icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

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: 1924-present

Last week I summarized immigration to the United States from colonial days to 1924, when Congress adopted a law that virtually slammed the door on newcomers. The first major group had been in the 1840s, when a million people from Ireland arrived in New England and New York. Because most were poor and Catholic, they were not welcomed – but at the same time, these northern states recently had abolished slavery, and the Irish became the area’s working class. Young Irish women especially worked as domestics, in an era when middle-class homes had at least one servant.

The Scandinavians and Germans who came in the 1850s were more affluent, and most went west to build homes on the prairies. Again, though, young women got jobs in American homes, and they transferred their inner knowledge of American life to other newcomers. After the 1862 Homestead Act, more people from similar parts of northeastern Europe joined them – and the Homestead Act gave 160 acres of free land to anyone who lived on it for five years, with no questions asked about citizenship.

Nor did many officials question the citizenship of male voters – although no woman could vote, no matter how deep her American roots. Politics became increasingly corrupt in the latter half of the century, as many immigrant men sold their votes for a drink or a dollar. These were most likely to be Italians and Slavic ethnicities from further south and east in Europe; they came from autocratic governments and had no experience with democracy. Asians were the preponderance of immigrants on the West Coast, but they were akin to women in having no hope of full citizenship no matter how much they paid in taxes.

Immigration spiked in 1907, with a million newcomers in that one year, but dropped when World War I began in 1914. At the war’s end, there was a floodgate of families eager to be reunited -- and increasing resistance because the 1917 Russian Revolution made many Americans think of all foreigners as Bolsheviks. The 1920 election turned on this issue, and the majority rejected the internationalism promoted by Democratic president Woodrow Wilson.

He suffered a stroke while campaigning for ratification of the treaty that ended the war and began the League of Nations. Its primary opponent was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a member of a patrician family who also had been the primary opponent of women’s right to vote. The US Senate never did ratify the treaty, and that is why, before November 11 became Veterans Day, it was known as Armistice Day. An armistice is just a temporary halt to a war; a treaty spells out its consequences. European nations did ratify and the League of Nations began in neutral Switzerland, but Germany never saw its war with America as officially over -- something that worked to Hitler’s advantage in the 1930s.

So Americans who were weary of Wilson’s idealism elected Republicans in 1920, and in this xenophobic atmosphere, Congress and the president soon began to restrict immigration. The Immigration Quota Act of 1924 was particularly unfair, as quotas of those allowed in were based on the percentage of that nationality’s foreign-born in the United States at the 1920 census. This meant that areas with a long history of sending their children aboard – Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany – were favored over those from Armenia, Greece, and other nations that only recently had developed patterns of emigration.

Until the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was broken up after World War I, emigration from Europe was difficult. Priests preached against it as an endangerment of the soul, and government officials interfered with individual decisions in a way that we have almost completely forgotten. People had to prove that they were debt-free before they could get permission to go; they had to show that they were not leaving dependents behind; and men had to have done their military service. In the case of Jews, permission to emigrate was totally arbitrary: officials did not want Jews in their country, nor did they want them to leave. Countless Jews got out of Europe by subterfuge, hiding in the false bottoms of wagons or bribing border guards.

And even when they could get all the proper paperwork to leave, a steamship company still could reject individuals as likely to be rejected at Ellis Island, something that made transportation companies liable for returning the rejected to Europe. A family with a sickly child, for example, had no hope of passing through the examining doctors at either end. Even young and healthy people found that the 1924 Quota Act made emigration impossible. New nations such as Yugoslavia had virtually no slice of the quota pie. People waited in line at US embassies on the first of the month, and most found that the few slots available were gone within minutes of midnight.

* * *

Immigration thus plummeted in the late 1920s – and so did the economy. There is no doubt in my mind that these two facts are related. It is true that the major cause of the 1928 Wall Street crash was a lack of regulation that allowed the stock market to become a casino, but the underlying economy also was in shreds because of increasing income inequality. Farmers went bankrupt as prices rose for want they needed, while prices for what they sold went down. Factory workers could not afford to buy the products they made, and as commerce ground to a halt, most people saw even more reason to exclude newcomers. Almost no one argued that a ban on new blood might be a factor in the sick economy.

The result was that during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, more people left America than came. Most were relatively recent immigrants, and they went back to the support systems they had enjoyed in Europe, but not here. The numbers are quite remarkable. The Constitution, you know, mandates a census every decade, and a clear pattern of declining immigration emerges:

1901-1910 - 8.1 million

1911-1920 – 4.4 million

1921-1930 – 2.5 million

1931-1940 – 348,289

The relatively few immigrants who arrived during the 1930s were Jews desperate to get in after Hitler began his rise in Germany. And we excluded literally boatloads of them. I recently read the saga of the St. Louis, a Hamburg ship that sailed as far as Cuba looking for a port willing to receive Jewish refugees. Despite the fact that most were educated and affluent, few were allowed in. Miami officials were among those who sent the ship’s passengers back to Germany and to likely death. Our intelligence agents did manage to rescue some Jewish intellectuals, and especially Germans Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, as well as Italy’s Enrico Fermi, were key to the science of the atomic bomb that ended World War II. Laura Fermi wrote a book about their family’s experience, which included the usual hostility that greets outsiders in every era.

