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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Immigration: True Citizens of All the World

Congresswoman Kathy Castor recently held a press conference at the immigrant statue in Ybor City’s centennial park to introduce her ideas for immigration reform. Once again, our hometown girl earns kudos for leadership -- in contrast to most of her colleagues who prefer simply standing in the mud.

Immigration is a subject dear to my heart because my first book was on it. Let me tell you how that came about.

I was teaching high school in suburban Boston, while my husband finished his doctorate at Harvard. The school’s salary schedule offered a significant raise if I took one more graduate course, so I enrolled in a summer class on immigration at Harvard.

The professor, of course, was one of the world’s top experts. One day he stated as fact that men adjusted to America faster than women; that women were more apt to get homesick, remain unassimilated, and want to return. Young and impolitic as I was, I challenged him: What about women like my Norwegian and German grandmothers, who got jobs in American homes? Wouldn’t they learn from the inside what Americans ate and wore and how they lived? Wouldn’t they learn the new language and customs faster than, say, Slavs in the steel mills with other Slavs or Irishmen building railroads with other Irishmen?

He looked at me (or at least, I felt as though he looked at me) as though he thought I was crazy. After class, I went over to Widener Library to check out something on immigrant women. Except for the Library of Congress, it is the biggest library in the world, but I could not find the book I had in mind. Widener offered numerous things on some aspects of immigrant women in some places or times, but there was no inclusive, general book that simply spelled out their story.

Other aspects of life got in the way after moving to Florida, so almost two decades passed before Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930 was published in 1986. A revised and expanded version came out in 1995, and you still can buy it online. Although my aim was to explore the lives of immigrant women, the thing about writing women’s history is that one has to learn traditional male-oriented history before going on to the specialty -- so I began the book’s introduction with a general chronology. So, for context in today’s debate on immigration:

* * *

During the six decades between the American Revolution and 1840, only about 850,000 immigrants came to the new nation – but almost 1.4 million arrived in the tumultuous decade of the 1840s alone. Most fled from Ireland, where a potato blight meant starvation, but hunger riots also were widespread in German provinces. That and other conditions caused rebellions from Poland to the Italian peninsula in 1848, and fleeing revolutionaries headed for America.

Steamships replaced sailing ships by the 1850s, and nearly 2.6 million Europeans, most of them British, German, or Scandinavian, came in the decade prior to the Civil War. The war of course slowed the stream – especially as male newcomers found themselves drafted to potentially die in a conflict that meant nothing to them – but despite the war, over two million immigrants arrived in the 1860s.

The 1870s saw the flow return to nearly as high as it was in the 1850s, and it more than doubled in the 1880s, with over 4.7 million newcomers. For the first time, more than a million of the 1880s immigrants were from central – as opposed to northern – Europe, and the numbers of eastern and southern Europeans would continue to rise.

A serious depression in 1893 caused a drop to 3.6 million in the 1890s, but the following decade saw the peak: over 8 million arrived between 1901 and 1910. A million came just in 1907. They joined a US population of about 76 million, giving that era a far higher foreign-born population percentage than today.

World War I almost halved the next decade’s numbers to 4.4 million, but when the war ended in 1918, so many Europeans still were eager to come that Congress enacted quotas in 1920 and 1924. These quotas were based on national origin and unabashedly aimed to limit the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, and others from southern and eastern Europe – people whose religious beliefs did not fit with traditional American Protestantism.

* * *

Many economists believe that the decline in immigration caused by the 1924 quota law was a factor in bringing on the Great Depression of the 1930s. In any case, the 1930s is exceptional in that more people left the United States than entered. As fascism rose in Europe near the end of the decade, immigration again rose, especially with an intellectual migration that included such futurists as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. Ordinary Jews and leftists, however, were refused entry. Quotas remained firm, and in 1939, Jews on the St. Louis who attempted to land at Miami were forced to return to Europe and the probability of death.

The nation saw only slight immigration increases during the 1940s and 1950s, largely women who married American soldiers abroad. A small portion of the many Europeans who were displaced by World War II also were allowed in, but these were almost entirely professionals whose presence would be advantageous to the US. Other privileged immigrants who could ignore quotas were wealthy Asians, especially the Chinese who fled from mainland communism.

New legislation under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s finally ended quotas based on national origin – but did not reopen the doors to the “huddled masses” of the previous century. Instead, immigrants were required to bring significant financial assets or particular skills. Cubans fleeing the Castro revolution of the 1960s, however, were exempted from that standard. The same would be true for Vietnamese and other southeastern Asians who allied themselves with Americans in the losing war of the 1970s.

The change in law, from national origin to individual assets, marked the beginning of immigration from places like India and Pakistan, where affluent families sent their younger members to build businesses in America. Other parts of the former British Empire also sent their young. Many immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in the 1970s were students who came to American colleges – the best in the world – to study the STEM subjects that were declining in popularity among Americans. The USF College of Engineering, for example, soon was composed of many people who had not been born in the United States.

* * *

But when people speak of immigrants today, they probably mean Hispanics, especially Mexicans. California, Texas, and some other states long depended on Mexican labor during busy agricultural seasons, but the numbers of permanent illegal residents picked up during the Reagan years of the 1980s. Some were political refugees, especially from wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- but these exiles did not receive the special treatment that went to Cubans. They rebelled against right-wing governments, not a left-wing one, and the State Department offered no automatic alyssum.

Most Hispanics, however, came for the same non-political reason that most immigrants always have come: to make money. European immigrants were the backbone of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, but by the middle of the 20th century, their descendants had unionized and expected higher wages. Firmly anti-union, the Reagan administration turned a blind eye to violations of immigration law, and major corporations profited as they laid off union workers and hired undocumented Hispanics.

Instead of returning to Mexico after the end of agricultural seasons, they stayed and worked in canneries, chicken and beef processing plants, and – for women – garment factories. As African Americans rejected housework as an occupation, Hispanic women replaced them. Whether a lone employee in a household or among thousands in a factory, they found that few employers checked the legality of their residency.

Without quite realizing it, such insular states as Alabama and Arkansas soon found themselves with significant populations of Spanish-speaking people. They do menial work for little money; they pay taxes that they cannot collect on because they lack a Social Security number; and they often endure unsafe conditions. A 1991 fire at Imperial Foods was the worst industrial accident in North Carolina’s history, killing twenty-five workers and injuring three times that many. Like earlier immigrants, they worked behind locked doors, and in eleven years of operation, the place never had a safety inspection.

But just as the 1912 Triangle Fire in New York City did not stop of the flow of Jewish immigration, Hispanics continued to arrive during the 1990s and the 2000s. Arkansas-based Tyson Foods was prosecuted in 2001 for hiring undocumented workers, but that was an exception, not the rule. Congress continued to duck its responsibility to reform immigration law, and hypocrisy remained its underlying principle.

Now, as the US-born children of undocumented immigrants reach college age and some states want to deny them equal treatment -- despite their valid citizenship -- it appears that President Obama may able to pass his DREAM Act. The 2012 election, with its negative demographic implications for Republicans, has more than a little to do with those improved chances in congressional attitudes.

But I hope for the day when none of it will matter. Only a few decades ago, one needed a passport and perhaps a visa to move around European nations -- and now under the EU, national borders are passed as easily as those between American states. The time should come when no borders anywhere will matter, when we all are true citizens of all the world.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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