Today we have an exciting guest post from Robert L. Fleegler, who teaches history at the University of Mississippi and who is the author of Ellis Island Nation, which was released first in 2013 and in paperback last year. Fleegler's book documents the rise of "contributionism"—the belief that the newcomers from eastern and southern Europe contributed important cultural and economic benefits to American society—and its important role in shaping and shifting the history of immigration politics in the United States. Here, he brings this expertise to bear on the current status of the immigration debate, providing thorough historical context for both parties' rhetoric on this central issue.
Over the last decade, immigration has moved to the center of the national political debate, and Donald Trump’s bombastic anti-immigrant rhetoric has made it the dominant issue in this year’s presidential campaign. At the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton and her allies responded by emphasizing the benefits of diversity. Though many today seem to believe such fights over the nature of American identity are new, our current fracas over immigration simply represents a third chapter in a long battle regarding who belongs in the “nation of immigrants.”
In the 1840s and 1850s, the Irish potato famine and the failure of the German Revolution of 1848 precipitated a wave of Irish and German migration to the United States. Fearing the influx of Catholic newcomers, a third party called the Know-Nothings emerged and demanded the extension of the period for naturalization and other measures to stem this tide, but was mostly unsuccessful.
Between 1882 and 1924, another wave of immigration from eastern and southern European immigration arrived through Ellis Island. Groups such as the American Protective Association and the Immigration Restriction League claimed that the newcomers from Italy, the Russian Empire, and elsewhere were racially inferior, were unable to assimilate into American culture, and lowered the wages of native-born Americans.
After years of lobbying, these groups and their congressional allies succeeded in passing the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which broke with the openness of 19th century immigration policy and enacted small quotas for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe based on the scientific racism of the period. At the same time, the new law provided large quotas for newcomers from Ireland and Germany, establishing their acceptance into the “nation of immigrants.” The small band of representatives opposed to restriction noticed this historical irony. “Just so, in 1840, 1850, and 1860 you did not want the ‘beery Germans’ and the dirty Irish.’ The Germans and Irish were mongrels, self-seekers, disreputable, and would not assimilate, “ declared Congressman Emanuel Celler from New York City, “ We know now what a good citizenry they have become.” The law virtually excluded Asian immigration but placed no quota on the Western Hemisphere in order to preserve relations with Latin American nations, and also because Hispanic immigration tended to be seasonal.
Over the next four decades, though, southern and eastern European immigrants and their descendants gradually became integrated into the “nation of immigrants” as well. Before American entry into World War II, public and private organizations sponsored educational programs explaining the cultural and economic benefits of immigration. The common sacrifice of American soldiers of immigrant heritage serving alongside native-stock Americans accelerated their entry into the mainstream. After the war, public expressions of bigotry against Jewish and Italian Americans diminished.
By the 1950s, the combination of lower immigration and the move from older urban neighborhoods to the suburbs reduced overt displays of ethnicity. The exigencies of the Cold War pushed American policy makers to embrace the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” nation as a unifying force to contrast with the state-sponsored atheism of the Soviet Union. John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 demonstrated that religious pluralism had grown and that anti-Catholicism was a declining force in U.S. life.
As the 1960s dawned, the civil rights movement accelerated and called for the elimination of race from American law, stigmatizing an immigration system based on the scientific racism of an earlier era. The small quotas for NATO allies such as Italy and Greece and the near exclusion of Asians seemed embarrassing and provided grist for the mill of Soviet propagandists. Momentum for change grew during the Kennedy years, but was frustrated by the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans that had stymied liberal legislation since 1938.
After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, the expanded Democratic congressional majorities allowed the reform coalition to triumph with the passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. The bill repealed the quotas, replacing them with a formula that placed limits on both hemispheres and allowed individuals to come on a first-come, first-served basis. Overshadowed at the time by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hart-Celler signaled the entry of eastern and southern Europeans into the “nation of immigrants” and was one of the most consequential laws of LBJ’s Great Society program.
The bill’s supporters did not expect a significant increase in immigration. Instead, they believed they had repealed an antiquated law that hindered our foreign relations. Never one for modesty, LBJ himself declared at the signing ceremony, “This bill is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or add importantly to our wealth and power.”
Unexpectedly, the bill helped precipitate the large-scale immigration of Hispanics and Asians to the United States. The family unification provisions of the legislation allowed for greater immigration from Latin America and Asia than predicted while the new limit on the Western Hemisphere combined with higher demand from the region increased illegal immigration into the United States. As a result, the foreign born population of the United States reached 13 percent in 2010, its highest level since 1920.
For the third time, the nation is now engaging in a debate over the nature of the “new” immigrants, their ability to assimilate, and their impact on the national economy. One difference between the political fights of the last decade and previous battles over immigration is that the focus is on newcomers who entered illegally, whereas previous debates centered on legal immigration. Furthermore, immigrants have moved from traditional gateway states such as New York, Florida, and California to states without long histories of integrating immigrants, such as North Carolina and Georgia. Some of the 21st century resistance to immigration can be attributed to this shift into the South. Whereas past Republican presidential candidates such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain were largely supportive of immigration, the modern GOP’s base in the South has pushed the party to take a tougher line on the issue. Trump is the apotheosis of this phenomenon.
Though passage of comprehensive immigration reform appears improbable now, it seems likely that the post-1965 immigrants will eventually be incorporated into the “nation of immigrants.” This process has never been easy or without serious complications, but it has been the American tradition.