A Nation of refugees

Posted on November 17, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

The wars in what we grew up calling “the Middle East”, from the Syrian civil war to the battles against the so-called Islamic State, are doing what all wars do: creating millions of refugees. This is not new in human history. Why is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? In large part because millions of people fled war in Europe during the 19th century. From the revolutions of 1848 to the wars that created Germany to the people who fled Europe after WWII, war has always grown our population in the U.S.

But that last one in the list, WWII, is actually an anomaly. It was after WWII that the U.S. began adopting policies that limited immigration, even for people claiming refugee status. There were multiple reasons for this; anti-immigration policies had begun to multiply in the 1920s and 30s, and affected people’s ability to leave Europe for America before the Second World War. These policies led to the refusal of the St. Louis in May 1939,  because it carried 937 Jewish Europeans seeking refugee status in Cuba; Cuba would not take them, and according to the Immigration Act of 1924 that cut immigration from southeastern Europe sharply, neither would the U.S. (The Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe where they fell victim to Nazism.) After WWII, the Cold War encouraged U.S. officials to restrict European and Asian immigration as we became a fortress closed against Communism.

So we actually became less welcoming to Refugees from Foreign Wars, as they used to be called, during WWII. Famously, it took an emotional visit by First Lady Rosalyn Carter to starving and dying Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War to change our policy and allow them to enter the U.S.

In the 1920s, the U.S. banned immigration based on religion and race: “undesirable” Catholics, Jews, and people who were not considered white at that time like Italians and Czechs and Russians all had their quotas lowered. Since the 1950s, immigration has been viewed through the lens of politics and religion: Catholic Latinos in the 1970s-90s, and now Muslim Middle-Easterners are the new bogeymen. In the late 19th century and to the 1930s, southeastern European Jews and Catholics were decried  loudly by panicking white Protestants: their mission from the Pope or whoever controlled them was to destroy the U.S. government and our white nation. Today, the nativists panic as they claim… the exact same thing.

Muslims can’t understand democracy. They can’t participate in it. They won’t learn English. They hate our free society. They’ll bring their religious laws here and try to enforce them. They’ll destroy our government. They’ll commit acts of terrorism.

All of these hate-panic claims were once made about Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Catholic immigrants. Somehow none of them came true.

Yet some of our political leaders are clearly nostalgic for the bad old days. Rick Santorum thinks all Syrian refugees should go back home and fight ISIS. Somehow they will succeed where Russian air strikes have not. Carly Fiorina wants all refugees screened for terrorism before they can come here. Rand Paul has a blanket “no” when it comes to Muslim refugees. Bobby Jindal thinks all refugees should be constantly monitored in the U.S., ankle-bracelet style. And Mike Huckabee thinks it’s “crazy” to take poor people from the “desert”, “who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a [sic] same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter”.

Luckily none of these people are running the country. Our president faced this front of ignorance by reminding us of who we are:

When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful, that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests (for) our compassion.

This is a much-needed counter-attack against those who insist that instituting the religious tests that our Constitution absolutely outlaws and deplores as undemocratic will keep our democracy safe. Suspecting people who have fled for their lives in a war of being warmongers whose only goal is to destroy any nation that takes them in and offers them hope is beyond ignorant. And it’s beyond American.

Whenever anti-immigrant, hate laws were passed in our history, there were Americans who stood up against them. There are always Americans who fight for justice for all. That’s our true identity. That’s American. Let’s remember that. Let’s remember who we are and how we got here, always aspiring to greatest-nation-on-Earth status, because the old saw is true: if we destroy everything we stand for in the name of security, the terrorists win.

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What America’s Immigrants looked like as they arrived at Ellis Island

Posted on October 28, 2015. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Yes, we’ve stolen that title from the wonderful Washington Post site showing photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants. Until then, here are some samples from the Post site:


A “Ruthenian” woman (today’s Belarus and Ukraine)


A Slovakian woman and her son


Men from Russia

Algerian-man An Algerian man


Children from Lapland


A Norwegian woman

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Pew data on U.S. immigration

Posted on September 28, 2015. Filed under: Immigration | Tags: , , , , , , |

Next to the census every decade, we look forward to Pew Research Center Statistical Reports. These unofficial censuses give us valuable information on what our population in the U.S. is looking at. Historians use them as to check historical and current assumptions, and they should inform American political policy and social understanding.

