A mutter of disquiet undulated through the clan-proud, old-stock Daughters of the American Revolution when Franklin Roosevelt once impishly greeted them as ‘my fellow immigrants’. Roosevelt later elaborated: ‘All of our people all over the country – except the pure-blooded Indians – are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, including even those who came over here on the Mayflower.’ Strictly speaking, even the exception for Indians might be disallowed, since they, too, migrated to the American continents from elsewhere.
There are other settler societies, including conspicuously Australia, Argentina, and Canada. But on a scale that dwarfs the experience of other peoples, the United States is the modern world’s pre-eminent ‘nation of immigrants’. Its history therefore provides a model worth studying as globalisation catalyses unprecedented human mobility and cultural mingling. Even traditionally emigrant societies, like Italy and Ireland, are today becoming immigrant destinations.
Not counting the Native Americans, migration has populated America in four distinctive waves. The first wave consisted of more than a million Europeans, mostly British, who along with as many as 500,000 people involuntarily torn from Africa (fewer than 5 per cent of all the Africans transported to the New World), came to the original 13 colonies. The Revolutionary War, followed by the upheavals attendant on the French Revolution, largely suppressed European immigration for a generation or more, and the United States Congress prohibited the further importation of African slaves after 1808. Then following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, European migrants once again lifted their heels for the United States, beginning the second migratory phase. They came slowly at first, but their numbers increased to several hundred thousand annually in the decade and a half preceding the Civil War, most of them Germans and famine-fleeing Irish.
The third wave – a response, in part, to industrialisation – arose in the post-Civil War era. Beginning in the mid-1880s the great European migration to America (accompanied by a much smaller stream from Asia) swelled to tsunami proportions, until another war in 1914 once again dammed the flow. In the three decades before the First World War, some 25 million Europeans transplanted themselves to the United States. This time the great majority came not from the British Isles or North-West Europe, but from the valleys of the Vistula and the Danube and the slopes of the Carpathians and the Apennines. Of the more than one million immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1907 more than 80 per cent were so-called ‘new immigrants’, many of them Jews and Catholics whose journey to the New World would eventually all but efface their memories of the shtetls and parishes they had left behind in Eastern and Southern Europe.
In the wake of World War One the United States wrote finis to the long epoch of free and unlimited immigration. Congress for the first time restricted the number of admissible immigrants, and imposed quotas as well. The National Origins Act of 1924 set a limit of just 150,000 immigrant visas per year, scarcely 10 per cent of the annual pre-war flow. What was more, the new law allocated those visas to prospective immigrants from various countries on a proportional basis, according to the number of people with blood-lines originating in those countries as listed in the decennial US Census of 1920. Congress thus attempted to freeze the ethnic composition of the population by discriminating against the new immigrant groups who had teemed through Castle Garden and Ellis Island in the preceding generation. The terms of the 1924 statute allocated some 70 per cent of visas to the second-wave countries of Britain, Ireland and Germany, while Italy, Poland and the Soviet Union – the major nurseries of the third wave’s new immigrants – together received about 10 per cent. Further evidence of the climate of racist thinking that informed the 1924 statute were the provisos debarring all Asians from entry, and declaring those already in the country ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship’. In the following two decades the new law combined with the effects of the Great Depression and World War Two to reduce immigration to its lowest levels in more than a century.
The notorious National Origins statute defined the legal basis of American immigration policy until 1965. In that year Congress abolished the national quotas, opening the floodgates to the fourth great wave of immigrants. Some twenty million people have legally entered the US since 1965, along with several million illegal or ‘undocumented’ entrants. With the partial exception of a sudden spike in arrivals from the successor states of the former Soviet Union, these newcomers have by and large not been European immigrants, whether from the old sources or the new. What might be called the ‘newest immigrants’ now come mainly from Asia and Latin America – Mexico in particular. Their presence in such numbers is changing the face of American society. The Census data for the year 2000 will document the dramatically new demography of this nation of immigrants. About one in every ten Americans today is foreign-born, the highest percentage in nearly a century. Latinos, at some 12 per cent of the population, will soon displace African Americans as the country’s largest minority. Asian Americans, at about 4 per cent of the population, will outnumber Jews. California, which contains more immigrants (over eight million) than any other state, and which is conventionally regarded as a bell-wether state, will no longer have any ethnic majority. Latinos and ‘Anglos’ will each make up about 40 per cent of the largest state’s population (around 35 million). Asians, at more than 10 per cent, will outnumber blacks. Small wonder that in the past decade California has produced some sharply anti-immigrant reactions, including Proposition 187, a ballot initiative which in 1994 sought to deny immigrants access to public services such as hospitals and schools.
It is the apparent similarity between the third and fourth waves that animates Desmond King’s Making Americans. Yet his deeply researched and closely reasoned book has ambitions well beyond its immediate subject. He isn’t much concerned with the motives or circumstances that prompted these people to migrate in the first place; and he is only secondarily concerned with what happened to them once they arrived. His principal focus is on the reception that American society extended to immigrants and prospective immigrants, and with what that reception shows about American self-perceptions and national identity. The discourse of American immigration serves him as a kind of proxy for a larger discourse about the American national character.
