for retelling the immigration story. So let us begin at the beginning, with the statement that offends the new exclusionist.


“We are a nation of immigrants.” It’s a politician’s generality at an ethnic picnic, a textbook bromide swallowed and soon forgotten. It is also, as it happens, a profound truth, defining us and explaining a good part of what is extraordinary in the short history of the United States of America. There is no American ancient soil, no founding race, but there is a common ancestral experience of moving from “there” to “here.” Among the founders of this nation who believed that they were agents of destiny was an English preacher who said in 1669, “God hath sifted a nation that he might send choice grain into this wilderness.” The grain has arrived steadily and from many nations. “Americans are not a narrow tribe,” wrote Herman Melville; “our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one.”

We begin arbitrarily with a seventeenth-century English migration that produced the First Families of Virginia (founded in 1607) and Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Fathers (1620). Arbitrarily because already in 1643 Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit missionary visiting New Amsterdam, said he heard eighteen languages spoken in that seaport town, which probably included Mediterranean and North African dialects and the Hebrew of a small settlement of Sephardic Jews.

But the stock planted in the 1600s was basically English. In the eighteenth century it turned “British” as Scots and Irish arrived in significant numbers, then partly European through an influx of Germans, and African, too, through the thousands of involuntary black immigrants brought in on the hell ships of the slave trade.

Those initial colonial migrations to “British North America” illustrate forces that are still at work in 1993. The names, faces, and languages change, but the basics remain. Immigrants are pushed out of their original homes by war, upheaval, misery, and oppression. They are pulled toward America by the promise of economic betterment and a chance to breathe free. Sometimes they are lured by promoters who want their passage money or their labor and skills. Sometimes they have come in legal or actual bondage.

But whenever and wherever they have come, they have changed what they found. That was clear from the moment that seventeenth-century England sent the first immigrant wave. The land was ripe for mass exodus. Civil, religious, and class war raged from beginning to end of the century, encompassing in their course the execution of one king and the expulsion of another. Major changes in the economy drove small farmers off their subsistence plots in favor of sheep. “The people … do swarm in the land as young bees in a hive,” said one clergyman. “The land grows weary of her inhabitants,” said another—by name John Winthrop, soon to move with fellow Puritans to a place called Massachusetts Bay.

The London government planted colonies to help houseclean the surplus population. Some started under the rule of private corporations that looked for gold and silk and settled for the profits in fish, fur, and tobacco. Some were begun by like-minded religious seekers, some by individuals to whom the king gave huge tracts of wilderness to turn into profitable agricultural estates. All needed people to thrive, and got them. Some 378,000 Englishmen and women left for the Western Hemisphere during the century; 155,000 wound up on mainland North America. They came on the Mayflower ; they came in groups brought over by colonial proprietors who got so many extra acres of land per head of immigrant. They came as indentured servants, under bond to work a term of years. Some came in fetters at the request of unchoosy colonial administrators, like the governor of Virginia who asked London in 1611 for “all offenders out of the common gaols condemned to die.” There may have been, over the decades, as many as 50,000 of such “felions and other desperate villaines.”

They brought the imprint of England in their baggage. Without stinting other contributions, there isn’t any question that constitutional self-rule, Protestant individualism, capitalism, and the work ethic were hammered into the national character in the seventeenth-century English. And yet English with a difference. “They ate the white corn-kernels parched in the sun,” Stephen Vincent Benét wrote in 1943, “and they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.” Autocratic rule was modified almost at once because London was far away—and freedom attracted new settlers. Virginia demanded and got a representative assembly in 1624; all the other colonies followed in due course.

It was an age of religious rigidity, but state-imposed conformity had to bend to the needs of settlement. In 1632 King Charles I gave his supporter Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the future state of Maryland (named for the Catholic queen). Calvert saw to it that his fellow Catholics, under heavy pressure back home, were tolerated within its borders. In the 168Os a different king bestowed yet another colony on William Penn. The Quaker Penn opened Pennsylvania not only to other members of the Society of Friends but to “dissenters” of every description. In different colonies intolerance rose and fell, but more often fell as population grew and spread. “Here,” reported New York’s governor in 1687, “be not many of the Church of England, few Roman Catholics, abundance of … singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians, Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part none at all.”

Immigration helped bring on the Revolution, and gave it a surprising new meaning.

By the start of the eighteenth century, that latitude, along with virgin land and prospering towns, was exerting a magnetic force outside England itself: in France, where, in 1685, the king revoked an edict that had protected his Protestant subjects, thereby sending thousands of Huguenots—thrifty, skilled traders and artisans—to settle in America; in the many little German princedoms plagued by war, taxes, and rack rents, so that altogether there were some 225,000 colonists of German stock on the Revolution’s eve, including groups like the Mennonites (ancestors of the Amish) and Moravians.

They spread through several colonies, but those in Pennsylvania became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch ), and their clannish ways at least once exasperated the usually tolerant Benjamin Franklin. “Why should the Palatine Boors ,” he asked (the Rhenish Palatinate was a German region that furnished many new Pennsylvanians), “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 ?”

There was no language problem with the “Ulster” Irish or Scots Irish. These Scots, deliberately planted in the northern counties of Ireland in the 1600s to help subdue the native Catholics, were busy and productive farmers until, in 1699, English landowners got the door slammed on competitive agricultural imports. The ensuing distress sent as many as 12,000 a year of the Ulstermen and women to the colonies. They poured into the frontier regions, carrying with them strict Calvinism and a distaste for both Indians and speculators who cornered huge tracts to sell at high prices. It was, in their eyes, “against the laws of God and nature that so much land should be idle while Christians wanted it to labor on and raise their bread.” They were the ancestors of such as Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson.