You can go to the Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 1960-2013 and see it for yourself; for now, these are some highlights:

There were a record 41.3 million immigrants living in the U.S. in 2013, making up 13.1% of the nation’s population. This represents a fourfold increase since 1960, when only 9.7 million immigrants lived in the U.S., accounting for just 5.4% of the total U.S. population.

—A fourfold increase in the immigrant population is striking, but we’re willing to bet that if you asked most Americans what percentage of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants, they would guess something a *lot* higher than 13%. The time and fury spent on immigration in this country would lead anyone to believe that the immigrant population must be at least 30%. And most people would likely say that 90% of the immigrant population is made up of illegal Mexican immigrants, so these two facts are important:

About one-quarter of the U.S. foreign-born population are unauthorized immigrants, while the majority of the nation’s immigrants is in the U.S. legally. Naturalized citizens account for the largest portion of the foreign-born population (41.8%).

…As recently as 2008, immigrants arriving within the past year to the U.S. who were born in Asia have outnumbered those born in Latin America. In the early 2000s, the number of newly arrived immigrants from Latin America greatly outnumbered those arriving from Asia. But with the Great Recession, Latin American immigration slowed sharply, especially from Mexico. The number of new immigrants from Latin America has been about steady since then, but the number of newly arrived Asian immigrants has continued to rise.

—So only one-quarter of 13% of our population is made up of illegal immigrants. The graph is worth a couple hundred words:


What we see is that there are 42.5 million immigrants in the U.S., and 11 million of those came here illegally. The vitriol about “illegals” usually offered by Republicans and Tea Party members claims there are 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.; we see that this not true.

We also see that Asian immigration is fast out-pacing Latin American immigration, and it stands to reason that there are illegal Asian immigrants in that 11 million number, but you never hear about that from politicians; they are only ever concerned about Mexico. We can’t tell you exactly why, but if the Asian immigration trend stays on track, we wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next 10 years, you start to hear lots of negative stereotypes about “illegal Asians” and closing ports on the west coast.

The share of immigrants who are proficient in English has declined since 1980, though it has increased slightly in recent years. This decline has been driven mostly by those who speak only English at home, which fell from 30% of immigrants ages 5 and older in 1980 to 16% in 2013. The share who speak English “very well,” meanwhile, has increased slightly, from 27% to 34% over the same time period.

—Anti-immigration people tend to blame Latinos for this, claiming they won’t speak English. But as Latino immigration falls, and Asian immigration rises, it is far more likely that people who are not speaking English only are speaking Chinese, not Spanish. In fact, Latino immigrants’ children are far more likely to switch to all-English than Asian immigrants’ children.

Check out the whole report and know the facts about the ever, ever-changing U.S. demographic.

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Supreme Court ruling on Arizona anti-immigration law: show us your papers

Posted on June 27, 2012. Filed under: Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled on the provisions of the Arizona state laws meant to prevent illegal Latino immigration and find hidden illegal immigrants already in the state and deport them. Police in the state can stop anyone if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is, or is with, an illegal immigrant. Lyle Mann, Executive Director of Arizona Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Board, created an instructional video for police officers outlining what they should look for when they are assessing whether someone is an illegal immigrant, including “dress, demeanor, unusual or unexplained nervousness” and trouble speaking English.

There are no guidelines given on what illegal immigrants dress like, or what their “demeanor” is. I have never seen a category of clothing online or in a store called “Illegal Immigrant.”

It’s hard to believe that the Court would uphold a provision of the law that allows police officers to act on their sixth-sense, that enshrines “reckoning” as a process upheld by law. But the most controversial provision of the Arizona law was upheld: the “show me your papers” provision requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop “if there is reason to suspect that the individual might be an illegal immigrant.”

Again, what anyone “suspects” is usually hard to defend in court, but in this case those “suspicions” were supported. The three provisions blocked by the Court were: (quote from the NYT) “making it a crime for immigrants to fail to register under federal law, making it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or to try find work, and allowing the police to arrest people without warrants if they have probable cause to believe that they have done things that would make them deportable under federal law.” This third provision means that the police could arrest a person they think committed a crime that could get them deported. Again, what an officer “suspects” is the core of this provision. Why it was not upheld while the other “suspicion” was is unclear.

Those who say this will not validate and encourage racial profiling are almost certainly fooling themselves. When an officer is asked to look at someone’s clothes that officer is being told, “Illegal immigrants dress a certain way because they all come from Mexico and they all wear this or that kind of jeans, shirts, hats, etc.” When an officer is asked to look for people who can’t speak English well, that officer is naturally going to look for people s/he considers to look “foreign”—a white person is very likely to be overlooked in favor of a darker-skinned person, a person with black hair, etc.: in short, a Mexican.

