Immigration a story of triumph in U.S. history
Posted on August 29, 2011
Ehrich Weisz was born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, but moved to America with his parents as a child. A gifted athlete and gymnast, he would later change his name to Harry Houdini and become the most famous escape artist who ever lived.
Houdini was just one of 36 million people who poured into the United States between 1820 and 1920 when U.S. doors were wide open to anyone and everyone. Before this period, our population stood at a mere 10 million. The newcomers would dwarf that number, remaking America’s culture and character.
Make no mistake. The integration of hordes of foreigners from exotic lands was never smooth and rarely easy. All through this century of immigration there were fears that the outsiders would never assimilate into American society. But of course they did — and in so doing they enriched American society immeasurably.
The immigrants came mostly in two great waves, first from northern Europe and then from southern and eastern Europe.
The first wave in the late 1840s included the Irish and the Germans. More than two million Irish — around a quarter of Ireland’s population — sailed to the United States to escape starvation. By the 1880s, the Irish were the master politicians of many of the cities in which they dwelled.
More than five million Germans came to America during this period as well. Today, Germany remains Americans’ top place of ancestral origin.
The second big wave of immigration began in the 1880s. More than 4 million people left Italy for the United States between 1880 and 1920, and about as many Jews came from Eastern Europe. At the beginning, both groups stayed mainly in the cities of the Eastern seaboard, packed in crowded, desperately poor neighborhoods.
As the 20th century dawned and poor arrivals from abroad made up more and more of the population of America’s biggest cities, pressure grew to put limits on immigration.
Until that time, laws to control immigration barely existed. In 1790, Congress ruled that any “free white persons” who were in the country for two years could become citizens. In 1868, after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment affirmed that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, protecting not only former slaves but also every child of an immigrant. In 1892, the federal government opened Ellis Island in New York Harbor, but it turned away only “idiots, insane persons, paupers,” criminals, and people “suffering from a loathsome or contagious disease.”
In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a commission to study immigration. The commission claimed that the recent arrivals were “far less intelligent” than earlier ones with an “absence of family life.”
That gravely unfair assessment led to the passage of laws in the 1920s that almost completely stopped immigration. Large numbers of new Americans wouldn’t begin to enter again until President Lyndon Johnson signed a new law reopening the nation’s doors in 1965.
As Americans grapple with the burdens we sometimes feel placed on us by our latest immigrants — especially illegal ones — it can be heartening to remember that, historically, we’ve seen it all before. This country has not only survived the multitudes who have sought shelter on our soil, we have benefited immensely.
Immigration has defined and shaped this nation from its very beginnings. Imagine the land without the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Jews. You can’t, because they — and their ideas and hopes and dreams and all of their descendants —became America.
They (we!) are no less American than the original settlers who trekked over the land bridge from Asia to Alaska or the first English who settled a few scattered spots on the coastline or the millions of Africans who were taken across the ocean in chains.
The history of immigration to the United States may be a tale of difficult struggles, but it is also, ultimately, a story of triumph.
– David Allen
27 Aug 2011
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