The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 spurred a rush of migration to the now-secure colonial frontiers and the growing seaboard towns of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston. From 1763 to 1775 some 221,000 newcomers arrived: 55,000 Ulstermen, 40,000 Scots, 30,000 English, 12,000 Germans and Swiss—and 84,500 chained Africans. Perhaps a third of all the colonists in 1760 were either born abroad or had parents who were. The English government, once worried about overpopulation, now feared depopulation even more and cracked down on large landowners’ seductive invitations to immigrants. Thus the charge in Jefferson’s bill of particulars showing that the king sought an absolute tyranny over the colonies: “He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these states; … obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

Immigration helped bring on the Revolution, and to give it a surprising new meaning. By 1782 the former English colonies were separate states, linked by common interests and a common culture that was more than simply English. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur, a French immigrant, put it this way: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of a European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations…. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world…”

The immigrant generals and soldiers who fought on the American side in the Revolution (like Gen. Frederick M’fchlenberg, the German-trained Lutheran pastor who would become the first Speaker of the House) would have agreed. So would Tom Paine, the English immigrant author of Common Sense , which, in 1776, called on the future United States to become an “asylum for mankind.”

But when the Constitutional Convention came to consider naturalization laws and residence requirements for officials, a different point of view was evident. Even a sturdy democrat like Virginia’s George Mason did not “chuse to let foreigners and adventurers make laws for us & govern us.” Pierce Butler of South Carolina—born in Ireland- believed that aliens brought in “ideas of Government so distinct from ours that in every point of view they are dangerous.” Gouverneur Morris, a gifted master of sarcasm from New York, applauded generosity to foreigners but counseled “a moderation in all things…. He would admit them to his house, he would invite them to his table … but would not carry the complaisance so far as to bed them with his wife.”

Compromise prevailed; no person may be a representative who has not been a citizen seven years, or become a senator with less than nine years’ citizenship. Presidents must be American-born. The issue blew up again in 1798 during stormy confrontations between Jefferson’s Republicans and conservative Federalist opponents who feared an infiltration of radical immigrants full of dangerous ideas hatched by the French Revolution, then in full career. A Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which allowed the President to expel foreigners whom he deemed dangerous on suspicion of treasonable activities. Jefferson called the measure “worthy of the 8th or 9th century,” and when he and his supporters won the election of 1800, they let it die without renewal.


Jefferson’s optimistic vision of an always enlightened and open-minded America has survived as a hotly contested influence on the land. But his expectation that the nation would remain permanently agrarian was totally wrong. Half a century after he left the White House, steam power had transformed the country. Inventors and investors proved the truest American radicals. Steamboats and rail lines crisscrossed a Union that spread to the Pacific and boasted more than thirty states. Mills, mines, factories, distilleries, packinghouses, and shipyards yearly churned out millions of dollars’ worth of manufactured goods.

And it was linked to mass immigration. Immigrants furnished much of the labor that made the productive explosion possible and many of the consumers who made it profitable. The same industrializing processes that were at work and opened jobs here uprooted millions in Europe whose handicrafts became obsolete or whose land fell into the hands of those who could farm more “efficiently.” Two decades of Napoleonic warfare, followed by three more of suppressed democratic and nationalist revolution, created a new reservoir of suffering from which emigration offered an escape.

America was a major beneficiary. Europe’s growing cities and new overseas dominions beckoned, but the United States was the special promised land as the nineteenth century took its dynamic course. Fewer than 8,000 immigrants per year landed on American shores between 1783 and 1815, but 2,598,000 came in the next forty-five years: 1,500,000 in the 1840s and 3,000,000 in the 1850s. The pre-Civil War period of immigration belonged predominantly to 1,500,000 Germans and 2,000,000 Irish. It was the Irish whose transplantation was most shadowed in tragedy. Unbelievably, Ireland—only a few hours by water from the very center of the modern world in England—was stricken by the oldest of Biblical scourges, famine.

Irish migration had begun early. The rich English absentee landlords who ruled the country left their peasant tenants to feed themselves on the potatoes grown on tiny plots. A visitor declared that “the most miserable of English paupers” was better off. Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists were equally despised and frustrated. There was little future, and thousands, early in the century, migrated to the United States to find pick-and-shovel jobs on the growing network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads. But in 1845 the stream of opportunity seekers was turned into a flood of refugees. The potato crop, smitten by a fungus, failed in three successive years. Mass starvation was the result. In the hovels inhabited by the “Paddies,” rats gnawed on unburied bodies while others in their death throes looked on, too weak to move. “All with means are emigrating,” wrote one official; “only the utterly destitute are left behind.”

Victims of the “Great Hunger” were not through with their torments when they boarded filthy, overcrowded, and underprovisioned ships, where, said one witness, it was “a daily occurrence to see starving women and children fight for the food which was brought to the dogs and pigs that were kept on deck.” En route 10 to 20 percent of them died of disease. In the United States, lacking capital and prepared only for low-level employment, they were crammed into the new urban slums. Some were housed, according to an investigation committee, nine in a room in windowless and waterless cellars, “huddled together like brutes without regard to age or sex or sense of decency.”

It was a little better for the Germans. Many were professionals and scholars with some capital, political refugees rather than disaster victims. Some came in groups that pooled their money to buy cheap Western lands, and these founded towns like New UIm in Minnesota or New Braunfels in Texas. So many of them became Texans, in fact, that in 1843 the state published a German edition of its laws. An American reporter visited a German farm in Texas in 1857. “You are welcomed,” he told readers, “by a figure in a blue flannel shirt and pendant beard, quoting Tacitus, having in one hand a long pipe, in the other a butcher’s knife; Madonnas upon log-walls; coffee in tin cups upon Dresden saucers; barrels for seats to hear a Beethoven’s symphony on the grand piano.”

German farmers spread through Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. German brewers, bookbinders, butchers, musicians, and other craftspeople settled cohesively and proudly in cities from New York to New Orleans, St. Eouis to Cincinnati. In 1860, 100,000 New York Germans supported twenty churches, fifty German-language schools, ten bookstores, five printing establishments, and a theater, in neighborhoods known collectively as Kleindeutschland (little Germany). To contemporaries the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority—a kind of generalizing that would, in time, be transferred to other peoples.