Because that’s what this law is about in Arizona: stopping Mexican people from crossing the border illegally. It is a law about Mexican immigration, and therefore a law about Mexican people: identifying them and deporting them.

One can only point out that the U.S. only has a problem with illegal immigration because we have made it very difficult to emigrate here legally. This is a policy adopted after WWII. Throughout its long history, the U.S. has often tried to prevent certain people from entering the country—Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, to name a few—but it has never had a blanket policy of trying to stop immigration itself. Today immigrants from any nation face an uphill battle of many years to become citizens that includes having to get an employer to sponsor you for multiple years, tests on American history and government, and paperwork, paperwork, paperwork (which also adds up to money, money, money).

We now make it much harder to become a legal immigrant than we have ever done before. That’s it. It’s not that today’s immigrants are more criminal. It’s not that our own sainted immigrant ancestors were more law-abiding. It’s simply a matter of changing the law to make it harder to become a citizen. What were the “rules” for immigrants coming through Ellis Island for so many years? Look healthy and have your name listed on the register of the ship that brought you. That was it. “If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these ‘six-second physicals.'”

When I visited the Ellis Island museum in 1991, I saw a film that said you also had to provide the address of a friend, sponsor, or family member who would take you in. And off you went. Those rules were pretty easy to follow. If that’s all we asked of Mexican immigrants today, we wouldn’t have illegal immigrants.

Each generation looks back to earlier immigrants as “good,” and views current immigrants as bad. In the 1880s, the Irish were angry at the incoming Italians. In the 1900s, the Italians were banning the Chinese from coming in. As each immigrant group settles in, it tries to keep the next group out.

It’s really time we ended this cycle. Here are some quick pointers:

1. Latin American immigrants are not qualitatively different than previous European immigrants.

2. Spanish-speaking immigrants do NOT refuse to learn English; in fact, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are less likely to speak the old language than the children of other groups (that is, more children of Chinese immigrants speak Chinese than children of Mexican immigrants speak Spanish).

3. Your European immigrant ancestors (and mine!) honored nothing when they came to the U.S. but their desire to be here. They didn’t anxiously adhere to “the rules.” They did the bare, bare minimum that was asked of them, which was easy to do.

4. If we reverted to our earlier, extremely simple requirements for entering the country and becoming a citizen, we would not have illegal immigrants. If we choose not to go back to the earlier requirements, we have to explain why.

The usual explanation is that if we made it as simple now as it once was to enter this country and become a citizen, the U.S. would be “flooded” with “waves” of Latin Americans, poor and non-English-speaking, ruining the country. Which is exactly the argument that has always been made against immigrants, be they Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, etc. Each group is going to destroy the country and American culture and society. It never seems to happen.

But it might happen now, with Latin American immigrants, not because they will destroy the country but because those in the U.S. who are so afraid of them will rip the country—and the Constitution—apart trying to keep them out. Taking the long view, I can say there’s hope that that won’t happen. But it will take a good fight to get all Americans to realize that the key to this nation’s success has always been the open-door policy.

Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.

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Barriers to your right to vote: 2012

Posted on May 3, 2012. Filed under: Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Let’s take a look at the laws currently in place and being introduced every year requiring ID to vote. I’m indebted for much of my data here to the NCSL Voter Identification Requirements webpage. Go there to see a great map (that unfortunately will not let itself be pasted here).

Strict photo: There are currently five states that require you to have a photo ID before you can vote—Kansas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas have strict photo laws pending. Wisconsin’s strict photo law was declared unconstitutional by its state legislature but is being appealed and could be put into effect by November 2012. So that would make 9 states with strict photo requirements by the end of 2012. At the start of 2011, only Georgia and Indiana had these requirements, so the number has shot up quickly.

What constitutes a photo ID is defined variously in the different states; some do not give examples but merely say it must be issued by the federal government (passport), state government (driver’s license), city government, or military. Pennsylvania includes IDs from “an accredited PA private or public institution of higher learning (student ID) or a PA care facility”. Kansas specifically names “government-issued concealed carry handgun or weapon license”, so if you own a gun, you get to vote. In Mississippi, if you have a religious conviction against being photographed you can sign an affidavit instead of presenting a photo ID.

