The naysayers won’t like it. Anti-immigration groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) have been concerned about immigrants for the past thirty years. Of course they come from a long line of immigrant restrictionists.
FAIR says there are eleven million people illegally in this country while the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates six to seven million. Restrictionists say either number is too large because these people will take American jobs, lower American wages, pollute the American countryside, and overtax America’s schools and public services. Besides, argue restrictionists, they don’t even speak English.
The refrain is familiar. Americans have long worried that immigrants, with different customs and language, would change the United States. And they will.
But that is not a bad thing. All Americans except the Native Americans are immigrants or their descendants. Somewhere in their ancestry, nearly all Americans can find a relative who left home and family in search of economic opportunity, greater freedom or the promise of the United States.
Until recently, the United States has had a strong sense that its mission is to be an example for the world. It had a “manifest destiny” to tame the wilderness, civilizing a continent so sparsely populated as to seem empty. In English eyes, nomadic Indians wasted land better used for good English farms and homes. But the English who settled Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Jamestown were themselves few in number.
To build their model world, the English needed labor for exploiting the wilderness. They paid ships’ fares in exchange for a set term of labor, called an indenture. They also bought people to work a lifetime as slaves. They played a role in the shape that remade world took. Both indentured servants and slaves were immigrants, too.
In the middle of the 19th century, one reaction was nativism. To oversimplify, nativism is a basic attitude of “they’re different; we don’t like them, and we want them to leave.” Nativism is unfashionable today, but in their heyday, the nativists targeted those thought to be unable to assimilate: the Scots-Irish, Huguenots, Irish, Germans, Quakers and Shakers.
Nativism still surfaces in an occasional letter to the editor, but the restrictionists focus more commonly on the costs to the environment, social services and cultural change. Today’s restrictionists write about the Hmong, Eritreans, Somalis, Vietnamese and other newcomers as additional burdens on an overburdened American system.
American wealth rests on the sweat of immigrants. Irish, Chinese and Mexicans built the railroads. Scandinavians farmed Minnesota and the Dakotas. Germans provided the skilled hands that made the early craft unions and industries. And the Irish dug quite a bit of coal from Pennsylvania, the Indian Territory and points between.
Even after the frontier closed and the economy shifted to industrialism, immigrants continued to build the United States, to assimilate, to Americanize. By the tens of millions, they repeated the process. America incorporated much of what they brought and became better for it.
Nigerians, Ecuadorians, Vietnamese and Mexicans are now repeating the process in many neighborhoods. But the process of adjustment is hard to see except in retrospect. As immigrants adjust to the United States and alter the United States, older Americans often perceive the change as an attack on old familiar ways.
When the immigrant population hit upward of 20 percent in 1915, the exclusionist clamor became overwhelming. Restrictionist legislation in the 1920s limited immigration to a few hundred thousand people a year. The doors stayed closed until the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1964.
Since then, new immigrants have come from Asia, Latin America and Africa. The United States is actually becoming home to people from every part of the globe, not just from European nations.
Blatant nativist opposition to immigrants carries little political weight these days in a multi-ethnic society. The restrictionist argument is more subtle. It focuses on social costs without acknowledging the continual renewal that immigrant labor, culture, and energy have brought to this nation. The United States has changed enough in the process that we’ve learned to address the differences which have arisen. Restrictionists and others might grumble, but most of America moves over to make room for another million — or eleven. That is the way it should be in a nation of immigrants.