Immigration: History Repeats Itself?

Recently my father-in-law handed down to me his old (1964) 12-volume Time Life History of the United States. Volume 8 covers 1890-1901, a time in which there was a massive influx of immigrants. I fully understand that the current situation is not exactly the same but I think the words found in page 65 of this tome are interesting,

Prior to 1880, the story went, there had been a voluntary immigration to the United States, made up mostly of British, Scandinavian, German and Irish peoples. This “old” migration, from Northern and Western Europe, was sturdy, pioneering and permanent. In the words of a 1910 report, the old immigrants “mingled freely with the native Americans and were quickly assimilated.” But the new immigration was different.

The new immigrant–the Greek, the Pole, the Serb, the Hungarian, the Italian–was considered another breed. A whole mythology was created to explain him. He had not come wholly on his own, but had been corralled by a steamship line or a labor recruiter. He did not bring his family with him. He willingly worked for starvation wages, huddled in slums which no native American could tolerate, paid fewer taxes than the native, took a larger share of public charity and committed a greater share of the crimes.

He was often a bird of passage, making a stake in the United States and then returning home. Or, if he stayed long enough to acquire citizenship papers, he sold his vote to politicians for the cheapest of handouts. He was a radical–had it not been anarchists, speaking a foreign tongue, whose propaganda lit the fuse of the Haymarket explosion? He was, in short, unassimilable, and he threatened to break down American civilization.

In speaking with folks who bemoan the “invasion” of this country by immigrants, the faults of the immigrant are often cited: the profligate use of emergency centers, the criminal evasion of taxes , and of course, the heavily-publicized crimes of the illegal immigrant.

The cries are heard, “They’re all like that”, “they don’t come here to work”. Yet when reasonably presented with testimony that what they perceive as the vast majority is actually a minority, an accusatory look follows. A look reminiscent of the emotion-laden words of the Pharisees angrily spoken to Nicodemus (“You are not also from Galilee, are you?”)

The look (or the words) don’t get better when the following question is posed: how many immigrants do you actually personally know?

What follows is typically silence… I suppose this is what sometimes occurs when mythology meets reality.

7 Responses to Immigration: History Repeats Itself?

  1. TGood says:

    One little fact that nearly always gets left out when looking back in history, is the fact the U.S. didn’t have 300 million people and growing. Common sense tells us there are no unlimited resources, there is no unlimited affordable housing, there is no unlimited number of public schools . When you start totally the number of legal and illegal immigrants entering the U.S. each year, there’s no historical precedence to use to excuse the lack of immigration control.

    This country is headed into a third world nation status and for what reason ?

  2. Laz says:

    Thanks T for your comment. As for the fact to which you refer to, this is why I said this in the post,

    I fully understand that the current situation is not exactly the same

    Though that doesn’t mean that parallels cannot be drawn. Personally, I find the quote from the Time-Life tome very striking.

  3. Mike says:

    Didn’t these immigrants of the 19th century come in on ships, arrive in Eastern points, go through immigrations check points and get papers? Unfortunately that is not the way it happens from our Southern border. Didn’t these people assimilate and live as the locals did, trying to fit in? The sense of entitlement was not there. These people felt lucky to be in this free land. It is this entitlement and unwillingness to assimilate by doing simple things like speaking english that bug US citizens. Freiman makes this point clear in his new book.

  4. Laz says:

    Mike, see what I wrote to T.

    Do you know many immigrants? If so, do the majority of them seem resistant to speaking English?

  5. iamashadow says:

    I’m an immigrant myself, and I can tell you that immigrants are not resistant to speaking English. Some people just don’t have time to do so because of their jobs. Today, like in the past, the first generation doesn’t usually adapt very well or very fast, but the second generation is as American as anyone else.

  6. Laz says:

    Actually shadow, some are resistant to speaking English and that includes those who are U.S. citizens.

  7. kris winegar says:


    i am new to the blogisdhere. i have been reading your posts. good stuff. i look forward to more to come.


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