Photo: There are currently six states requiring a photo ID—Hawaii, Idaho, South Dakota, Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida. Alabama has a photo ID law pending. The photo ID law, as opposed to “strict photo,” asks voters to show a photo ID but allows other proofs if they don’t have one, such as a voter with a photo ID vouching for you, giving your birth date, or signing an affadavit swearing to your identity.

Non-photo: Eighteen states require non-photo ID—Alaska, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Rhode Island is filing for a change to a photo requirement. Non-photo ID includes bank statements, utility bills, and other items mailed to your local address.

No ID: That leaves 30 states with no ID requirement for voting.

What happens if you show up and attempt to vote but you don’t have your state’s required ID? It varies—and here’s where the fundamental emptiness of these laws comes through. In some states, if the local election official knows you, s/he can waive the law. In others, you sign an affidavit. In others, you fill out a provisional ballot which will be counted if you provide ID before the close of voting, or if the county board of election officials decides to accept it. In short, you go ahead and fill out your ballot in most states and if you plead your case it will be accepted.

The kicker here is that in many states, your case is accepted if your name is on the poll list. Which takes us back to square one: in the U.S., all you need to vote is to register. When you register, you are asked to produce ID saying that you are a citizen of the U.S. and have residency in your state. Once you’ve registered, your name goes into the poll list—that big book the election officials find your name in when you go up to them on election day. If your name is on that list, you have already fulfilled the requirements for voting in the U.S., and you should not be forced to show ID. You have already been verified as a U.S. citizen and state resident, and those are the only requirements. Adding photo ID requirements, then, is the equivalent of a poll tax or literacy test, tactics used during the lowest years of Jim Crow to prevent the poor and black Americans from voting. Forcing people to pay a fee to vote, or prove their English literacy, has been declared illegal in this country. Forcing people to show photo ID should be illegal, too.

Who are the people without valid photo IDs in this country? The elderly, who often no longer drive or use a passport; the poor (who are often non-white); and, importantly, illegal immigrants. It is this last group who are the real targets of photo ID laws. Americans have been told there is an epidemic of voting fraud in this country, and that it is being carried out by illegal immigrants. But independent inquiries have turned up no such epidemic, and illegal immgrants are the last people to willingly risk having their status found out by attempting to vote. If you think about it, describing voter fraud in 2012 as someone amassing millions of names, getting them into the list of registered voters, then getting those millions of people to go vote illegally is absurd. Any voting fraud carried out today would be a hacking of the computer systems that tabulate votes, not a hacking of your local registered voters database at town hall.

Photo ID laws are blatant attempts to restrict voting rights. They impact the poor, the non-white, and the elderly—groups assumed to vote Democratic, which may explain the strong Republican backing for these laws. If your name is on the poll list there is no constitutional law requiring you to show more ID than that. Until the accusations of voting fraud are proved, we should all be fighting on our local state level against these laws.

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Child labor in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution

Posted on December 15, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Following up on our earlier post on child labor in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, we consider how any child who worked 12-hour days 6 days a week experiencing ungodly levels of air and noise pollution; financial, physical, and often sexual exploitation; fatigue, hunger, and illness or injury lived to tell the tale. What got children through this sort of life?

One leavening factor was that the child usually worked alongside family members. This meant the child worker could share food with someone, had company, and knew someone at work spoke and understood her language if she hadn’t learned English yet.  Another was that, as we described in the first post, most of these children expected to work like adults, and were proud of their ability to contribute to the family economy. They weren’t snatched from a happy childhood of school and play and thrown into the factory; they were born to work and in some sense could not fully miss what they never had.

But the most important factor in America was that child laborers and their families believed their days in the factory might be numbered—in America, land of opportunity, one could reasonably hope to work one’s way up from the factory floor. If a boy worked hard, learned English, and stayed alive, he could become the floor manager or boss. If he was really sharp, he could become a white-collar assistant manager. A girl hoped to work only until she got married—if she was smart and lucky, she might marry an overseer and retire to a life of non-factory work (working from home as a seamstress, laundress, or hat-maker, for example). If she was very lucky, she could marry one of those white-collar managers and never work again.

The promise of rising up, even entering the middle class, white-collar world after a relatively brief if truly hellish few years on the factory floor drove many child workers, and gave them the mental fortitude to make it through the factory work day. This was their parents’ hope, too. And even if a child worker never progressed past overseer, his own children might do better, and then a grandchild might end up going to school and being a doctor or lawyer. That was the promise that didn’t exist for most immigrants in their “old country”. American exacted a toll, but it offered a payoff.

