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The Hidden History Of Immigration: All Parts Compiled

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."

If America has been a graveyard for languages, it has also been a seedbed for religions. Perhaps no scene evokes this disparate religious heritage so vividly as the silhouette of varied spires, steeples and cupolas against an urban skyline. From hilltops overlooking many old American cities, particularly "Rustbelt" cities of the Northeast and Midwest, one can survey many decades of American religious diversity. A trained architectural eye might discern the denomination of each place of worship, as well as when each was built, and from these monuments to our ethnic past infer much about the peopling of the old neighborhoods.

With today's influx of newcomers, America's religious landscape is rapidly changing. As the descendants of the Ellis Island immigrants have moved from city to suburb, new ethnic congregations have taken over the old churches. Sometimes the newcomers represent the same religion as the founders, often not. The new religious pattern is more apt to be revealed in the suburbs. For example, the stretch of New Hampshire Avenue running from Silver Spring to Ashton, Maryland, has been called "Heaven's Highway" in recognition of the many places of worship along the way.

It used to be that "place of worship" meant church or synagogue. In addition to these staple houses of worship, Heaven's Highway is lined with temples, mosques, ashrams and prayer centers. Together they represent a variety of faiths, including Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu sects. One can drive out from any immigrant Gateway City and find the same phenomenon-East and West, Orthodox and Charismatic, Evangelical and Reformed, Monotheistic and Polytheistic, side by side.

In the early 19th century, America was a far cry from such heterogeneous religiosity. Ninety-eight percent of the population was Protestant, 1 percent Catholic and 1 percent "other." Today, America is the most diversely Christian country in the world. Although a slight majority of Americans (52 percent) remain Protestant, Catholicism is the largest single denomination, claiming more than one in four Americans. Practicing Jews make up 1.3 percent of the population. While Muslims seem to represent less than 1 percent, they appear to be America's fastest growing religious minority.

Although the promise of religious tolerance attracted Pilgrim, Jewish, Quaker and Pietist immigrants to America from the earliest years, our religious efflorescence began in earnest with the mass migration of Irish-Catholic peasants escaping the Great Famine in the mid-1800s. From our contemporary ecumenical vantage, it is difficult to conceive the level of fear and hatred directed towards the Irish, the first major non-Protestant group. A significant number of immigrants had come from Ireland during colonial times. These Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen, settled along the colonial frontier, where they served as a vanguard against the Indians. Most were Protestant. Though considered uncouth, they were also admired for a flinty toughness, epitomized by Andrew Jackson. The son of Northern Irish immigrants, "Old Hickory" was elected president largely by virtue of his folk-hero standing as an Indian fighter.

The waves of Famine Irish who survived the "coffin ships" and streamed in ever greater numbers into the tenements of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore seemed so different from the Scotch-Irish. No longer was the Irishman the crass bumpkin, he was now perceived as the drunken, bellicose foot soldier of a Pope whose aim was to become "supreme head of the world."

Anti-Catholicism found political expression in the emergence of the American Party, or Know-Nothings, whose platform denouncing "Paddy and the Pope" won more than one hundred Congressional seats in 1854. Editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast fanned the flames with cartoons that portrayed the Irishman as an ape-like brute, a cudgel in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other. By contrast, Nast's Pope was a cunning potentate with colonial ambitions. To an earnestly Protestant America, which prized individual liberty and despised the authoritarian regimes of Europe, a legion of dumb and dutiful infiltrators in service to a foreign power was a fearful combination.

The reaction was severe. Protestant clergy delivered rabidly anti-Catholic sermons, occasionally rousing their congregations to all-out applause. At least one nativist meeting broke up suddenly when a latecomer breathlessly reported seeing the Pope skulking in the bushes outside. Americans suspected that the hordes of Irish flocking to the police force and enlisting in the army were sleeper agents for a Romish invasion, which would engulf America on orders from the Pope. They even suspected that the Catholic hierarchy built their churches in the Gothic style, not for aesthetic reasons, but from a practical imperative. These formidable edifices could easily be converted into armed fortresses once the Pope gave the order for conquest. The expected invasion never came. The Civil War momentarily halted immigration, and despite their leading role in the New York City draft riots, the Irish generally served well in the Army of the North, muting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Once immigration picked up again in the 1880s, Catholics from many other countries and immigrants professing other faiths made America's religious mosaic more complex, but by now America's Catholic bishops-most of them Irish-Americans-had adopted an assimilationist ethic and firmly resisted efforts to establish foreign-language parishes. They presided over the development of a national church that absorbed subsequent waves of Catholic newcomers. Today, as Michael Novak has observed, American Catholicism is more Protestant than its European counterparts. American Catholics do not share the anti-clericalism of their Italian or Spanish co-religionists. They express great respect for the Pope, but also claim individual freedom of conscience, and are at odds with Church teaching on contraception and divorce, if not abortion. In short, Catholicism has been naturalized.

This process of religious naturalization continues among today's immigrants, but along different paths. One path can be seen in the increasing appeal of Protestantism among immigrants from Latin America. Numbering more than 37 million-14 million foreign-born-Latinos recently displaced Blacks as the nation's largest minority. While around 70 percent are Roman Catholic, a growing minority has been drawn to charismatic and evangelical Protestantism, helping to fuel the current proliferation of independent churches in the United States.