In both the early and late 20th-century periods, King tells us, immigrants from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds were assumed to be unassimilable, generating anxieties among the native-born about the integrity and viability of American society. The National Origins legislation of 1924 figures especially prominently in his account because it seems to him to set the template for all subsequent discussions of ethnicity – and even of race.
King is particularly keen to explain two recent phenomena in American culture with reference to that template: ‘the revival of ethnic politics since the 1960s’ and ‘the development of multiculturalism’. ‘Both trends arise,’ he says, ‘from the way in which immigration policy in the 1920s defined membership of the US polity.’ Here is his fullest formulation of the ideological ligature that supposedly binds his two periods together: ‘The immigration policy choices’ of the 1920s
introduced distinctions into the US polity that necessarily weakened the assimilationist ideal, devaluing South-Eastern European immigrants to the benefit of Europeans descended from North-Western countries. The modern upshot is an ambivalence (among groups outside the Anglo-American group) about both assimilation and Americanisation, an ambivalence that has provided some of the political support for multiculturalism.
Making Americans is part history, part cultural commentary, part policy prescription. Yet both the commentary and the prescription are rooted in King’s historical analysis of the conditions that yielded the 1924 National Origins law. The soundness of his history therefore carries serious implications for the soundness of his other observations. His historical analysis turns on three propositions: that American society has long embodied a chronic tension between the relatively weak ideals of individualism and diversity, on the one hand, and the effectively stronger value of conformity to a single cultural model (assimilationism, often labelled ‘Anglo-conformity’), on the other; that early 20th-century nativists rearticulated and crystallised racist, exclusionary and coercively conformist themes embedded in American society since its founding, and chose ‘the rejection of cultural pluralism for a policy of assimilation in respect to immigrants’; and – here King reflects the influence of a dubious corpus of recent work known as ‘whiteness studies’ – that the debates over immigration policy in those years defined the future status not only of immigrants and the ethnic communities they founded, but of African Americans as well.
Making Americans takes issue on several crucial points with John Higham’s classic Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1955). Higham drew a sharp distinction between racism and nativism, which King’s account tends to blur. ‘Racism and nativism were different things,’ Higham has recently re-emphasised. They were especially and consequentially different because ‘nativism could espouse assimilation. Racism could not.’ Higham further argued that nativism was a variant, or a by-product, of another ‘ism’, nationalism, and that ‘nationalism was not always exclusionary and defensive.’ Assimilation, it followed, was not necessarily the sinister process of forced deracination that King suggests it was when he quotes with apparent approval Gary Gerstle’s remark that ‘for the majority of immigrants stuck in the working class, Americanisation meant only acquiescence in their oppression.’
In the same vein, King also salutes the progressive-era romantic Horace Kallen, whose endorsement in 1915 of ‘cultural pluralism’ has ever since inspired the fetching vision of a society seamed by linguistic, confessional, ethnic, and racial divisions yet miraculously stitched into a single coherent fabric. Kallen has enjoyed a revival of sorts among present-day multiculturalists, who see his dream of a polyethnic and polyracial community as a prophylaxis against the twin threats of cultural euthanasia and Anglo-conformity.
Strangers in the Land also argued that nativism was composed of at least three strands: racist, to be sure, but also religious (especially anti-Catholic) and political (anti-radical). In Making Americans, the last two tend to disappear, so that nativism is collapsed into a visceral reflex very similar or even identical to racism, making it easier for King to yoke together his discussions of attitudes towards immigrants and African Americans.
He differs especially from Higham in his appraisal of the historical context of the 1920s. Higham assumed that the basic emotional vocabulary and psychological syntax of nativism were historical constants. But he also insisted that in the US, exclusionary nativism competed historically with an inclusionary tradition of ‘American universalism’ or ‘liberal nationalism’. When the economy was healthy and national confidence strong, the emotional appeal of nativism remained low, tempered by its assimilationist elements. Hard times nourished more virulently exclusionist nativist impulses. Higham concluded that the triumph of exclusionary nativism in the National Origins law of 1924 was not the crest of a longswelling wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, so much as the singular outcome of the cultural upheaval occasioned by World War One and its aftermath, especially the depression of 1921-22. The 1924 law, in his account, was overdetermined: born of a fateful convergence of international turmoil, economic anxiety, anti-radical hysteria (especially the infamous ‘Red Scare’ of 1919) and, yes, garden-variety anti-semitism as well as anti-Catholicism. In that unique convergence exclusionary nativism prevailed; had the moment been briefer or less traumatic, Congress might never have passed the Act. King’s account, in contrast, places relatively little emphasis on the specific historical moment and argues instead for deep structural tendencies that shaped events before, during and after that particular decade.
