The Huddled Masses And The Myth Of America

Jan 15, 2018
Originally published on January 17, 2018 11:59 am

Our airwaves are filled with debates about immigrants and refugees. Who should be in the United States, who shouldn't, and who should decide?

These modern debates often draw upon our ideas about past waves of immigration. We sometimes assume that earlier generations of newcomers quickly learned English and integrated into American society. But historian Maria Cristina Garcia says these ideas are often false.

"Most immigrants who came to the United States did not immigrate to become American," she says. "In many cases immigrants came to replicate the best of the old country in more favorable circumstances."

Garcia says in the 19th century, it often took a long time for new immigrants to learn English.

"Our founding documents were all published in German to accommodate the German-speaking populations. For most of the 19th century, instruction in public schools across the country – from Pennsylvania to Texas to Wisconsin – occurred entirely in languages other than English, or bilingually. And this practice was not abolished until the first decades of the 20th century."

Nor did immigrants of that era classify themselves as legal or illegal.

"They just didn't think in those terms," she says. "During much of our history people moved across our borders with ease. If your ship docked outside of New York City, chances were you weren't even interviewed. So when someone says to me, 'My ancestors immigrated legally, why can't [immigrants today]?', my first question is, 'When did your ancestors immigrate?' Because if they immigrated in the 19th century or in the early 20th century, they simply didn't use that vocabulary. They didn't think in those terms."

This week, Shankar revisits this 2016 conversation with Maria Cristina Garcia, which explored the underlying frames and assumptions at play in our discussions about immigrants and their place in American society.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We were almost done working on this week's show when news broke Thursday evening, news that required an on-air warning before our colleagues could even discuss it.


RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: An Oval Office conversation turns vulgar.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: And I want to acknowledge what I'm about to say could offend some people. He asked why the United States would admit people from African nations, which he called shithole countries. Trump then told lawmakers he would rather see more immigrants from Norway. The vulgar comment...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.

VEDANTAM: In light of President Trump's comments as well as ongoing debate over the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, we thought we'd switch gears and bring you this conversation from October 2016. As a journalist, I think this conversation is timely. As an immigrant myself, I think it's essential.


VEDANTAM: Our airwaves are filled with debates about migrants, refugees and undocumented immigrants - who should be in the United States? Who shouldn't? And, who should decide? It's an issue that seems to get to the core of who we are, who we want to be and where we're headed as a nation. Today we're going to take a fresh look at the issue by exploring what history can teach us about the patterns and paradoxes of immigration in a nation of immigrants.


VEDANTAM: My guest today is Maria Cristina Garcia. She's a historian and professor of American Studies at Cornell University. Maria Cristina, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: So we call ourselves a nation of immigrants. And, you know, that's more than a saying. It's more than even a fact. It's a foundational story of the United States. And I want to start with this idea. Many of us take genuine pride in being a country whose most famous symbol is the Statue of Liberty.

GARCIA: That's correct. Immigrants and refugees are central to the American national mythology, to the stories that we tell about ourselves as a people. We honor this history with museums and historical markers. We commercialize it with celebrations like St. Patrick's Day and now Cinco de Mayo. But despite the centrality of immigrants and immigration to the American story, many of us have been wary of immigrants. And we see this all throughout history. We have a tension there. We have a contradiction. It's always been there.

One has only to read Benjamin Franklin, for example, to get a sense of these contradictions. In the 1750s, for example, Franklin called the German residents of Pennsylvania stupid. He complained about their inability to learn English and he warned his readers that they would soon overrun, that Germans would soon overrun the American continent. And yet it's also important to note that Benjamin Franklin published one of the first German language newspapers in the colonies. So there was that contradiction there, right?

So fast-forward also to the early national period. Immigration was welcome because it was important to nation building. We needed immigrants. The new nation needed immigrants to work in the mills and the factories, to work in the mines, to harvest the crops, to build the infrastructure of American towns and cities. In many communities you didn't even need to be a citizen in order to vote. And yet, you know, a couple of decades later, by the 1840s and 1850s, we see the emergence of the Know-Nothing Party, immensely hostile to German and Irish Catholic immigrants, demanding federal restrictions on immigration and trying to prevent immigrants from voting and holding public office.

There are so many other examples I could give you. You mentioned the Statue of Liberty during the 1870s and 1880s. As the Statue of Liberty is going up in New York Harbor to celebrate the end of slavery, Americans are demanding at this time that the Chinese be barred from immigrating to the United States, and Congress complies in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. So we see these tensions and these contradictions all throughout American history.

VEDANTAM: I understand that you yourself came to the United States as a refugee, and your own family, your own history of first arriving in the United States and being seen by others and then your own family's history in terms of how you see other people coming in or how your family sees other people coming in reflects this broader pattern, this tension or this paradox in how we think about immigration.