War on both oceans, of course, ended civilian travel during the first half of the 1940s, and after its 1945 end, many of those allowed in came on ships of “war brides” – foreign women who married American soldiers. They often were English speakers from Britain or Australia, but some were former enemies from Germany and Japan. Their experience, too, was difficult, as it was not unusual for their husbands’ families and friends to reject them. We did find places in our American hearts for a few – a very few – of the war’s millions of displaced persons. Called DPs, they often were sponsored by churches. I remember a DP family at my Lutheran church in Minnesota; they were from Germany, and I’ve sometimes wondered if they were former Nazis. The Norwegian Lutheran church down the street found a home for two children orphaned by the war in Norway.

But there weren’t many. The immigration total for the 1940s was just 621,704 – during a war that killed 50,000,000 worldwide and left many times that number homeless and destitute. But just like the “Red Scare” that followed World War I, the period following World War II was dubbed “McCarthyism” for the Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who saw immigrants as synonymous with communists. Although his own Irish Catholic family doubtless was discriminated against earlier in the nation’s history, he led the charge against contemporary newcomers. Before the Senate finally worked up the backbone to censure this rightwing bully, he succeeded in the 1952 passage of the McCarren-Walter Act. It not only reinforced the 1924 quota system that excluded the people who most needed help, but also further stiffened individual admittance requirements. Democratic President Harry Truman vetoed it as “inhumane and discriminatory,” but Congress passed it over his veto.

The 1950s thus brought relatively few immigrants, with the most likely being war brides from Korea and occupied Japan. The early 1960s meant a different sort of refugee, as Cuba’s corrupt government fell to rebels and affluent exiles fled to Florida. That was a factor in new legislation in 1965, when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress to repeal the quota system and replace it with requirements based on individual abilities and assets, not national origin. It took a while, but eventually we had engineers and physicians from places like India and Pakistan.

At the same time, LBJ also promoted an unnecessary war in Vietnam, and when we lost in 1973, many of our allies tried to escape with US soldiers and diplomats. These immigrants were not individuals on their own as in the past, but came in groups protected by the government and resettled with tax dollars. Often they were placed in interior locations with few people similar to themselves. An obsolete Army facility, for example, Arkansas’ Camp Chafee, became home for Vietnamese families, while many of the Hmong people from southeastern Asia ended up in the very different climate of Minneapolis.

* * *

The 1980s meant more change, as immigration from Latin America became a real factor outside of the California-to-Texas area where it always had been important. Farmers and ranchers there long had been dependent on Mexican labor, including women and children. Often, though, they went home after the harvest season, and relatively few ventured outside of that comfort zone – until the growth of industries that recruited and protected them, even if they had no paperwork to prove their right to employment. This shadow movement began under the Reagan administration and continued into the 1990s and 2000s, with especially the food industry as a major illegal employer.

You may remember the case of immigrants found imprisoned at an Iowa meat-packing plant or the North Carolina fire that killed similar people working behind locked doors in a poultry plant that safety inspectors had not examined for years. I’m not going to name names, but I have several family members who work closely with these industries, and they tell me that it is not unusual for their bookkeepers to invent Social Security numbers. They deduct payroll taxes, knowing that immigrants never will file for refunds or benefits. It is probable, in fact, that such employers never pass on these deductions to the government at all, but merely add it to their own bottom line.

A cousin up North recently spoke of the hard-working Mexican men who were repairing an ice-covered roof on her street; she doubted that they expected any labor law protection. Another relative in California knows of a garment factory where Hispanic women toil in near-slave conditions. A third one told me of an Oklahoma company that has assigned the same Social Security number to at least three employees. And if you are honest, you’ll have to acknowledge that everyone knows someone who is working under the radar – working hard to give children a better life, while in constant fear that they will be separated from those children by deportation.

It is our Latin American neighbors who suffer most, even though they may be fleeing totalitarian governments -- just like immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet bloc. Those from the USSR are more likely to be welcomed and made legal. That probably is the case for the Moldavians across the street from us; they leased land from the Baptists to build their own church several years ago -- but xenophobia remains such that only recently have they dared to put up an identifying sign. A delivery guy who came to the door the other day also had a Russian sounding accent; he said he came from Croatia, and that too probably is a result of the 1990s war in Bosnia. War has been the primary factor driving people out of Africa, but again we have offered almost no haven for its victims of genocide.

The point is that immigration is a complex issue that will not be solved by building a bigger fence along the Mexican border – and certainly not by the government shutdown that John Boehner and Ted Cruz are threatening as I write. They and other right-wingers used immigration as a wedge issue in the last election, giving people the impression that we are facing an unprecedented horde of dangerous foreigners. The facts do not bear that out: as a percentage of the population, immigration is lower now than it was in 1900. A key difference is that Catholics were targeted then, while now many Catholics join in disparaging Muslims, Buddhists, and others. I’m very pleased that Pope Francis is speaking out against that sort of thinking. It should be at the heart of any new immigration law. And with the heart, some heads that understand the facts – in the context of our national story.

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.
Make a comment to the author