To their contemporaries, the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority.

Besides these two major groups, there were Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes arriving in increasing numbers from the 185Os onward; French-Canadians moving into New England textile factories to replace Yankee workers of both sexes; Dutch farmers drifting to western Michigan; and in 1849 Chinese who had heard of the California gold strikes and came for their share of the “Golden Mountain,” as they called America—only to be crowded out of the mining camps by mobs and restrictive laws and diverted into railway labor gangs, domestic service, restaurants, and laundries.

The immigrants helped push the United States population from 4,000,000 in 1790 to 32,000,000 in 1860. They built America by hand, for wages that were pittances by modern standards—$40 a month in Pennsylvania coal mines, $1.25 to $2 a day on the railroads—but tempting nonetheless. (In Sweden farmhands earned $33.50 per year .) They dug themselves into the economy and into the nation’s not-always-kindly ethnic folklore. New England textile towns like Woonsocket and Burlington got to know the accent of French-Canadian “Canucks.” So many Swedes became Western lumbermen that a double-saw was called a “Swedish fiddle.” Welsh and Cornish copper miners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, were known as Cousin Jacks.

There were exceptions to the geographical stereotypes-Dutch settlements in Arizona, a Swedish nucleus in Arkansas, a Chinese community in Mississippi—and Irishmen in Southern cities like Mobile and New Orleans, where they were employed on dangerous jobs like levee repair because they were more expendable than fifteen-hundred-dollar slaves.

American culture shaped itself around their presence. Religion was a conspicuous example. The Church of Rome in America was turned inside out by the Irish, whose sheer numbers overwhelmed the small groups of old-stock English and French Catholics from Maryland and Louisiana. The first American cardinal, John McCloskey, was the son of a Brooklyn Irishman. The second, James Gibbons, an Irish boy from Baltimore. German and Swiss Catholic immigrants added to the melting-pot nature of their church in the United States before the Civil War—and the Poles and Italians were yet to come.

German and Scandinavian Lutheran immigrants—free of state and ecclesiastical authorities—developed strong local leaders and new, secessionist bodies, like the German-dominated Missouri Synod and the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod. Both of these were theologically conservative groups. On the other side Isaac Mayer Wise, a German immigrant rabbi, became the patriarch of Reform Judaism in America, to save the faith, in his words, from “disappearance” into “Polish-cabalistical … supernaturalism.” All the “immigrant churches” in the United States built their own networks of social service agencies, parochial schools, and ministerial training seminaries without state help, blending the faith of their fathers with an American style of independent congregational activism. In the house of God, too, the American was a “new man.”

Ethnic politics took root in immigrant-crowded city wards. Nowhere was it stronger than among the gregarious Irish, whose neighborhood saloons became political clubhouses. The Society of St. Tammany was an old-stock New York City association founded in 1789 to promote Jeffersonian ideas. Fifty years later the Irish had so infiltrated it that a writer quipped: “Ask an Irishman, and he will probably tell you that St. Tammany was a younger brother of St. Patrick who emigrated to America for the purpose of taking a city contract to drive all Republican reptiles out of New York.” Patronage jobs handed out by the machine made Irish cops a stereotype for the rest of the century.

But the lower-class Irish in particular stung an American elite long steeped in anti-popery. Anti-immigrant feelings began to rise in the 184Os and focused especially on the Irish, who, like poor people before and after them, were denounced for not living better than they could afford. “Our Celtic fellow citizens,” wrote a New York businessman, “are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.” Bigotry can always find excuses and weapons. The handiest one in the 184Os was anti-Catholicism.

In 1834 a Boston mob burned a convent. Ten years later there were riots in Philadelphia after a school board ruled that Catholic children might use the Douay version of the Bible in school. “The bloody hand of the Pope,” howled one newspaper, “has stretched itself forth to our destruction.” A few years after that, anti-Catholic and anti-foreign feelings merged in a nativist crusade called the Know-Nothing movement. Its goal was to restrict admission and naturalization of foreigners, and among its adherents was Samuel F. B. Morse, the father of telegraphy, who cried aloud: “To your posts! … Fly to protect the vulnerable places of your Constitution and Laws. Place your guards…. And first, shut your gates.”

Know-Nothings had some brief success but little enduring impact. Their drive got strength from a generalized anxiety about the future of the country on the eve of the Civil War. But KnowNothingism cut across the grain of a venerable commitment to equal rights, and no one put his finger on the issue more squarely than Abraham Lincoln when asked in 1855 whether he was in favor of the Know-Nothing movement: “How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘ all men are created equal .’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes .’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and catholics ’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Three years later, on the Fourth of July, 1858, in debating with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln returned to the theme. What could the Fourth mean, he asked, to those who were not blood descendants of those who had fought in the Revolution? His answer was that in turning back to the Declaration of Independence, they found the sentiment “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” that they “feel … and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration and so they are. That is the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together…”

Lincoln was unambiguous. There was no exclusively American race entitled to claim liberty by heredity. What held the nation together was an idea of equality that every newcomer could claim and defend by free choice.

That concept was soon tested to the limit with Lincoln himself presiding over the fiery trial. Foreign-born soldiers and officers served the Union in such numbers and with such distinction that the war itself should have laid to rest finally the question of whether “non-natives” could be loyal. It didn’t do that. But it paved the way for another wave of economic growth and a new period of ingathering greater than any that had gone before.


After 1865 the United States thundered toward industrial leadership with the speed and power of one of the great locomotives that were the handsomest embodiment of the age of steam. That age peaked somewhere in the 1890s. By 1929 the age of electricity and petroleum was in flower. And the United States was the world’s leading producer of steel, oil, coal, automobiles and trucks, electrical equipment, and an infinite variety of consumer goods from old-fashioned overalls to newfangled radios. The majority of Americans lived in supercities, their daily existence made possible by elaborate networks of power and gas lines, telephone wires, highways, bridges, tunnels, and rails.