GARCIA: Yes. You're right. My family immigrated in the 1960s. I was just a toddler. We immigrated from Cuba. We were privileged compared to other immigrants. We were privileged because we were refugees arriving during the Cold War from a communist country, and so the proverbial red carpet was rolled out for us. But just two decades later, we see another migration from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. And by the 1980s, those Cubans who had arrived earlier and were more established and had managed to move up the economic ladder and were feeling much more secure in their position began to feel very nervous about the new arrivals who were coming in from Cuba in 1980. They wondered if these new Cubans who had grown up in a communist regime could truly understand democratic institutions, rather, they could understand capitalism. And so these older Cubans, more established Cubans, wondered if the new arrivals would undermine everything that they had accomplished in South Florida and in other communities where they had settled. We see this with every immigrant group when you look at American history. Again, history can teach us a lot.

You know, for example, in the 19th century, some of the most vitriolic voices of the anti-Chinese movement were Irish immigrants and their children, who themselves had been much maligned, and now in turn they were directing a lot of that hostility towards newer arrivals, this time from China. German Jews who had arrived in the early 19th century were also highly suspicious and worried about the Eastern European Jews who migrated at the end of the 19th century because they too feared that their status in society would be undermined by the newer arrivals. So I guess it's a very human response for those who are more established to worry about what the newer arrivals might do to undermine their hard work.

VEDANTAM: So this is such a fascinating idea that people come to the United States and within a couple of decades their point of view shifts from the point of view of people who say, we really want to make it in the United States, to being really worried about whether the people coming after them are going to be able to make it in the United States. And we sort of see this pattern writ large in all matter of ways.

You know, in the current debates that we have about immigration, I've heard people say, you know - people whose families have been here for many generations - they say that, you know, when their ancestors came to America, they wanted to become Americans, to leave old ways behind. And some of these people worry that more recent immigrants are less interested in assimilation. But from what I'm hearing you say, that might not actually be grounded in historical reality in terms of how immigration patterns have unfolded over the years.

GARCIA: You're so right. Many Americans today believe that the new immigrants are too culturally different, that they're coming here to take American jobs or mooch off of welfare, that they have the wrong politics, that they don't want to learn English, that they don't want to assimilate, that they're national security threats. But these attitudes, they're not new. Americans have been saying this about every immigrant group throughout American history. According to American immigration mythology, those who came, say, in the 19th century or in the early 20th century were the ideal immigrants. They learned English quickly. They wanted to be Americans. But the study of history doesn't bear that up. When you study history, it challenges those assumptions that we have about the older immigrants versus the new immigrants.

So for example, let me give you a couple of examples. From the study of history, we now know that not everyone who came to the United States stayed. The two groups that had the lowest return rates were the 19th century Irish and Eastern European or Russian Jews. Every other immigrant group had return rates ranging between 20 and 80 percent. We also know from the study of history that most of most immigrants who came to the United States did not immigrate to become American. In many cases, in most cases, immigrants came to replicate the best of the old country in more favorable circumstances in the new. As I said earlier, in many communities you didn't even need to be a citizen in order to vote.

We also know from the study of history that in the 19th century immigrants didn't learn English quickly. From the very beginning, this was a multilingual society. And it oftentimes took several generations for English to become the dominant language on Main Street. Our founding documents were all published in German to accommodate the German-speaking populations. For most of the 19th century, instruction in public schools across the country, from Pennsylvania to Texas to Wisconsin, occurred entirely in languages other than English, or bilingually. And this practice was not abolished until the first decades of the 20th century. So our preoccupation today in the early 21st century with requiring linguistic and cultural conformity, that's really a recent phenomena.

From the study of history, we also know that immigrants didn't think of themselves as legal or illegal. They just didn't think in those terms. During much of our history, people moved across our borders with ease. If your ship docked outside of New York City, chances were you weren't even interviewed. Congress passed the first immigration laws to control the movement of people beginning in the 1870s, but the mechanisms to enforce those laws were pretty few until the 20th century. Indeed, the first Border Patrol consisted of only a couple dozen men on horseback.

So when someone says to me, my ancestors immigrated legally, why can't they, my first question is, when did your ancestors immigrate? Because if they immigrated in the 19th century or in the early 20th century, they simply didn't use that vocabulary. They didn't think in those terms.

VEDANTAM: So clearly much of the language around immigration has changed over time, but there are also ideas that have remained relatively constant. When we come back, I'll ask Maria Cristina about the long and tangled relationship between immigration and national security. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Our debates over immigration are often framed in the context of national security, fears of terrorism. To many of us this feels relatively new, part of the 9/11 world we've lived in over the past 15 years. But Maria Cristina Garcia says that if we look at history, we start to see that our modern concerns are a new version of a story that's been told over and over again.

GARCIA: Americans have been concerned about national security since the 19th century. One has only to look at the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, for example, to see how concerned Americans were about Irish Catholics, for example. Thomas Nast produced these political cartoons warning Americans about all these Catholics who were coming to the United States who were under the influence of the Vatican, who didn't understand democratic principles and would undermine democratic institutions. And so that's an early example of Americans concerned about national security.

