Historian Says That Today’s Immigrants Not So Different From Those of 19th Century

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The Great Hall at Ellis Island.

Tyler Anbinder is one of the most prominent of historians of 19th Century immigration to America. He has written on the Know Nothings, the immigrant Five Points neighborhood of New York, and served as an historical consultant to a Hollywood film on the subject. His new book, City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York., is a history of immigrant New York, from the Seventeenth Century to the end of the 20th.  

Anbinder has a new essay out debunking “Five Myths” that today’s immigrants are very different from those of yesteryear. Here are some excerpts:

Many wary Americans are convinced that today’s immigrants are fundamentally different than those who came to our country in the past. A look at the history, however, shows that today’s newcomers are not fundamentally different than Americans’ foreign-born grandparents, great-grandparents or even great-great-great grandparents.

First: Critics say today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated. Earlier waves of immigrants, the argument goes, had to learn English and assimilate. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture.

Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart. Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians.”

Second: Critics claim that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others.

But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions. Catholics would always remain separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”

Third: One might argue that the role of Muslims in recent American terror attacks could make it impossible for Muslim immigrants to gain acceptance the way past religious minorities have. Yet a century ago, Americans feared Italian immigrants were terrorists every bit as much as people today fear Muslims. In 1919, Italian immigrant anarchists launched a bombing campaign aimed at dozens of prominent Americans. A bomb targeting U.S. Senator Thomas Hardwick of Georgia blew off the hands of his housekeeper. A huge attack on Wall Street in 1920 killed 38 New Yorkers and wounded hundreds.

Nonetheless, Italian Americans eventually overcame the prejudice against them stemming from these attacks, and there is no reason to believe that Muslim Americans won’t do the same.

Fourth: A common charge is that contemporary immigrants eagerly take government “handouts” while previous generations of newcomers were rugged individualists who would not have accepted such assistance even if it had been available to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even before the advent of the New Deal, state, municipal and quasi-governmental programs gave assistance to millions of immigrants.

Fifth: A final complaint about today’s immigrants is that too many of them enter the country illegally rather than “wait on line” like previous generations of newcomers did.

In truth, there was no immigration “line” for most of American history. Any immigrant who wanted to come to the United States could do so without any wait at all. East Asians were a notable exception — for long periods, they were banned altogether. But otherwise, even after Americans began imposing various medical and financial tests on immigrants, 98 to 99 percent of Europeans and North Americans who wanted to come to the United States could immigrate whenever they chose to do so. When the U.S. imposed restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans immigrants in the 1920s, several million entered the country illegally. Very few Americans have ancestors who waited in an immigration line for their turn to become Americans.

From the days of the Puritans to the present, every generation of Americans has believed that the latest wave of immigrants is completely different from — and inferior to — their own immigrant ancestors and could never become true Americans. Fear of new immigrants may be part of the American character, but so too is the ability to overcome that fear.


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