And the foreign-born were at the center of the whirlwind. Expansion coincided with, depended on, incorporated the greatest wave of migration yet. In the first fourteen years after the Civil War ended yearly immigration ranged from 318,568 in 1866 to 459,803 in 1873, slumping during the hard times of 1873–77, and rebounding to 457,257 in 1880.

Then came the deluge: 669,431 in 1881; 788,992 in 1882. Seven times between 1883 and 1903 the half-million total was passed. The million mark was hit in 1905 with 1,026,499—and exceeded six times between that year and 1914. The all-time peak came in 1907: 1,285,349.

All told, some 14,000,000 arrived at the gates between 1860 and 1900; another 18,600,000 followed between 1900 and 1930. Almost all of them came from Europe, a transoceanic transplantation unmatched in history.

Chicago once had more Germans than any of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cities except Berlin and Hamburg.

The “old” Americans—that is, the children of immigrants who had arrived earlier—watched the influx with feelings that ran from pride to bewilderment and alarm, for the “new” immigration was not from traditional sources. Until 1890 most new arrivals were from familiar places: the British Isles, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands. But now it was the turn of southern and eastern Europe to swarm. Of the roughly 1,280,000 in the record-setting 1907 intake, 260,000 were from Russia, which then included a goodly portion of Poland. Another 285,000 were from Italy. Almost 340,000 were from Austria-Hungary, a doomed “dual monarchy” that included much of the future Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and another part of Poland. About 36,000 were from Romania, Bulgaria, and what was left of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in Europe. There were modest numbers of Greeks and Portuguese.

These new immigrants were palpably different. There were Eastern Orthodox as well as Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. There were, at a time when ethnic labels were taken with great seriousness, Magyars, Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, and people generally grouped as “Slavs” and “Latins” and sniffed at in suspicion and disdain. In 1875 The New York Times said of Italians that it was “hopeless to think of civilizing them, or keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law.” A Yankee watching Polish farm workers was struck by their “stolid, stupid faces.” An American Jewish journal, offended by the beards, side curls, and skullcaps of Polish greenhorns, wondered what could be done with these “miserable darkened Hebrews.”

The immigration patterns had shifted with the course of modern European history. A rising demand for political independence in central Europe fed political turbulence. Russian nationalism spawned anti-Semitic outbursts and hard, impoverishing economic restrictions on Jews. Southern Italy was overwhelmed by agricultural poverty that was increased by policies of industrialization and modernization that favored the north. Europe was full of hopeful seekers of streets paved with gold.

And there were voices to entice them. The immigration bureaus of Western states distributed literature in several languages touting opportunities within their borders. Railroad companies with land grants wooed Russian and German farmers to come out and buy (on long-term credit) tracts on the Great Plains. The Great Northern line- which James J. Hill built without land grants—offered fares as low as thirty-three dollars to any point on the tracks that ran from Minnesota to Oregon, plus sweet deals on acquiring and moving machinery, livestock, lumber, fencing. Steamship companies were in the hunt too. Modern technology had reduced the dreaded transatlantic passage to ten or twelve days instead of months. Steerage accommodations were far from clean or comfortable, but they cost as little as twenty-five dollars, and passengers were no longer likely to die on the way.

So the immigrants came. For the most part this was an urban migration. Millions went to the middling-sized red-brick towns dominated by the factory chimney and whistle. More millions went to the big cities, where they grunted and sweated in the creation of the skyscrapers, the bridges, the subways and trolley lines, the sewer and lighting systems —the guts of the metropolis. Or where, if they did not swing a pick or scrub floors, they sold groceries to those of their countrymen who did.

In the 1890s Chicago had more Germans than any of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cities except Berlin and Hamburg; more Swedes than any place in Sweden except for Stockholm and G’f6teborg; more Norwegians than any Norwegian town outside of Christiana (now Oslo) and Bergen. Of some 12,500 laborers modernizing New York State’s Erie Canal, fully 10,500 were Italians rounded up on the docks by Italianspeaking padrones and furnished to construction companies at so much per head. By 1897 Italians made up 75 percent of New York City’s construction workers. Jews already dominated the town’s once-German garment industry.

In Pennsylvania in 1900 almost 60 percent of white bituminous coal miners were foreign-born. In three anthracite coal mines in a single county, more than three-quarters of the work force was Slavic. Twenty-five languages were spoken in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Ethnic monopolies of particular lines of work were established. In 1894 all but one of New York City’s 474 foreign-born bootblacks were Italian, and Greeks dominated the confectionery business in Chicago until past the end of World War II.

For most, life in the golden land was potentially promising but actually brutal. Wages hung at or below the cost of living and far below the cost of comfort. Some parts of Chicago had three times as many inhabitants as the most crowded sections of Tokyo or Calcutta. A New York survey taker found 1,231 Italians living in 120 rooms. Single toilets and water faucets were shared by dozens of families. Uncollected garbage piled up in alleys. Privacy and health were equally impossible to maintain, and pulmonary diseases raged through the tenement “lung blocks.”

Settlement-house workers took up residence in the worst neighborhoods, trying to teach the rudiments of hygiene. The American public school took on a new role. Authorities regarded it as their mission to teach immigrant children not only basic skills but civic responsibility, respect for the flag, and the proper use of the toothbrush. In fact, the schools did produce millions of competent citizens. One alumna, Mary Antin, said that born Americans should be grateful for their role in “the recruiting of your armies of workers, thinkers, and leaders.” But the precedent of having schools serve as agents of social policy—in this case of assimilation—would later haunt overburdened teachers and administrators.