Even children who labored without hope of their own advancement did it for a sibling; stories abound of siblings working slavishly to pay for one smart, usually younger brother to go to school and even college. If that one brother made it, he could relieve the sufferings of his whole family. Many a young girl worked tirelessly to give her brother a better life, and dreamed of the day his success would allow her retirement from the machine floor.

So there was a powerful psychological impetus for many of the children who worked in factories during this period, namely the belief that it would pay off one day and they would no longer have to work so hard, even if it was a brother or son who eventually made a life of relative leisure possible. That was the promise of America.

As we turn our throughts back to today’s child laborers, most of whom are basically enslaved in cotton fields or gold mines, we see there is no promise of a payoff of any kind motivating their labor—just fear and hopelessness. One story about the children who are enslaved to work in “fair trade” cotton fields in Burkina Faso I heard today actually made the claim that the farmers there who beat children almost to death for not picking enough cotton don’t know that that is wrong because “no one has told them it’s wrong”.

Clarisse Kambire, an enslaved child laborer in Burkina Faso, 2011.

But it’s impossible that any adult could not understand the injustice of child labor, the inhumanity of child slave labor, and the crime of beating child workers. Bosses and plantation farmers in the U.S. in the 1800s knew it was wrong to exploit children; they just also knew that no one would stop them from exploiting those children, and therefore they did it. Everyone, everywhere, knows that this is wrong.  More power to those who are working around the world, and in the U.S., to try to stop child labor once and for all.

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Why was there child labor in America?

Posted on December 7, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration | Tags: , , |

The stories in the news recently on child labor in gold mines in Mali remind us that, although it has been outlawed in many countries, child labor is not a thing of the past. We are shocked here in the U.S. to read about six year-olds being forced to work in factories, or in gold mines, using mercury and other poisons, and wonder how anyone could do that to children. We are shocked and dismayed to read about child labor in our own country—not just the child labor that continues today, under the radar, but more particularly the fully sanctioned, completely legal exploitation of young children that fueled our Industrial Revolution in the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

Photos of child labor in American factories like this one are typical, yet still powerfully able to stir one’s revulsion:

We’re all pretty familiar with the dangers children like these faced, from the machines they basically stood inside of to run to their overseers, who exercised brutality without qualm. What’s less clear, and not very often explored, is how and why the parents of these children let them work in these terrible conditions, and how any child survived the experience physically or emotionally.

If we look at child workers in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., we see that they were predominately urban, and that the majority of urban child workers were immigrants or children of immigrants. There was child labor in textile mills in rural towns, of course, and black children were forced to work as sharecroppers, putting in 12-hour days with their parents. In all of these cases, children worked for one simple reason: they had to. For their families to survive financially, everyone who was able had to work. Women went back to work one or two days after giving birth. Men worked when they were fatally ill or injured. And children worked when they should have been in school, or playing. They all did this because, whether they were immigrants who had spent their last dime (as it were) getting to America and paying rent on a tenement apartment, or whether they were the children of former slaves who had their freedom but nothing else (no land, no money, no education or opportunity for any of these), or whether they were poor rural whites in much the same position as black sharecroppers, these people were on the brink of annihilation. They were in debt, one step away from deportation, the poorhouse, the orphanage, or worse. Everyone had to work to give the family the smallest scrap of security, the flimsiest safety net.

The way to the 12-hour factory day for 7 year-olds was paved with precedent. Children (except for wealthy children)  had always worked. Most Americans were farmers, and so children worked on the family farm. This was hard work with long hours, but it was overseen by caring parents who had every incentive of love and practicality to keep their children safe, and not force them to do jobs that were too hard for them. The whole family worked long hours together, and shared in the wealth they created. This was true of most immigrant families in their homelands, too.

As the Industrial Revolution developed, the ratio of urban to rural families shifted very significantly very quickly, but what did not change was the tradition of children working. Now children in large numbers worked in shops or on the streets as bootblacks, cart vendors, newsboys, gutter cleaners, etc. They worked in the first sweatshops—family apartments where everyone sewed, made shoes, or did laundry, etc.,  for 10 hours a day, six days a week. And, eventually, they worked in factories, sometimes the same factories as their parents.

