Leur Pays

David Kennedy

  • Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy by Desmond King
    Harvard, 388 pp, £29.95, June 2000, ISBN 0 674 00088 9

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.

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