The urban center of gravity of the new immigrants made it harder for them to be accepted. Most “native” Americans were encountering the basic problems of the big city- crowding, crime, graft, corruption, disease—for the first time. It was all too easy for them to associate these evils with the immigrants, who seemed always to be at the center of this or that dilemma. Sympathetic men and women like Jane Addams, Emily Balch, Hutchins Hapgood, and Horace M. Kallen did their best to explain immigrant culture to their fellow old-stock Americans and to guide the newcomers in acceptable American ways.

In the 1890s, old New England families rallied to form the Immigration Restriction League.

The immigrants themselves did not take on the role of clay awaiting the potter’s hand. They organized their own newspapers, theaters, social clubs, night classes, and self-help societies. These, while keeping the old-country languages and folkways alive, steadfastly preached and practiced assimilation and urged members and readers to rush into citizenship and respectability, which the great majority of them did. Single men skimped and struggled to bring over families. Families sacrificed to send children to school. And the children found different paths to Americanization. Some joined political machines and parties; some worked in the union movement; others forged their own steps to success in business. (And some never graduated beyond the streets and dead-end jobs.)

Regardless of what they did, they were caught in the center of a steadily sharpening American debate over the “immigrant problem” that began in the early 1890s. It was a reprise of earlier nativist struggles. As early as 1882 Congress was prevailed upon to exclude Chinese from entry and citizenship. In the 1890s an Immigration Restriction League was formed. Its leaders were from old New England families who shared the fears of the writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich that through our “unguarded gates” there was pouring a “wild motley throng” of “Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes.”

Would the America of the future be populated, one restrictionist asked, by “British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant?” The call for an end to unchecked immigration was echoed by labor leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers (a Dutch-born Jewish immigrant from England in 1863), who complained that the “present immigration” consisted of “cheap labor, ignorant labor [that] takes our jobs and cuts our wages.”

Bit by bit, curbs were imposed—first on immigrants with contagious diseases or serious criminal records, then on those who were “professional beggars” or anarchists or prostitutes or epileptics. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt got Congress to establish a commission to study the “problem.” Chaired by the Vermont senator William Paul Dillingham, it labored for four years to produce a massive report that loaded the guns of a restrictionism based on invidious distinctions between the “old” and “new” immigrations. Among other things it marshaled data to “prove” that the most recent immigrants were “content to accept wages and conditions which … native Americans … had come to regard as unsatisfactory.” It stated that “inherent racial tendencies” rather than poverty explained miserable immigrant living conditions and went on to say many other uncomplimentary things about the great-grandparents of some fifty million of today’s Americans.

No action was taken on the report when it appeared in 1910. But racist feeling was on the rise. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in 1915. A hysterical drive for 100 percent Americanism during World War I and the Red scare immediately afterward fed a popular belief articulated by one congressman: “We get the majority of the communists, the I.W.W.’s, the dynamiters, and the assassins … from the ranks of the present-day immigrant.”

In 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which remained the cornerstone of national immigration policy for the next forty-one years. Starting in 1929, there would be an overall yearly limit of 150,000 on immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere. The 150,000 was to be divided into quotas, assigned to nationalities in the proportion that they bore, by birth or descent, to the total population as of 1920.

What that meant was clear. The longer a national group had been here, the more of its descendants were in the population and the larger would be its quota. When the first shares were announced, half of all places were reserved for British residents, whereas only 5,802 Italians, 6,524 Poles, and 2,784 Russians could be admitted. Groups like Syrians or Albanians fared worse, with fewer than 100 places per year. And Asians were excluded altogether.

The national origins quota system of 1924 was a landmark, ending centuries of open admission. It was also a victory for ethnic stereotyping. Yet it was not without its ironies. For one thing, it did not impose limits on a Hispanic in-gathering from Mexico and Puerto Rico that was just gaining steam. Nor did it deal with the internal migration of Southern blacks into Northern cities. Anglo-Saxon superiority was therefore left unprotected on two fronts.

And in the next and newest phase of the story, covering the final years of the twentieth century, there were dramatic changes in the “racial” composition of immigration that went far beyond anything that the Immigration Restriction League could possibly have anticipated.


Like a good many pieces of social policy legislation, the Johnson-Reed Act began to be outdated from the moment it took effect. One of its objectives—cutting down on immigration overall—was brutally affected by the Great Crash. In the deepest year of the Depression, 1933, only 34,000 immigrants arrived to take their chances in a shuttered and darkened economy.

The totals did not rise dramatically in the next seven years, but they were important weather vanes of change. Fascist and Communist dictators, and World War II, gave new meaning to the word refugee and a new scale to misery. Millions of victims of history would soon be knocking at our closed gates.

First came those in flight from Hitler, primarily Jews. Their claim to asylum was especially powerful, considering the savagery that they were fleeing (and no one suspected yet that extermination would be the ultimate threat). This was a special kind of exodus, heavy with intellectual distinction. Thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and managers were hit by the Nazi purge of independent thinkers in every part of German life. “Hitler shakes the tree,” said one American arts administrator, “and I collect the apples.” The choicest apples included such men and women as Bruno Walter, George Szell, Lotte Lenya, Paul Klee, Thomas Mann, and Hannah Arendt in the arts and philosophy. In the sciences the lists included the physicists and mathematicians Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene P. Wigner, and Enrico Fermi (in flight from Mussolini’s Italy) who shared in the creation of the atom bomb. The weapon was first proposed to the American government by the superstar of all the refugees, Albert Einstein.

World War II came—and more signals of change. In 1943 the sixty-one-year-old-Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, because China was now an American ally. The gesture was small, and the quota tiny (105), and it could hardly be said to mark the end of anti-Asian prejudice when 112,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were behind barbed wire. But it was a beginning, a breach in the wall. The horrible consequences of Hitler’s “racial science” were so clear that the philosophy of biological superiority underlying the national origins quota system received a fatal shock.

So the groundwork was laid for the future admission of nonwhite immigrants from the crumbling European empires in Africa and Asia—especially when, as it turned out, many of them were highly educated specialists.