Labor unrest helped this process along, as factory owners looked for workers who could not organize labor unions and strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. Immigrants who didn’t speak English and/or had no experience with democracy were a good choice, but these men were quickly educated in both once in America. Children, on the other hand, were ideal: they had no legal rights, they didn’t have to be paid even half what an adult earned, and their wages could be given directly to their parents, thus preventing children from understanding what their labor was worth. Children could also be horribly abused without any legal repercussions (see children having no legal rights), and they were small enough to reach into (running) machinery to fix small pieces. In short, children were ideal factory workers, and the tradition of children working eased the transition from family farm work to factory labor.

Next time: how child laborers in the U.S. coped

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Truth v. Myth: “My family’s name was changed at Ellis Island!”

Posted on July 26, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration | Tags: , |

This is a popular one. Almost anyone you ask will tell you that unfeeling and ignorant Americans changed hard-to-pronounce “foreign” names at Ellis Island, ruining people’s self-esteem and making genealogical research very difficult for their descendants.

But at its heart, this does not make sense. You will learn in the same essay, or book chapter, etc., that every language under the sun was spoken at Ellis Island, and that hundreds of people worked as translators… and that names were changed by officials who didn’t know how to spell them. How can it be that there were hundreds of translators and none of them working alongside officials to translate (spell out) names? How can it be that none of those officials were immigrants themselves who would know the names? First, an important truth is that the majority of people coming through Ellis Island did not have their names changed. Name changes were the exception, not the rule.

But some did happen. To see why, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how people got from Europe to America during the 19th and early 20th centuries: you either bought a ticket in your home country (let’s say Hungary) or traveled from your home country to a European port city (let’s say Le Havre, France) and bought a ticket there. Once you had a ticket, your name was listed in the ship’s register. This register was vital—during the period under discussion here, the most important thing once you got to the U.S. was that officials find your name on the ship’s register. This meant you were not a stowaway, had enough money to have bought a ticket, and were generally solid immigration material. The only two requirements for entry into the U.S. were having your name on the ship’s register and passing a quick “six-second” physical (see Illegal immigrants must be stopped!).

But you are Hungarian, and the ship’s register is being written by a French person. Does he know how to spell your name? Most likely the French registrar does not speak Magyar. Most likely you are illiterate and cannot write your name yourself. Unless you have a literate Hungarian friend with you, or have learned to write one thing—your name—you have to settle for saying your name as slowly and carefully as possible, and hope for the best. If your name is Székely, likely the French official will transliterate that as something like “Ciquay”, and you will never know the difference. You get on the ship and arrive in America.

At Ellis Island, the ship’s register is read by an official. He is assisted by an interpreter who speaks Magyar. You tell her your name, but she can’t find it on the register as Székely. She does find Ciquay, and reads the first name, and eventually, by talking with you, puts two and two together. She and the official confer: officially, your exact name must be on the register, but clearly a transliteration has taken place. Since the register cannot be altered, you have two options: insist on Székely and be sent home to try again, or accept Ciquay. Yes, you most likely accept Ciquay, or Seekay (if you came through Liverpool) or Zikee (if you came through Hamburg), and you go off to live your life in America. The official allows you to do this, since he understands the error that took place in France. You can also accept the new spelling of your name, which many immigrants did. Why? Because it was written on the papers they got at Ellis Island, and they didn’t want to make those papers look falsified. They also rarely had to write their own names, and, because they were illiterate and were not used to writing their names, they ended up accepting the misspelling by passing it along to their children, who did learn to read and write (English)  in American schools—it became more familiar to them than the real spelling.

Once you settle in with other Hungarian immigrants, one of them might point out how your name is supposed to be spelled, but you may not care enough to change it, especially since the correctly spelled name will now contradict your papers. Top this off with the desire of many immigrants to Americanize their lives, including their names, and you have a family now going by the name Seekay for decades to come. The error is only found later by suspicious descendants who know their family is Hungarian but can’t find the name Ciquay or Seekay in any list of Hungarian names. These grandchildren eventually find that the name was changed when the ancestor came to America. But it was not Ellis Island that changed the names, it was Ellis Island that accepted the changes made in Europe. Ellis Island was the site of conferences about whether to accept misspellings and changes made at European ports.

It was tricky. No one wanted to take the chance of being refused admission to the U.S. because their real name was not on the register, and those who understood that their name was misspelled were often willing to let it ride in order to get through immigration with no difficulties. Immigration officials at Ellis Island, working with translators or using their own knowledge, usually accepted the transliteration, not out of ignorance or xenophobic spite but because it would make things easier for the immigrant. Immigrants who spoke English were more often able to later fix misspellings, but many could not or did not make the correction.

