Lessons from our immigrant past
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.”
Susan F. Martin
| January 12, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger
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