King’s premise that the 1920s fixed the constellation of America’s immigration regime ever after, not to mention its broader cultural future, requires qualifications. The National Origins Act never fulfilled its framers’ intention of locking the ethnic make-up of American society into its 1920 configuration. The Act neglected, for example, to place any limits on migrants from the Western hemisphere, thereby facilitating a sizable influx of Mexicans, perhaps half a million, in the decade of the law’s passage. They became the nucleus of the Latino community in the present-day American South-West – a community that composes more than 25 per cent of the population of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. And by the time Congress had arrived at workable definitions of the ethnic groupings that would determine the national allocations of visas, it was 1929 and the start of the Great Depression. That prolonged economic crisis, followed by the even more disruptive catastrophe of World War Two, choked off immigration far more effectively than any statute could hope to do, rendering the 1924 Act effectively redundant. A series of wartime and postwar amendments to the immigration statutes proceeded to loosen the ban on Asian entrants and for the first time created a special category of eligibility for refugees. Those measures brought hundreds of thousands of mostly Eastern and Southern Europeans to the US in the two postwar decades. It was in fact the perceived irrelevance of the 1924 quota system to the realities of postwar immigration that helped to prompt the sweeping revisions in 1965.
What was more, the four decades from 1924 to 1965 represented not a nativist nadir but the zenith of Higham’s liberal nationalism, an actively inclusionist ethos – of which Franklin Roosevelt was at once champion, agent and political beneficiary – culminating in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. All those historical discontinuities with the mood and intentions of the pre-Depression decade cast significant doubt on King’s claim that modern-day ‘ethnic politics’ and ‘multiculturalism’ represent the ‘upshot’ of the immigration policy choices of the 1920s. From this perspective, the 1924 law looks more like a striking exception in a century during which more than 40 million people voluntarily entered the US, and, for the most part, thrived in its embrace.
It might be better to ask not why the US experienced a spasm of nativism in the 1920s, but why that spasm was so attenuated and so ineffectual in the long run. Why has the United States remained such an attractive destination for so many different people, and how has American society managed to accommodate them, by the millions, without more open social conflict? Those, it seems to me, are the jackpot questions about America’s experience with immigration, the questions that other societies would do well to study in moulding their own attitudes and policies in the age of advancing globalisation. They may be unfashionable questions in today’s cultural climate, but they require cogent, responsible answers.
In recent years, the most aggressive efforts to arouse nativist sentiments have backfired badly. When California’s Governor Pete Wilson spoke out in support of Proposition 187, he extinguished his own Presidential ambitions and helped to reduce the California Republican Party’s electoral base. Wilson’s example inspired George W. Bush to pursue an altogether different political strategy in Texas, where he actively cultivated the Latino vote.
Manifestations of nativism such as Governor Wilson tried to exploit would seem to conform to the model that Higham described in 1955. They appear principally to have been the product of general social and economic stress – especially, in California, the stress induced by the end of the Cold War and the rapid build-down of several big defence industries in the early 1990s. Now that those shocks have been absorbed and the Californian economy is, to put it mildly, in recovery, anti-immigration feeling has perceptibly subsided.
It is also true that present-day anti-immigrant sentiment is fed by one factor that has no historical precedent: the intersection of attitudes towards immigrants with attitudes toward the welfare state. The great immigrant tide of the last century washed ashore well before there was any significant welfare apparatus, at local, state or federal level. The issue of the fiscal cost of immigration, in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society era, is substantially new. Most of Governor Wilson’s campaign against unrestricted immigration focused on this issue, and not altogether unreasonably. The National Resource Council’s exhaustive study found that the net fiscal cost of providing services to immigrants (mostly schooling and emergency medical care) amounts to $1178 annually per native-born California household.
The structure of the modern American state also explains much about the recent emergence of a multicultural agenda in the United States. It is surely one of the great puzzles of recent American history that the harvest of the post-1920s ethos of egalitarian nationalism about which Roosevelt teased the ladies of the DAR, and of the Civil Rights revolution to which it gave rise, has been a renewed emphasis on differences, including in some quarters an eagerness to invent artificial differences. The present day’s aggressive riff on Horace Kallen’s notion of cultural pluralism mystifies most observers and upsets many.
Yet the mystery becomes clearer if one considers that the incentives to pursue the kind of separatist strategies which define multiculturalism are much stronger today then they were even half a century ago, and for quite tangible reasons. Federal policy since the 1960s has created a vested interest in maintaining distinct racial identities, well beyond the natural human desire to preserve one’s cultural patrimony. The principal programme that sustains that interest is affirmative action, and no group has bound its fortunes more tightly to affirmative action than African Americans. By the same token, no immigrant community has supported multicultural issues as vociferously as African Americans, even though, it could be argued, it was for the sake of their claims to full integration into American society that the Civil War was fought, the Constitution amended, and the Civil Rights movement launched. There is much that is ironic here, and much that needs explaining. But the reasons for the black embrace of multiculturalist separatism surely have much more to do with the nature of contemporary American life, and with the peculiarities of the African American situation, than with the vestigial influence of the immigration policy debates of three generations ago.