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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 01/12/2011

Lessons from our immigrant past

By Susan F. Martin
Guest Blogger

About this blog: As a country of immigrants, our history is inescapably entwined with the issue of immigration. In “A Nation of Immigrants,” recently released by Cambridge University Press, Susan F. Martin, a professor at Georgetown, probes the different models of immigration that have persisted in the United States from its earliest days. The three models – the welcoming of immigrants as laborers, as religious pilgrims, and as multicultural participants in American life – help color the texture of U.S. society. Here, Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, outlines the role history plays today.


Four points about U.S. immigration history help illustrate the reasons that immigration reform is so hard to achieve:

1) Throughout our history, the American public has been profoundly ambivalent about immigration. Historically, we have seen our own immigrant forebears through rose-colored glasses while raising serious concerns about the contributions of current immigrants and the extent to which they will assimilate.

Repeatedly, Americans have criticized immigrants for not learning English, bringing diseases into the country and having high crime rates. For example, in the 1830s, Niles’ Weekly Register, a popular journal, warned that the nation “was infested by hordes of foreign wretches, pickpockets, thieves, robbers, forgers, etc.”

2) Immigration reform has been the exception, not the norm in U.S. history. Congress did not pass the first major immigration law until 1875 when it imposed restrictions on immigration of Chinese immigrants, contract laborers and convicts.

In 1921, Congress imposed the first overall numerical limit on admissions and put in place national origins quotas to determine who could enter. These remained in force until 1965 when Congress adopted preferences based on family ties and skills.

Further major changes in legal admissions did not occur until 1990. Twenty years later, the 1990 law remains in force despite significant changes to the American economy and society.

3) Since the colonial period, America has had three distinct models of immigration. The Virginia model largely equates immigration with the arrival of laborers with few rights —indentured servants, convict labor, slaves and today’s undocumented migrants.

The Massachusetts model has historically welcomed immigrants who shared the theological and ideological views of the majority and expelled those who dissented.

It is only the third model, forged in Pennsylvania, which has valued immigration for the diversity it brought and saw immigrants as presumptive citizens with rights as well as obligations. The question for the future is which model will prevail.

4) American politicians have long used immigration as a wedge issue, often regretting it in later elections. As early as 1752, Benjamin Franklin railed against the German immigrants in Pennsylvania as “the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their Own Nation,” who would “soon so out Number Us, that … Our Government will become precarious.”

After the German members of the Assembly allied with his opponents to defeat legislation he proposed, Franklin realized his mistake in antagonizing a large and growing segment of the population.

Given likely gridlock in the split Congress, comprehensive immigration reform is doubtful in the short term.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism about immigrants, if not immigration policy. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur’s prophesy in 1781 remains as true today as at our founding: “He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

By Susan F. Martin  | January 12, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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Susan F. Martin tells us...
Four points about U.S. immigration history help illustrate the reasons that immigration reform is so hard to achieve:
She then goes through the background of the immigration reform and totally fails to look at our country as it is today. A couple of very good articles that tell us further immigration into this country is NOT a good idea.
To many people...

As a nation, we cannot take care of the people we have. Crossing a bridge, for example, is a gamble these days.
Infrastructure Report Card

Posted by: joelwisch | January 12, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

A fourth point in our immigration history that you totally overlooked is immigration in the age of a modern welfare state. There wasn't one in Ben Franklin's day, or even in Ellis Island days.

It is a mathematical fact that you cannot have mass immigration and a modern welfare state. It is fiscally unsustainable.

It also breeds huge resentments among the native-born. Eventually the natives get sick of seeing newcomers receive benefits that the natives have paid for all of their lives. Then the immigrants develop a voting bloc and vote themselves "free" stuff at the expense of the native born (see Canada where recent Indian and Chinese immigrants are putting vote pressure on the legislature to give their parents access to Canada's pension system after only three years of residency--no working history involved. You can imagine how well this goes over with native Canadians who've paid for those pensions for 20 or 30 years). Such abuses make the natives angry as well.

