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Although a nation of immigrants, the United States of America has a history of marginalizing immigrant groups, especially those of non-Anglo ethnicity. When the first British colonists arrived in what is now the United States in the early seventeenth century, they were themselves immigrants who moved to a new land in search of economic and spiritual advancement. The new nation retained its Anglo-Saxon social and cultural roots after establishing independence, however, which laid the foundation for the common assumption that “white” Anglo-Saxon society was superior to the traditions of later immigrants. The idea of the “melting pot” was a variant of this idea, which also assumed that later immigrants needed to discard their old-world traditions to become “Americans.” This proved unappealing, and many, though not all, immigrant groups have attempted to retain some elements of their heritage.
Because seaport cities were the main point of entry for most immigrants, these cities profoundly changed during each successive immigration wave. Early American cities, such as prerevolutionary Philadelphia and Boston, boasted a flourishing urban community in which residents mingled in public spaces such as the many taverns that lined city streets. This openness was not to last, however, and a crass spirit of dehumanization accompanied the rise of industry and technology. Cities became increasingly specialized, and neighborhoods separated along class lines; elites often lived in the center, leaving the poor to congregate near the city’s edge. With better transportation—such as the streetcar and later the automobile—the white middle classes moved to outlying areas to separate themselves. Isolated in the older parts of the city, most immigrants lived in old, decrepit tenement houses amid rampant disease and unsanitary conditions. Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) is one of the best contemporary accounts of the poor conditions of New York’s many immigrant groups.
As illustrated in How the Other Half Lives, mass immigration upset the Anglo-Saxon ideal: the Irish, Italians, Russian Jews, and Germans, among other groups, did not share the same faith in individual initiative, and they continued to adhere to their traditional cultures. Consequently, the white, native-born middle class and elites became increasingly fearful of urbanization, which they saw as a chaotic force that was typified by crime, bestiality, and allegiance to the Pope. Despite legislation intended to curtail nonwhite immigration in the late nineteenth century, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, immigration remained a contentious issue. By 1890 two thirds of America’s foreign born population lived in cities; by 1920 three fourths did. Not all immigrant groups remained in cities, however; many Germans and Scotch-Irish migrated to the Midwest and the rural South; many Hispanic immigrants also crossed over from Mexico, looking for work as farm laborers.
Although most nineteenth-century immigrants were from Europe, other ethnic and racial groups immigrated in significant numbers as well. For example, many West Indian immigrants relocated to Harlem in the early nineteenth century, and many Chinese and Japanese arrived in the mid-twentieth century after Congress lessened the strict quota previously imposed on Asian immigration. Recently, Hispanic immigrants, especially from Mexico, have posed the greatest problems, because local and federal officials have difficulty controlling the American-Mexican border. Likewise, cities in the North, such as New York, have large Spanish-speaking populations from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Sometimes, competition between ethnic groups becomes violent. The recent influx of Cuban immigrants in Miami has frustrated the city’s impoverished African Americans, because Cubans accept lower wages and perform jobs that blacks have not wanted to do. This competition has led to violence between blacks and Cubans, both of whom are marginalized and not accepted in Miami’s affluent white society; the effects of racial discrimination, as this scenario shows, can be very complicated.
In the early twentieth century, the federal government passed legislation to restrict immigration. In 1917, for example, Congress voted to enact a literacy test to restrict immigration, which, along with World War I, resulted in a decline from the 1900-1914 average of 1,000,000 immigrants per year to 110,000 in 1918. Congress also passed an anti-immigration bill in 1924, the National Origins Quota Act, which restricted immigration levels to 3 percent of the numbers of specific ethnicities of immigrants living in the United States in 1914. The choice of 1914 rather than 1924 allowed the United States to nullify immigration from Asia and to restrict most immigrants from countries other than Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. This openly biased Act remained in effect until the 1960s, when the Immigration Act of 1965 went into effect. Ironically, the 1924 National Origins Quota Act did not effectively block Mexican immigrants, who crossed the border in increasing numbers—about 100,000 per year—and it was not as successful as nativist groups wished.
The rise of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries in the last decades of the twentieth century has profoundly affected the makeup of American society, bolstered especially by the large numbers of immigrants from Mexico in the Southwest and increasing immigration from the islands of the Caribbean to cities such as Miami and New York. These new immigration trends have also altered traditional American perceptions of Hispanics. The controversy over the imperfect nature of the border with Mexico has contributed to an increasingly negative perception of impoverished Hispanics in the United States: many Americans associate the presence of Hispanics with poverty and ignorance.
An examination of the history of immigration and assimilation in the United States reveals a general trend. Most immigrant groups living in America—including the first Anglo-Saxon settlers—began in poverty and as outsiders in an unfamiliar land but eventually adapted and either formed their own niche or merged with the mainstream culture and society. In addition, each immigrant group has raised the ire of more established groups who had adopted the cultural outlook of “accepted” society. For example, Progressive reformers, such as Jane Addams, worked to assimilate immigrants into American society by educating them in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Competition over jobs has also been a point of contention, especially among impoverished “outsider” groups—illustrated in the conflict between blacks and Cubans in Miami and Koreans and blacks in Los Angeles—because a group that is better established but still marginalized (the blacks in both of these examples) resents the intrusion of newer groups that threaten its already precarious position. Consequently, there seems to be a direct connection between recent immigrants and poverty. One of the primary reasons that people immigrate to the United States is to make a better life for themselves and their family. Although financial success is elusive for most recent immigrants, that does not seem to keep them from continuing to move to America; current immigration levels remain high.
- Callow, Alexander B. Jr., ed., American Urban History: An Interpretive Reader with Commentaries, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);
- Chavez, Ernesto, “;Mi Raza Primero!”: Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (Berkeley: University of California, 2002);
- Divine, Robert A., T. H. Breen, et al., The American Story, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005);
- Gibson, Campbell, and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1790 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States,” U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division Working Paper 87 no. 56 (2002);
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- Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890);
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