In the late 19th century, you see Americans expressing great concern about all the Southern and Eastern Europeans who are coming in, who are anarchists and Bolsheviks and socialists who don't understand - again, don't understand American democracy, will undermine American principles, American democratic institutions. And and this concern is strong enough that it forces Congress to pass a series of quota laws barring immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. We see concerns about the Chinese and other Asian groups. So we see that concern about national security throughout American history. Americans may not have used the exact term national security in the 19th century, but you see those concerns all throughout the history.

VEDANTAM: I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the World War II period and the experience of Japanese-Americans in the United States because it seems like that's certainly a moment where concerns about security and concerns about loyalty to the United States intersected with how we were thinking about an immigrant group.

GARCIA: It's true. During periods of national emergency, immigrants become likely scapegoats. We saw this during World War II with the internment of Japanese immigrants but also their American-born children, who, even though there was no evidence that Japanese or their children were conspiring against the U.S. government or against American society, the government decided to err on the side of caution and rounded up this population and put them in internment camps. It was one of the most shameful periods in American history. Those who were interned and their children felt the consequences of that executive decision for many, many decades afterwards.

And so that's just one example. But also during World War II, there were many opportunities that we lost to accommodate people fleeing Europe. And we lost that opportunity because we feared - again, we were concerned with national security. We feared that among the refugees, among the immigrants would be spies and saboteurs that would undermine the United States. But those fears prevented us from accommodating many, many people who were fleeing the Third Reich and needed protection, and we lost that opportunity to help them.

VEDANTAM: When you look at the experience of Jewish immigrants and refugees around the time of World War II, around the 1930s, 1940s, paint me a picture of what happened. The popular narrative is that, you know, there were many European Jews who did make it to the United States, many of whom were involved in the scientific research that helped the United States eventually win World War II. But was that sort of a general experience? Did the United States - was the United States generally welcoming to Jewish refugees from Europe in the middle of the 20th century?

GARCIA: No, we weren't, actually. Many historians feel that our policies were highly anti-Semitic during this period. We lost many opportunities to allow Jewish refugees to come to the United States. The most classic example is the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 passengers who were fleeing Europe. And when they arrived off the American coast, the people on the ship were prevented from coming to the United States. The ship was turned away. And eventually, you know, the ship travelled to many different countries. They were also denied the opportunity to land. And eventually the ship was forced to return to Europe. And many of the people who were traveling on the SS St. Louis eventually were caught and sent to camps - to the death camps.

VEDANTAM: So when we look at the broad sweep of history here, we sort of see this pattern repeatedly occurring where groups arrive, and within a few decades or a couple of generations of being here, they have concerns about newcomers entering their neighborhoods. And, you know, in some ways we seem to have a positive view of immigration and immigrants when they were long ago and far away, but less so when they're here now, you know, the family that arrived last year that lives next door. And I'm wondering if you have insight into why this happens? Why is it that groups that themselves may have faced challenges as immigrants, how is it that within a couple of decades or maybe a couple of generations they are turning around and having the same concerns that were expressed about them not so long ago?

GARCIA: Well, that's that seems to be the pattern. I guess you could say that part of Americanization is to adopt the values and the perspectives of the society that surrounds you. And it also becomes a defense mechanism. It becomes a way of proving your membership in the society to adopt those values, and to reflect those values out, to demonstrate that you are a member of the in-group and not the out-group.

VEDANTAM: You recently wrote an essay about the current debates over immigration in which you said generations from now, students in U.S. history classes - many of them the children of immigrants arriving today - will read what our political candidates, editorialists, bloggers and talking heads had to say about their ancestors and shudder. What did you mean by that?

GARCIA: When I teach courses in immigration history and we read the editorials and the newspaper articles and the broadsides that were published in the 19th and in the early 20th century, my students often shake their heads and wonder how Americans could have ever had those feelings or those thoughts or perspectives. They laugh nervously. But then when we compare those editorials and newspaper articles and broadsides to some of the editorials and blogs and newspaper articles today, they see the continuities.

And so I suspect that 20 years from now, 30 years from now, I suspect that my students reading the thoughts, the articles of today will also find them ridiculous, will also shudder, will also wonder why Americans felt the way they did. But I hope not. There's this part of me that hopes that we will do better, that we will be better.


VEDANTAM: That was historian Maria Cristina Garcia. She's a professor of American Studies at Cornell University.


VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN is produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Rhaina Cohen, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. This week, our unsung hero is Stuart Harding. Stuart's one of NPR's lawyers. He does many things for us, from working late on a Friday to draft the rules for a T-shirt giveaway, to writing the contracts for actors who will appear in an upcoming episode of the show. Thank you, Stuart, for all that you do for us and all that you do for everyone at NPR. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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