According a Los Angeles Times story on the new Administration’s immigration and refugee orders, “Trump’s top advisors on immigration, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior advisor Stephen Miller, see themselves as launching a radical experiment … to block a generation of people who, in their view, won’t assimilate into American society.”
Here we are, once again, with vigorous efforts to block or to drive out “unassimilable” immigrants. (Ironically, American society is remarkably assimilating and today’s newcomers are no more likely to maintain their cultural differences than did the supposed unassimilables who came before them.) As shocking as these moves may seem to some, history shows that Americans have long resisted immigrants and refugees, often fiercely. The news is that Americans are, the current administration notwithstanding, becoming more rather than less welcoming.
“I Lift My Lamp”– or Do I?
Politicians and Fourth-of-July orators love to invoke Emma Lazarus’s lines on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your poor, your tired / Your huddled masses, the wretched refuse …. “and to say, as President Trump did a few days ago, that “America is a proud nation of immigrants.” Alas, the history of immigration here throws shade on that claimed pride.
Briefly summarized: American borders were for generations open to newcomers, but that was often in spite of, not because of, popular attitudes. Colonial America, a frontier society, was highly diverse by what passed for diversity in those days–mixes of English, Scots, Frenchmen, Dutch, and even Jews from the Caribbean. By the early 19th century, however, the nation increasingly defined the “standard” American as a Protestant of British origin. (Needless to say, Africans and Indians were totally outside of this conversation.)
The great challenge of the mid-19th century came in the form of Catholic immigration, first heavily from the Irish fleeing famine, then Central Europeans fleeing political chaos, and later Southern and Eastern Europeans seeking economic opportunity. Employers in America’s era of industrialization of course encouraged and subsidized the influx. But millions of native-born Protestants resisted it. They resisted, in part, because they feared the economic competition. But nativists also felt threatened by foreigners’ lifestyles and the spectre that Catholic immigrants would install Papal rule from Rome–a charge that gained far more credence than the occasional warnings we hear today about Sharia law. The struggle against foreigners was so great that a national political party, the Know Nothings, arose on this platform alone. Blood literally ran in the streets as mobs attacked the “unassimilable” immigrants and their institutions.
Around the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th century, resistance to immigrants focused on the Italians, Poles, Greeks, Slavs, and Jews coming from Europe, as well as the Japanese and Chinese coming from Asia. Job competition was again one concern and it led to murders of Asian immigrants in California. (Ironically, Irish immigrants and Irish-descended Americans were especially active.) Suspicion of Catholicism continued. Anti-immigrant voices also raised political objections, that European immigrants were bringing in radical, Bolshevik ideas. At the same time, progressives (yes, friends, progressives) provided a scientific justification for controlling immigration: These foreign “races” were inherently less intelligent and less moral than the Nordic race; their rabbit-like breeding would corrupt America; they could not assimilate.
In the mid-1920s, nativist campaigns led to laws effectively closing off immigration from much of the world that wasn’t “Nordic.” Whereas in 1910, before the interruption of World War I, almost 15 percent of Americans were foreign-born, by 1970 fewer than five percent were. Today, about 14 percent are, a result of the 1965 immigration reform legislation that removed quotas by national origin and also allowed family reunions, a celebrated rejection of discrimination by nationality.
Unfortunately, Americans hold a warped collective memory of earlier immigration history. Many assume that the European immigrants of generations past assimilated quickly, unlike Latin American, Asian, or Muslim immigrants today. Not true. Lasting ethnic enclaves like Greektowns and Little Italys were typical. Today’s immigrants actually learn English and forget their native languages faster than did the earlier newcomers. Similarly, romanticized memories lead many to believe that, unlike today’s immigrants, their ancestors made it up the ladder on their own steam–also a distortion. In the end, the supposedly unassimilable children and grandchildren of earlier immigrants became regular Americans, often to the chagrin of parents who hoped that their traditions would be more lasting.
Polling since the mid-20th-century can tell us more systematically about Americans’ opinions of immigrants and refugees. Those opinions did not echo verses from the Lazarus poem.
* In 1938, after the establishment of Nazi rule, the Roper Poll asked about “allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come into the United States.” Sixty-nine percent said “keep them out.”
* A few months later, Roper asked how interviewees would vote on opening “the doors … to a larger number of European refugees than now admitted under our immigration quotas.” Eighty-three percent said no.
* In 1943, when (pre-communist) China was our ally in World War II, the Gallup Poll asked respondents whether they would be willing to allow fewer than 150 Chinese to enter the country each year and become citizens. The responses were evenly divided yes and no.
* In 1946, Gallup twice asked, “Would you approve or disapprove a plan to require each nation to take in a given number of Jewish and other European refugees, based upon the size and population of each nation?” By about 55 to 33 percent, the answer was no.
*In 1947: “Would you vote yes or no on a bill in Congress to let 100,000 selected European refugees come to this country in each of the next four years, in addition to the 150,000 immigrants now permitted to enter every year under our present quotas?” Seventy-two percent said no.
* In 1948, a Roper Poll stated that “there are still a lot of refugees, or displaced persons, in European camps who cannot go back to the homes they had before the war” and asked respondents about their preferences. Fifty-four percent approved of taking either all or the U.S.’s share of refugees who were “strong” and “well,” but to a follow-up question, “if most of these refugees should turn out to be Jews, do you think that we should put a special limit on the number of them we take in?”, 60 percent said “limit.”
* In 1975, as the U.S. left Vietnam, the Harris Poll asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing 130,000 Vietnam refugees to come to live in the United States?” The replies were 49 percent no to 37 percent yes.
* Finally, in 1980, over 70 percent of respondents to a survey agreed that “the United States has been too willing to accept refugees from Cuba and South Vietnam.”
So much for “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” But, wait: It got better.
There is a long series of polls, largely by Gallup, on general attitudes toward immigration. One repeated question is: “In your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?” The percentage saying “decreased” rose and then fell sharply and kept falling after the turn of the 21st century through at least July, 2016 (h/t David Weakliem).
And here are the answers to the question of whether the respondent thinks that “on the whole … immigration is a good thing or a bad thing for this country today.” We see a strong shift to “good” from July, 1993 to July, 2016. (For more historical survey data, see here and here.)
To be sure, these trends might reverse, but perhaps the “arc of history,” as ex-President Obama would put it, bends in the direction he hopes. Perhaps, the people out in the streets today protesting executive actions against the “unassimilable” represent the prevailing modern American view, even if an accident of history has given us an administration more reflective of Americans past. Maybe the protesters, like growing numbers of Americans, realize that the new “unassimilables” will be the assimilated of tomorrow–just like the Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Japanese, and other “unassimilables” before them.
By the logic of the Trump administration, I would have been turned away when I landed in 1952 at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty–a 4-year-old child of “DPs” from Europe. Many opposed to immigration suspected that communists were sneaking in via the small quota that the U.S. permitted. Others just suspected foreigners. Especially Jews. We arrived; we assimilated.
This essay was re-posted on February 23, 2017 at Timeline (here) with a lot nice pictures.
Update (March 3, 2017): David Weakliem has more trend data, specifically on attitudes toward the undocumented–also moving in a favorable direction.