Then the Cold War produced its worldwide tragedies and shake-ups, its expulsions and arrests and civil wars and invasions in China, Cuba, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Central Africa, the Middle East, Central America. A world in conflict was a world once more ready to swarm.

And in the United States an economic boom was reopening the job market, Attitudes toward immigration were changing as well. The children of the great 1890-1914 migration had come of age. They were powerful in the voting booths; political scientists credited them with a major role in supporting the New Deal. And the best-selling writers and dramatists among them were delving the richness of their experience in a way that wiped out the stereotypes of the old restrictionism.

So the walls began to crumble. First there were special enactments to clear the way for the wives and children of servicemen who had gotten married while overseas. Some 117,000 women and children entered under a War Brides Act of 1945- 5,000 of them Chinese. In 1948 came the Displaced Persons Act, spurred by the misery of millions of homeless Eastern Europeans who had survived deportations, forced labor, bombings, and death camps. These were countries with the smallest national origins quotas. Congress did not repeal them, but it permitted borrowing against the future, so that at the end of the act’s four-year life, for example, Poland’s quota was mortgaged by half until 2000, and Eatvia’s until 2274. About 205,000 refugees entered under this law.

An attempt to overhaul the system in 1952 got entangled in the fear-ridden climate of McCarthyism, and the resulting McCarran-Walter Act kept the national origins quotas. Harry Truman vetoed it as “utterly unworthy of our traditions and ideals … our basic religious concepts, our belief in the brotherhood of man.” It was passed over his veto, but time was on his side. Special emergency relief acts admitted refugees from China’s civil war and Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet uprising. Those who left Castro’s Cuba needed no special relief, since there were as yet no limits on migration within the hemisphere, but they did get special help with resettlement. All told, in the 1950s immigration added up to some 2,500,000.

It was a quality migration, lured by the promise of American wages and the consumer goods made visible in the films and television shows that America exported. And jet travel now put the promised land only hours away. Foreign governments ruefully watched their elites disappearing into the “brain drain” to the United States. Between 1956 and 1965 approximately 7,000 chemists, 35,000 engineers, 38,000 nurses, and 18,000 physicians were admitted. Between 1952 and 1961 Britain lost 16 percent of its Ph.D.s, half to the United States. Comparable losses were even more critical for developing states in the Third World or small European countries.

Hitler shakes the tree,” said one American arts administrator, “and I collect the apples.”

Yet there was still room at the bottom, for workers in the “service industries” and especially in the harvest fields of the Southwest. In 1951 growers got Congress to enact “temporary worker” programs that brought in thousands of Mexican braceros. Many who received green cards remained without authorization, joining imprecise numbers of illegal immigrants known as wetbacks after presumably swimming the Rio Grande to elude the Border Patrol. There were legal ways to stay too.

All we need is a gringuita
So that we can get married
And after we get our green card
We can get a divorce
Long live all the wetbacks.

So ran a popular Mexican ballad. Authorized and undocumented Mexicans alike became part of an enlarging Hispanic population, fed by migrants from Central America and the Caribbean. Great numbers of Puerto Ricans were part of it, but they did not count as immigrants because of the island’s special status.

In 1965 the patched old system was finally discarded, and a brand-new act was passed. It mirrored the equal-rights spirit of the 1960s, modified by the political compromises that float bills through the riptides of congressional debate. The national origins quotas vanished, but there was no return to the wide-open days. Instead” new quotas were established with three primary targets: reuniting families, opening the gates to refugees, and attracting skill and talent.

The new act mandated an annual limit of 170,000 immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere, and 120,000 from within. These 290,000 were to be admitted under seven “preference” quotas. First and second preferences—40 percent of the total—were saved for unmarried grown sons and daughters of citizens and legally admitted alien residents. (Spouses, minor children, and parents of citizens came in free.) The third preference, 10 percent, went to “members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability.” The fourth, 10 percent, went to adult married children of U.S. citizens, and the fifth, 24 percent, to brothers and sisters of citizens. The sixth, 10 percent, was held for “skilled labor in great demand” and “unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in short supply,” and the final preference, 6 percent, was for specifically defined refugees.

As Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the act at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, the new law was not “revolutionary.” Yet, he added, it “repairs a deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American life…. The days of unlimited immigration are past. But those who come will come because of what they are—not because of the land from which they sprung.”

The Immigration Act of 1965 was born in the year of Great Society programs and the Voting Rights Act. It fulfilled some of its authors’ expectations and also carried some surprises—perhaps because 1965 was itself a turning-point year that also witnessed urban race riots and the first heavy and expensive commitments to combat in Vietnam. Johnson was wrong in one respect: The law’s effects have been revolutionary, and are still with us every day. The twenty-five years of its existence have produced a major demographic turnaround.

Europe, the prime provider of new Americans for three centuries, fell off to little more than a 10 percent share of total immigration. The bulk of it now comes from Asia and the Western Hemisphere. In the decade from 1961 to 1970 some 3,321,000 immigrants arrived, and 1,123,000, less than 40 percent, were of European origin. Of 4,493,000 newcomers in the period 1971–80, only about 801,000 were Europeans. Between 1981 and 1990, when immigration totaled 7,338,000, the European contribution was only 761,550.

What of the other 85 to 90 percent? Of the 1,588,000 arrivals in the 1980s, 1,634,000 came from Asia (somewhat over one-third), 1,930,000 from North and South America, and 80,779 from Africa. The five major contributing nations were, in order, Mexico (640,300), the Philippines (355,000), Cuba (265,000), Korea (268,000), and China, both mainland and Taiwan (237,800).

Of the roughly 7,300,000 legal immigrants of 1981-90, 2,700,000 came from Asia, 3,600,000 from the Americas. The leaders—with numbers rounded—were Mexico at 1,656,000, the Philippines at 549,000, Vietnam with 281,000, the two Chinas with 98,000 and 346,000, and Korea with 334,000. Other heavy contributors were the Caribbean nations, with together 872,000; India with about 250,000, Laos at 112,000, Iran with some 116,000, Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama) with 468,000, and African nations with 177,000.

