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The Hidden History Of Immigration: Part 1 of 3

by Martin Ford

History often hides from those who make it. We frequently fail to recognize the full significance of trends, people, and events until long after their time. Such hidden history takes varied forms-the artist who achieves posthumous fame after lifelong obscurity, the scientific breakthrough buried for years within some dusty journal, the unheralded technical advance that eventually fuels a social revolution. Thus, Mendel's insights into genetics were overlooked for decades, Bach struggled to please his burgher bosses as an organist in Leipzig and the birth control pill received little media attention when first developed.

The history of immigration is not so much hidden as it is obscured. The 20th century was bookmarked by two great waves of immigrants. During the first, which lasted from 1880 to 1924, more than 27 million newcomers came to the United States. We are now in the midst of the second wave, which has seen more than 31 million immigrant arrivals. In their day, the mostly southern, eastern and central Europeans who passed through the gates of Ellis Island were scorned as "the dregs of European society," compared invidiously to the immigrants from northern and western Europe who had come before the Civil War. Largely of peasant origin, the Ellis Island immigrants were accused of imbecility, blamed for crime, derided as paupers. So widespread and deeply felt was the reaction against the Great Wave immigrants that Congress passed legislation drastically restricting their entry.

Yet in the decades after their arrival, the Ellis Island immigrants were slowly "rehabilitated." The great immigrant historian Marcus Lee Hanson noted an "almost universal phenomenon…that what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember." His observation, now referred to as "Hanson's Law" or the phenomenon of "third generation return," speaks to the immigrant descendant's nostalgia for a disappearing ethnic past and may partly account for this remarkable rehabilitation. Between the two World Wars, these newcomers worked for a living, raised families, made friends and grew old. Most have since died. Their rehabilitation did not come from within themselves, but rather from how the American public remembers them and how it now sees itself as descended from immigrants.[1]

One of the earliest intimations of this change in national self-perception can be heard in Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 address to the Daughters of the American Revolution, who had recently refused to allow Marian Anderson, the great African American contralto, to perform at Constitution Hall. Roosevelt reminded his audience, "...all of us are descended from immigrants…." According to Nathan Glazer, this was a novel notion. Most Americans were more likely to think of their ancestors as colonists, pioneers, frontiersmen or settlers. Oscar Handlin returned to this theme in The Uprooted, his 1951 history of American immigration, which begins, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." The transformation continued with publication of John F. Kennedy's book, A Nation of Immigrants, which placed the Ellis Island newcomers alongside the Pilgrims in the pantheon of ancestral gods and paved the way for passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, renewing immigration after the virtual moratorium imposed in 1924. Written during the height of the civil rights movement, the Immigration Act abolished discriminatory quotas and opened the doors to record numbers of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan rededicated a newly refurbished Statue of Liberty and declared Ellis Island a national landmark. Fifteen years later, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation launched a Web site allowing free searches of passenger records for the 22 million immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. Within hours of going online, the site was overwhelmed by 50 million visitors and went on to record one billion hits in its first month. Truly America had become "a nation of immigrants."

The ultimate effect of our defining ourselves as a nation of immigrants has been ironic. On the one hand, we have romanticized our immigrant past, idealizing the assimilation process. Now that for many of us the process of becoming American is complete, we underestimate the hardships it entailed. We tend to see Americanization more in terms of the Melting Pot tableau Henry Ford staged at his Dearborn manufacturing plant, where workers, dressed in ethnic costume, descended into a mock cauldron. They emerged moments later wearing suits and carrying American flags. This instant transformation bore little resemblance to "the brutal bargain" that Norman Podhoretz described his Jewish parents and others of their generation having endured.

On the other hand, this idealized interpretation of the immigrant experience has made native-born Americans critical of today's immigrants who may not seem to embrace Americanization with such ardor. By not fully appreciating the hardships their ancestors experienced in adjusting to life in this country, native-born Americans hold contemporary immigrants to unrealistically high standards. They fear that today's newcomers will transform American culture beyond recognition, threatening its language, religion, and the very notion of what it means to be American. In this multi-series article, I will discuss the "hidden" aspects of assimilation for America's three largest immigrant ancestry groups-the Germans who sought to preserve their language, the Irish who imported a subversive religion and the Italians who discovered their identity in the United States. By bringing to light the little known experiences of immigrants in the past, I hope to help readers better understand the struggles of immigrants today.

Perhaps no aspect of our culture is as central to American identity as language. The United States has been called a language graveyard, and English-American English-a juggernaut, crushing all before it. Today, as English verges on becoming "the world's language," many Americans jealously guard its preeminence. We seem particularly uncomfortable with the use of other languages in the public domain. A shopper overhears a Spanish conversation in the supermarket and wonders aloud why "they" cannot speak English. A supervisor admonishes his Russian-speaking staff not to gossip in their native tongue. From New Jersey to California, citizens protest Chinese or Korean language signs in ethnic businesses. Twenty-seven states now have Official English laws, many of them passed in the 1990s, and mounting sentiment for federal legislation was quelled only after a Presidential election campaign in which both candidates courted the Hispanic vote by speaking in Spanish.

Bush vs. Gore confirmed the fears of those who see Spanish as the major threat to English as our national language. They believe today's Spanish-speaking newcomers have little use for English. Backed by bilingual ballots, official translations and ethnic advocacy groups, Latinos would make a Chicano Quebec of the Southwest, exile English from Miami and render California into a Tower of Babel. By contrast, popular imagination portrays the immigrants of old as leaping headlong into the Melting Pot and emerging with the American language lilting from their lips.