So many Americans and Europeans blame the proliferation of spellings of names on poor Ellis Island officials. But the real reasons for the Reillys, Rileys, Reilleys, and Reilys in the U.S. are illiteracy in the European home nations, monolinguist ships’ officials in Europe, and flexible immigrants and officials at Ellis Island.

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Anti-immigrant, anti-American laws building steam

Posted on July 5, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Immigration | Tags: , |

We’ve commented previously on the HP about states introducing unconstitutional voting restriction laws, nominally meant to stop voter fraud (which has never been proven as chronic or widespread), but really meant to target and deport immigrants. These include requiring voters to have a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Now the Times is reporting laws being passed in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina that basically create a police state in which anyone who “looks foreign” and can’t produce ID can be arrested and, if an immigrant—even a legal one—deported.

According to the editorial, these laws include removing illegal immigrants working under the table, reporting students who are immigrants or even American-born children of immigrants. Why target Americans who have immigrant relatives? Because other laws make it illegal to give an undocumented immigrant a ride in your car. By making native-born citizens afraid of immigrants and their native-born American children, these laws create a clear criminal class of immigrants and their friends and relatives.

To what end? I think the author puts it well: “It has long been clear that America is suffering for lack of a well-functioning immigration system that better protects workers and families, promotes lawfulness at the border and in the workplace, and gives hardworking people a path to legality. Congress’s inaction has let the states run amok with their own destructive ideas. Supporters insist they are only trying to enforce the law. But trying to catch and deport 11 million people is lunacy. The damage to this country — its citizens and its laws — is enormous.”

Trying to find illegal immigrants by terrorizing everyone in the U.S. is not only impractical and guaranteed to fail, it’s un-American. And since the people usually behind these laws say they must protect the American way from immigrants, you would think they would be the most resistant to passing any un-American laws. But the authors and promoters of these laws are the most un-American of people, and so hardly fit to decide who is a threat to our nation.

The U.S. has gone through many cycles of immigrant fear. In the 1850s it was the dirty Irish ruining the country. In the 1890s it was the hideous Chinese. In the 1920s it was the barbaric eastern Europeans. Now it is the lawless Mexicans (and all Latin Americans) who will destroy our country for the sheer fun of it. To reiterate a statement from our earlier post “Illegal Immigration must be stopped!”, the U.S. has made it harder to enter this country legally and get a green card or citizenship than ever before in its history, and that is the only reason why we have so many illegal immigrants today:

“If we reverted to our earlier, extremely simple requirements for entering the country and becoming a citizen, we would not have illegal immigrants. If we choose not to go back to the earlier requirements, we have to explain why. The usual explanation is that if we made it as simple now as it once was to enter this country and become a citizen, the U.S. would be “flooded” with “waves” of Latin Americans, poor and non-English-speaking, ruining the country. Which is exactly the argument that has always been made against immigrants, be they Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Each group is going to destroy the country and American culture and society. It never seems to happen.

But it might happen now, with Latin American immigrants, not because they will destroy the country but because those in the U.S. who are so afraid of them will rip the country apart trying to keep them out. Taking the long view, I can say there’s hope that that won’t happen. But it will take a good fight to get all Americans to realize that the key to this nation’s success has always been the open-door policy.

Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.”

It was true before, and it’s still true now.

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White Americans in the minority by 2019

Posted on April 6, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Immigration | Tags: , , |

A report issued by the Census Bureau, based on the latest census results, states that by 2019, the majority of children born in the United States will be non-white.

We’ve been looking at the 2010 Census results and race, and this new parsing of the data is interesting in many ways. First, let’s look at the facts:

–The Hispanic population is growing faster than white, black, or Asian populations because of Hispanic people’s higher birthrates.

–Why is the white birthrate so low? Because white people have fewer children and have them later in life.

–Thus, the white population is aging far faster than the Hispanic, Asian, or black population. The median age of white people in the U.S. is 41 years old, while the median age of Hispanic people in the U.S. is 27 years old.

–The number of white children in the U.S. has fallen by 4.3 million since the last Census was taken in 2000. The number of Hispanic and Asian children has increased by 5.5 million.

–The number of black children in the U.S. has also fallen by 2 percent. The report states that “Over all, minorities now make up 46.5 percent of the under-18 population”, but it seems they are hardly “minorities” at this point. White children are currently the minorities in 10 states.