The rising Third World totals had two sources. One was the nature of the 1965 law itself, especially the fifth-preference brother-andsister quota. Legally admitted and naturalized immigrants brought in their siblings, who went through the same cycle and then brought in their kin, and so on in a family tree of ever-spreading branches. When Congress endorsed family reunification, it had in mind the American 1950s model of two parents and two or three children. What it sot was extended clans of Asians and Latins.


The other root of Third World influx was the bloody history of the 1970s and 1980s. The fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam in 1975 unleashed floods of refugees who were a special responsibility of the United States. Within the first six months we admitted some 130,000, and many more thousands under special quota exemptions in succeeding years. By 1990, counting their children born here, some 586,000 people of Indochinese origin were living in the United States.

The refugee problem was worldwide. It raised issues of what countries should share the burdens of admission. It sharpened agonizing questions of when repatriation might be justified: when a family was actually fleeing for its life and when it was only looking for a chance to go where air-conditioned cars and color television sets were the visible rewards of hard work (as if both motives could not coexist).

Congress made its own tentative answer with the first major modification of the 1965 law, the Refugee Act of 1980. It set up new offices within the federal government for handling refugee affairs and reshuffled the quota system. The old seventh (refugee) preference with its 17,400 slots was abolished in favor of an annual quota of up to 50,000 refugees that could be exceeded for “grave, humanitarian reasons” by the President in consultation with Congress. The overall limit was dropped to 270,000 as a tradeoff. A refugee was officially defined as a person who could not go home again by reason of a “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.

And as if to mock the effort to set boundaries around social revolutions, President Carter’s signature was hardly dry on the act when 125,000 new Cuban refugees were knocking at the gates, released by Castro through the port of Mariel. Carter declared that he would admit them with open arms and an open heart, a sentiment not fully shared by some residents of the South Florida communities where the Marielitos at first clustered.

Society had changed greatly since the unstructured and unsupervised days of mass arrivals at Ellis Island (long deserted and shuttered). The newest refugees did not find unskilled jobs and low-rent tenements waiting for them. It was the age of big government and bureaucratic organization. With the U.S. Treasury providing funds, and church and social service agencies the personnel, programs were launched to help with health care, schooling, and other roads to citizenship. Until the immigrants dispersed themselves around the country, they were lodged in temporary camps, some of them former Army bases. What had been left between 1890 and 1914 to friends, families, padrones, landsleit , and political machines was now managed under guidelines set in Washington.

Washington’s welcome was not universal. Cold War politics infiltrated refugee policy in the 1980s. Refugees from Communist nations were welcomed, but those from countries officially deemed “democratic,” like El Salvador, got shorter shrift. So did those who were “merely” trying to escape harsh but non-Communist regimes or grinding poverty, like the Haitians. The Immigration and Naturalization Service held thousands of them in detention while their petitions for asylum were suspiciously reviewed. Nonetheless, thousands of Central Americans managed to escape the net and find work—usually low-paid and menial—and to melt into the underground economy of the Hispanic communities in Florida and New York.

General statements about this newest great migration are dangerous because it is tempting to lump its members together by race and nationality, as the old Dillingham Report did, rather than by class, education, experience, income, or other categories. To describe Colombian dentists and Mexican cotton pickers as “Hispanics” or Korean chemical engineers and Pakistani nurses’ aides as “Asian” suggests nonexistent similarities.

But some broad observations fit most of the new immigrants: They get to this country swiftly and by air, they quickly fall into the consumerist culture familiar to them through television at home, and they are quickly integrated into the bureaucratic structure of entitlements that characterize life in the United States today.

Beyond that, all-embracing descriptions strain the facts. The Vietnamese, for example, include English-speaking professionals who worked for American corporations, Catholics educated during the period of French control, and people from the bottom rung: in the words of one writer, “cosmopolites, bourgeois provincials, and dirt-poor peasants … gifted intellectuals, street-wise hustlers and unworldly fisherfolk and farmers.” The Koreans most visible to New Yorkers are the hardworking grocers who seem to have taken over the retail fruit and vegetable business completely from the Italians. But a survev shows that more than a third of all Koreans in the United States have completed four years of college.

Recent years have witnessed a new restrictionism, but it is based on some very old alliances.

Filipino immigrants are found in hospitals, as doctors and nurses and sometimes behind the counter in the basement cafeterias; Indians in the newsstands of New York City and likewise doing advanced biochemical or genetic research in its university laboratories. Middle Eastern Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are heavily concentrated in Detroit, and many work in the American auto industry at both shop and managerial levels. Israeli and Soviet Jewish immigrants—some of them jobless Ph.D.s—drive taxis in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York—and work as engineers in defense industries in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans, other Latinos, and Chinese fill the places in New York’s declining garment industry once held by Italians and Jews.

Within the communities of Cambodians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Iranians, Russians, Israelis, Irish, and Puerto Ricans the old saga goes on as children learn new ways and move to new, unexpected disruptive rhythms. But in education the effect of the new immigration has been dramatically different from what it was prior to World War I. Then the public schools were on the rise and confident of their power and duty to unify all children behind the undisputedly correct symbols and rites of Americanism.

In the mood of the 1970s, however, things changed. Emphasis on ethnic pride and the power of the civil rights revolution dictated a new approach. Immigrant children were no longer to be thrown into English-speaking classrooms to sink or swim. Instead bilingual programs would help them in transit to a new system without their being stigmatized as stupid because they could not understand the teacher. Going further, some educators argued that preparing children for a multicultural society required exposure to many “life-styles” and building the self-esteem of “minority” students through appreciation of their own languages, customs, and cultures. So some states mandated bilingual (usually Hispanic-English) programs into the curriculum at every level.


