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Posts Tagged ‘ethnicity’

Chain Migration

What’s an ivory-tower social scientist to do when he looks up from his cluttered desk and realizes that a handy but obscure academic term has become a mortar round in the culture wars? “Chain migration” used to have a serviceable technical meaning. Then, anti-immigration forces–anti-legal immigration forces–now joined by President Trump decided that chain migration is a tidal wave of foreigners submerging the American Way of Life (although more Norwegians would be OK). And it did not help that Senator Durbin further confused matters by saying that the phrase hurts the feelings of African Americans whose ancestors came in chains.

Here’s what immigration scholars have meant by the term: “People immigrate to locations where they find connections and a measure of familiarity.” “Migrants who already live in the destination…. help their friends and relatives by providing them information, money, and place to stay, perhaps a job, and emotional support.”

Immigration restrictors use the term, however, to refer to a specific version of chain migration: family reconstitution, the process by which naturalized American citizens can bring in extended kin who can bring in extended kin who can… etc. The idea is that each legal immigrant will, especially once a citizen, open the door to dozens of others. In fact, this is, as is well explained by an article in Vox, a great exaggeration. Each immigrant brings in very few extended kin and even those arrivals usually take decades.

But this post is about what real chain migration brought to America over the course of our history. Here is a pretty common story: A teenage boy sails into New York City to join and room with his older sister and her husband; they had made the trip two years earlier. Not speaking English, he nonetheless quickly gets a job from another immigrant of the same origin. He lives for several years in a neighborhood that is an enclave of aliens from his home region. Years later, after much adventure, he returns a wealthy man to his city of origin and brings a wife from there back to New York. This successful man is a link in a chain of migration. This man is Fredrick Trump, the president’s grandfather. (A recent Politico story looks at the family histories of other anti-immigrant activists.)

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Oldsters may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.[1] So did organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

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Knights of COlumbus

Knights of Columbus, North Ridgeville, OH

As we approach the 4th of July with all its patriotic celebrations, it is worth adding to the list of American accomplishments the creation of hyphenated ethnics: the Italian-, Irish-, Jewish-, Mexican-, Chinese-, etc.- American. The immigrant experience in the United States has entailed making both sides of the hyphen. Of course, we understand how immigrant groups (and forcibly incorporated groups, Africans, Native Americans, and southwestern Hispanics) became “Americanized.” They and especially their children thoroughly learned English, fit into Anglo institutions, adopted Anglo views and values, and so on. (See this earlier post.) But it also striking how the immigrant experience in America also entailed defining what it meant to be the adjective, Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.

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