It’s not surprising that groups with higher birth rates are outstripping those with lower birth rates, but of course it is nearly impossible for the nation to receive this objective data objectively. Many white Americans are no doubt concerned that they are losing their majority status in this country.

This is only natural. No group wants to lose its socio-economic-political power/control. Look at the vicious backlash that men’s groups deal out to women who support equal rights, that straight groups deal out to gay people who support equal rights, etc. Those who have power want to keep it—not universally, but generally. Not every man hates feminism, not every straight person hates gay rights. But a substantial portion—a majority—are opposed because these groups pose a threat to the male or the straight grip on power.

Now a substantial portion of white Americans may react with fear and anger to this news. It will add fuel to the fire of anti-immigrationists, and likely lead to calls for quotas on Latin American immigration. Those Latinos already in the U.S. will be castigated by some for not speaking English, taking U.S. jobs, and other actions that have nothing to do with how many children they have. I think Asian Americans will escape this vitriol for the most part, because it is Latinos who are the more visible immigrants.

One of the arguments of these white Americans will be that incoming Latinos do not respect, understand, or plan to support the “American way”, by which they will mean representative democracy, English speaking, and suburban comfort and norms. This is the same dire accusation leveled at Irish immigrants in the 1840s (no, they were not considered to be white at that time), Germans in the 1860s, Chinese people in the late 1800s-early 1900s, Italians and eastern Europeans in the early 20th century (again, not considered white), etc. Every new group is castigated as deliberately, gleefully destroying the nation they have just arrived in.

In all of these cases, the reports of the American way’s death were exaggerated. Will it be the same this time? It depends. It depends on education.

All of those previous immigrants were educated in American public schools that inculcated American values in them, sometimes cruelly, often with the excitement and true devotion that their teachers, former immigrants themselves in many cases, felt for their new country. In fact, making sure immigrant children got an American education in civics and the workings of the American democratic system so they would become loyal citizens was a key goal of American primary education for the bulk of the 20th century. And it worked. For most of the 20th century the average American was a first- or second-generation immigrant who knew a lot about the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, due process, etc. That American voted and participated in the political system. And thus the American way, and the nation, did not die.

But I’m not sure that is true now. Now American K-12 education system has no real focus, riven as it is with internal and external conflicts, except perhaps for testing. And civics—learning about our government, its purpose, its structure, and the importance of citizen participation—is rarely a part of K-12 education. Many states no longer require that civics be taught at all. Schoolchildren today are ignorant of civics, and therefore the average American cannot name the three branches, how they work together, how the state and federal governments align, etc., and citizen political participation is at an all-time low.

And that’s for white children. What about the non-white children soon to make up the majority of American students? They are likely to go to the worst, most under-funded schools, where learning to read and write and do math is not guaranteed. They learn nothing about civics, about their government—except that so many people in that government don’t want them here. This will only get worse by 2019. As the Times article puts it, “Will the older generation pay for educating a younger generation that looks less like itself? And while the young population is a potential engine of growth for the economy, will it be a burden if it does not have access to adequate education?”

We all know the mantra that “children are our future.” It is true. If we want the American way to be the way of the future, if we want the country to be preserved as it is/should be, we must educate this non-white generation the way we educated previous immigrant generations, and the way we educate the white generation. We have to start treating children born in this country to Latino parents, and children whose parents bring them here, as the Americans they are, and give them the education we assume white children should have.

Because the real fear many white Americans have is that immigrant and black people will drastically change this country if they take the majority because they do not share “white values.” What are “white values”? American values assumed to be the natural birthright of white children but values that must be laboriously inculcated into non-white children, who somehow genetically resist them. Justice for all, innocent until proven guilty, government of by and for the people, etc. Those are American values. But they are not naturally a part of the makeup of white Americans—as we have noted elsewhere on the Historic Present—every American has to learn these values. They go against human nature, and human history. Everyone has to learn them, every new generation, black, white, Asian, or Latino. You get the nation you pay for. You reap what you sow. If we want the American way, we have to teach it. If we refuse to teach new immigrant American children about their country, if we throw civics education away, it is we who will guaranty the ruin of our country, not those children.

So these numbers should not panic anyone. We are privileged to live in a moment of real historical change in our country—one of many. If we cherish our country, we will make sure every child in it knows that s/he is an American, and we will teach every child what that means, and how to live it.

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