Whatever the virtues of the theory (debatable in the light of evidence), bilingualism provoked a strong counterreaction, and by 1990 some organizations were insisting that new immigrants were not working hard enough to learn the common tongue that was so valuable a social binding agency. An English-only drive got under way to designate English, by constitutional amendment, if necessary, as the official language of the United States.

In actual fact, Spanish (and other language) newspapers, television stations, religious congregations, and social clubs were a re-enactment of what had gone before. In the early 1900s there had been a vigorous immigrant press, which, in time, died out. But the English-only movement drew strength from a sense of increasing discomfort over the increasing numbers of immigrants, a reawakening of the old idea that a “flood” of “unassimilated” newcomers was pouring in.

A new restrictionism was born, featuring some familiar alliances. Middle- and upper-class taxpayers believed that the immigrants, concentrated in certain areas, were a burden on schools, hospitals, and welfare and law-enforcement agencies. On the other hand, there were workers who were convinced that the immigrants took away low-level jobs that were rightfully theirs or depressed wages by working in sweatshops or permitting the employment of their underage children. Black Americans tended especially to believe that material assistance that had been denied to them was going to the refugees. They were now the bypassed “old Americans.”

Resentment was fed by the widespread admiration of the academic and business success of Asian Americans, who were, in great numbers, advancing up the professional scale. They were described by some sociologists as a “model minority”—their delinquents and failures overlooked while the spotlight fell on those who succeeded.

A dread of the unknown and uncountable hovered over lawmakers. Undocumented aliens came in from the Mexico in annual numbers estimated from a few hundred thousand to many millions a year. The oft-repeated statement that we were “losing control of our borders” had a powerful psychological kick in a time of multiple American troubles. Had we, in fact, reached the limit our power to offer asylum? Was there truth in what Sen. Alan Simpson said in 1982: “We have to live within limits. The nation wants to be compassionate but we have been compassionate beyond our ability to respond”?

The evidence of the actual economic effect of immigration is inconclusive. The contribution of immigrant specialists to a high-tech economy has to be considered. Every working-age, well-trained immigrant who enters the country becomes a free resource, not schooled at American cost—a dividend from the brain drain. Even the “low-end” immigrants, including the “illegals” (or undocumented), may contribute as much in sales and other taxes and in purchasing power as they take out in services and schooling. The case has also been made that the undocumented aliens, fearful of discovery, rarely claim benefits due them. Thousands of employers likewise insist that without immigrants they could not staff the service industries or harvest the fields. And the falling American birthrate suggests to some economists the possibility of labor shortages in the next century. They say that we can easily absorb half a million or so legal immigrants annually, perhaps more—though of what kind and for how long are left to debate.


But while debate went on, Congress did make a second change in the 1965 law. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 tried to deal with two much-disputed issues. One was how to identify and count the unmeasured number of undocumented aliens already in the country without intrusive violations of civil liberties. The other was how to enforce immigration limits without a gigantic and costly expansion of the hard-pressed Immigration and Naturalization Service. The solution to the first problem was dealt with through an amnesty for pre-1982 immigrants; the second, by turning employers into enforcement agents. They would be “sanctioned” by fines if they hired undocumented aliens. The bill sparked bitter controversy in its career in three separate Congresses before final passage. Mexican-American organizations, for example, argued that employers, rather than risk sanctions, would simply refuse to hire Hispanic-looking or -sounding men and women. Employers complained about the cost and difficulty of checking credentials. But in the end a coalition for passage was established. It is still too early to tell how well the law is working.

It is not too early, however, to make some general predictions about the future course of the peopling of America. Immigration on the current scale, plus natural increase, will over time change the character of the people who inhabit these United States. Hispanic-descended men and women alone now constitute a little more than 22,000,000 in a population of about 248,000,000. By 2010 they are expected to number 39,300,000 in an overall population of about 282,000,000. In other words, their increase will account for 28 percent of the total population growth in that period. Another set of census projections for the period from 1990 to 2025 sees the white population declining from 84.3 to 75.6 percent, the black population percentage rising from 12.4 to 14.6, and the percentage of “other races” almost doubling, from 3.4 to 6.5. In some urban areas where the current crop of new immigrants clusters, the terms nonwhite and minority are no longer synonyms; in Los Angeles County, for example, only 15 percent of public school children are white.

We began with a reference to the many-tongued New York that Isaac Jogues found in 1643. It is appropriate to return for a look some 350 years afterward. The old tale continues. “Young Immigrant Wave Lifts New York Economy,” runs a recent story in The New York Times . The paper found that the 2,600,000 foreign-born residents of the city (about one-third of the total population) had a positive effect. Their addition to the ranks of workers, small business owners, and consumers had probably kept New York from becoming “boarded up.” No fewer than eighteen countries had sent 5,000 or more people to the hard-pressed metropolis from 1980 to 1986. At least 114 languages are spoken in the city’s school systems. In one Queens school a sign directs visitors to register in English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. Among those photographed or interviewed for the article were a Serbian-speaking garment worker, a Romanian technician in a hematology laboratory, and an Albanian building owner who began as a superintendent.

And as in New York, so also in the other great cities of America in the 1990s—in Los Angeles (44 percent of adults foreign-born) and Miami (70 percent foreign-born), in Chicago, Dallas, Boston, in the ten largest cities of the land where increases in immigrant population offset the economic impact of the loss of other residents—and in the neighborhoods across the country where the new immigrants are working and raising their American children. For them the streets may not be paved with gold, but the dreams still glisten. What memories they will give their children, what gods they will worship, what leaders they will follow, what monuments they will create are all part of history yet to be written. It seems safe to say that, like the English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Swedes and Finns, Greeks, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, and Russians before them, they will neither “melt” into some undistinctive alloy nor, on the other hand, remain aloof and distinct from one another. Some kind of functional American mosaic will emerge. It is the historic way; the great Amazon that Melville described as America’s noble bloodstream flows on undisturbed, into a new century.






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