Also, the kind of immigrants attracted by the welfare state are often not the most useful to our society.

This kind of ill-thought out column which ignores very important issues does your cause no good. Your publication repeatedly and willfully ignore issues that are very important to native-born Americans and which, are also valid and reasonable. A fifty year old American who's paid into SS all of his working life, and is concerned he won't have a pension when he retires because newly come immigrants are using voting pressure to get their foreign-born parents into the system without contributing--those concerns are valid and cannot be shouted down by the press constantly screaming "xenophobe" at that fifty year old American.

The refusal of publications like WaPo to listen to native-born Americans' valid concerns are just adding to the anger and vitrioal surrounding the immigration issue.

We want you to listen to us. We have valid concerns. Stop pushing open borders without considering all of the consequences.

Posted by: MaryJessel | January 12, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

For what it is worth Milton Friedman has a brilliant discussion of immigration in the age of social welfare programs. I urge everyone to google his writings on this subject. They will learn some very interesting realities that author fails to discuss.

Posted by: jeffreed | January 12, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I agree with joelwisch and with MaryJessel, but would add that a very distinguishable characteristic is missing from the article - that being the legality, or lack thereof, of those who migrated here. The author, as WaPo and the majority of other mainstream media do, fails to make this necessary distinction. All immigrants are NOT the same. The current push for immigration reform is shaped by the presence in this country of millions of illegal immigrants, a critical factor that was not present in any of the historic immigration models. Combined with unique factors of our 21st Century population and the current needs of this nation, it is at best questionable that Ms. Martin's book is at all useful in the marketplace of today's immigration debates.

Posted by: Portia4 | January 12, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

i we have to put togeher a bunch of simple rule and regulation and make our next immigrattion simple so it wont costt 3.3 trillion dollarsi read immigration law dayly and we should go back to chain immigration law that the same way my grandparent and relatives came to the USA. no more anchorbaies . an anchor baby is born to aan amerrican citizen at the age of 21years old or older

Posted by: jtrrailroad | January 12, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

It is amazing how those who like to quote history only like to quote the part of history that supports their advocacy. Here is the part of history that the Author ignores.

The era of steam propulsion began with the 19th century. By the 1840’s improved transportation presented the United States for the first time with the possibility of people immigrating faster than jobs could be created. And the first time this became a reality was with the German and Irish migration prior to the Civil War. The resulting wave of Immigrants provided so much unskilled labor to the USA economy that unemployment was rampant. As unemployment figures were not kept at that time no one knows the full extent of the problem but the history books paint the era as a time of significant unemployment and strife.

After the Civil War the next great wave of Immigration came to the USA from Central and Northern Europe and again we were plunged into the wonderful world of massive unemployment. It was against this backdrop that Ellis Island opened to try to control and limit immigration.

The Chinese were not vilified when they first arrived in California. It was only after unemployment exceeded 30% due to Immigrants arriving faster than jobs could be created that the populace turned their ire upon them. As the largest group of immigrants, the Chinese, who by that time made up almost a quarter of the California population, were an easy target for Labor Unions. The result was the obnoxious Chinese Exclusion Act and the trigger was excessive immigration resulting in high unemployment.

History repeated itself again at the turn of the century. A wave of excessive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded the unskilled labor market for the fourth time in our history. In the last decade of the 1800's even after the establishment of Ellis Island the states of Maine, Kansas, and Michigan experienced immigration driven periods of unemployment exceeding 50%. That flood that was so devastating to the USA economy, the unemployment rate reached 32% for manufacturing, mining, and transportation workers nationwide by 1910 (the big unskilled labor jobs of that day and age). It took World War I to pull us out of that.

That is why we control immigration today and that is why illegal immigration that bypasses our limiting controls is a problem. Free labor markets do not work when a huge global supply of under employed and unemployed labor meets the limited supply of US jobs.

Posted by: Norski | January 12, 2011 6:25 PM | Report abuse

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