The truth is more complex. The historical pattern for conversion to English monolingualism is three generations. The first generation learns enough to get by outside the home, but continues to speak the mother tongue with family. Their American-born children become bilingual, using the parents' language at home and English outside. The third generation loses the native tongue completely. Of course, there have always been notable exceptions, persistent pockets of bilingual speakers-French-speaking Cajuns in Louisiana, Amish in Pennsylvania and several Midwestern states, and perhaps most notably Germans for much of their history in this country.

In 1990, 58 million Americans claimed German descent, more than those of any other ancestry. Immigration from the independent states and principalities that we now call Germany started in the 1600s and persisted through the 1890s, with some 7 million ultimately settling in America. The newcomers differed by region of origin, class, culture and religion. About the only thing that united them was language, which they consciously preserved. As early as the mid-1700s, Ben Franklin derided Pennsylvania's Germans. He complained that their children were not learning English, predicting that, "instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country." Americans, Franklin concluded, were being "Dutched."

In the decades that followed, the Germans spread from the Cumberland Valley to the Midwestern Plains and Mississippi Valley, becoming America's most widely dispersed immigrant group. Farmers were joined by artisans and intellectuals, including the "Forty-Eighters," progressives who escaped the European Revolutions of 1848. Many saw themselves as exiles, in Daniel Boorstin's words, "less anxious to take root in American soil than to transplant German culture." While today, American language and culture exert remarkable influence the world over, German immigrants were convinced that the "high culture" that produced the philosophy of Nietzsche, the poetry of Goethe and the symphonies of Beethoven was superior to anything this country could muster.

As newly opened farmland lured immigrants to the Midwest, Germans fueled the mid-19th-century growth of its cities. "When the German comes in, the Yankee goes out," went the proverb. Soon half or more of the populations of Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis were German. Displaying "a strong tendency towards self-segregation nearly everywhere they settled," these immigrants recreated the social institutions they left behind-singing societies, gymnastics clubs, German-language newspapers, beer gardens and orchestras. "The Germans live here as in their old Germany" was a common refrain. Not only did the immigrants raise their children to speak the mother tongue, they also insisted that the schools teach German. Wherever their numbers were high, they demanded bilingual programs. Today, critics of bilingual education characterize it as an unprecedented concession to America's growing Spanish-speaking minority. In fact, bilingual education, with the school day divided between English and German became the staple curriculum in many school districts, especially in such Midwestern states as Wisconsin, Nebraska and Missouri.

Closer to home, Baltimore had become a major immigrant port, drawing large numbers of Germans. Most passed on to the agricultural Midwest, but enough remained to make up a quarter of the city's population by the mid-1800s. In 1873, the Baltimore City Council ordered the establishment of bilingual public schools, with German as the exclusive language of instruction for art and music in the upper grades. By 1900, almost 7,000 children, more than 10 percent of the city's student population, were enrolled in these bilingual schools. Linguist Geoffrey Numberg estimates that, "At the turn of the century…more than 6 percent of all American schoolchildren were receiving most or all of their primary education in the German language alone."

The outbreak of World War I, the extreme anti-German feelings that accompanied the war and the nationalism of the "100 percent Americanism" movement that ensued, effectively put an end to use of the German language in America. For those children born in German-American families between 1916 and 1925, sociologist Richard Alba found that German had become a lost tongue. Fewer German-Americans (less than 3 percent) spoke their mother tongue at home than did the children of other European immigrant groups.

Today, census figures show mother tongue Spanish speakers at an all-time high. The number of Spanish-speaking adults (18 and over) has grown from 7.4 million in 1990 to more than 20 million in 2000 out of a total Latino population of over 35 million. Does this growth promise a bilingual United States? Will Spanish-speakers succeed where the Germans failed? The numbers suggest not. The Census finds only one in twelve Spanish-speaking residents unable to speak English, while nearly 14 million of those who identified as Hispanic said they speak only English. Nearly three-fourths of Spanish speakers say they are comfortable in both languages. Fifty-two percent claimed to speak English "very well," with an additional 22 percent speaking it "well." Rather than being cause for alarm, these figures compare favorably to findings of the 1910 Dillingham Commission, which assessed English acquisition among 13 million foreign-born over ten years of age and found that 23 percent spoke no English.

The true test of linguistic assimilation, however, is whether or not the children of immigrants are learning English. In 1998, researchers from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University led by sociologist Alejandro Portes surveyed first- and second-generation immigrant students in Miami and San Diego. They found that 64 percent of the eighth and ninth graders knew English "very well," while only 16 percent knew the language spoken at home as well. Similarly, Strategy Research, a Miami market research firm, found that 77 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics are "highly acculturated," with only 9 percent saying that they are more comfortable speaking Spanish. A recent RAND Corporation study showed that more than 90 percent of first-generation Hispanics born in California have native fluency in English, and that only about 50 percent of the second generation still speak Spanish. An assessment of the research led Portes to conclude, "the American experience is remarkable for its near mass extinction of non-English languages."

[1] Of course, in saying this, I am omitting African Americans, whose ancestors did not choose to come to America, but came under the compulsion of slavery and are thus not considered immigrants in the usual sense. Nevertheless, during the Ellis Island era of European immigration, many Black Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North and Midwest, while a much smaller number of immigrants of African ancestry arrived from the Caribbean. The rigors they endured were in many ways more grueling than those experienced by the Great Wave immigrants.

Originally appeared in Potomac Review, Issue 35, Spring/Summer 2003 issue

Next week: The Hidden History Of Immigration: Part 2 of 3

About The Author

Martin Ford is the Associate Director of the Maryland Office for New Americans.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.