Another path is manifest in the Asian immigrant turn to Christianity on coming to this country. For example, less than 25 percent of South Korea's population is Christian. Yet more than 70 percent of the 1.5 million Korean-Americans in the United States embrace Christianity, most having converted to mainstream Protestant faiths after arrival. One hallmark of this change is the many Korean-language signs one sees in front of churches that also house American congregations-but these seem in danger of disappearing as younger Koreans, "the 1.5 generation" and American-born, turn increasingly to English language services. The rate of conversion is also striking among the largest Asian immigrant group, America's 2.5 million Chinese. With no significant Christian tradition in their homeland, more than one-third of Chinese immigrants converted to Christianity after moving to the United States.

A third path of religious naturalization lies in the newcomers' imbuing the American Church with traditional values, as many Latinos, Filipinos and Vietnamese are doing for Catholicism. Typically, the immigrants are more observant of the Church's conservative teachings on marriage, contraception and abortion than are native-born "Cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose which doctrine to follow. Their arrival has counterbalanced liberalizing tendencies, for example, quieting the call for women in the priesthood, bolstering enrollments in parochial schools and increasing vocations. This is a kind of "reverse missionizing," with the formerly converted now preaching to their proselytizers.

None of these trends sparks controversy among native-born Americans. The old fear of religious threat is largely gone, with one exception-the growing presence of Islam in America. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States vary widely, from a high of 6 to 7 million cited by the Mosque Study Project 2000 to the significantly smaller 2 to 3 million estimate of the American Jewish Committee in research it commissioned in 2001. Six million Muslims would place Islam even with Judaism as America's second largest religion after the various forms of Christianity. Even the low-end figure of 2 million would indicate a doubling of the Muslim population since 1990.

Most Americans equate Islam with Arab culture, but Arabs are a minority of Muslims worldwide, and in this country, most Arabs are Christian. Only 25 percent of American Muslims are Arab; 33 percent are South Asian; 30 percent are African American. Muslims in America are remarkably diverse, reflecting greater national, linguistic and doctrinal differences than the larger Muslim populations of France or Germany, for example. Moreover, like American Jews, Muslims in the United States are overwhelmingly secular, with the majority rarely attending mosque. Radical fundamentalist sects appeal to few among them.

The position of Muslims in America today is not unlike that of Irish Catholics 150 years ago. Whereas the Irish were feared as agents of an external power attempting to influence domestic affairs, Muslims are seen as representing Middle Eastern interests inimical to freedom and democracy. How Islam takes shape in the United States depends greatly on how America conducts the War on Terrorism. Political Scientist Peter Skerry suggests that U.S. government security efforts aimed indiscriminately at Muslims risk turning a disparate congeries of people into a disaffected, aggrieved minority. This would be tragic, particularly given the great potential of Islam in America to advocate among other Muslims for liberal democracy and against the corrosive forces of fundamentalism.

An alternative scenario would have Christianity and Judaism finding common ground with Islam. After all, Christians and Jews, so virulently opposed through much of their mutual history, have achieved a unique rapprochement in modern America. Members of both faiths now acknowledge a "Judeo-Christian ethic," a neologism that stresses common roots and shared traditions. Since September 11, 2001, ecumenical efforts have been particularly evident, as during the past holiday season, when Eid-al-Fitr, Hanukkah and Christmas occurred within weeks of each other. Interfaith communities throughout the country seized the opportunity to celebrate together the three faiths that trace their roots to Abraham. If this atmosphere of toleration can persist, Islam in America, like the Catholic Church before it, will forge its own course, resisting impositions from abroad, while serving as a countervailing force against extremism.

Critics of post-1965 immigration policy believe that by accepting so many newcomers from non-Western countries, America will become Balkanized. Today's immigrants, they say, are simply too different, and unlike their European predecessors, not likely to assimilate. That many Ellis Island descendants are no longer conscious of their ethnicity is illustrated in the wry anecdote about the sociologist who was charged with surveying a cluster of white ethnic urban neighborhoods, having to map the identities of each. Walking down a new block, he passed a boy bouncing a ball against a stoop and asked him, "What kind of people live in this neighborhood, Polish, Irish, Italian?" The boy responded, "Italian," and then, as if his word alone would not suffice, he turned to a woman leaning out a nearby window, and called, "We're all Italian here, ain't we Mrs. O'Brien?" Mrs. O'Brien nodded and replied evenly, "Yea, Tony, we're all Italian here." Today, many young Americans would see no irony in Mrs. O'Brien's response. The term "European American" slides easily off the tongue and carries social weight. People of European ancestry regularly go to school and work together, marry each other, worship together, belong to the same clubs-without giving much thought to their ethnic background. And yet, during the Ellis Island era, there were few European Americans. The newcomers were Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek and other nationalities.

In fact, these "nationalities" were often poorly developed and American made. Just as some immigrants were "rebaptized" at Ellis Island, given names by immigration officers who either misunderstood the native pronunciations or sought to Anglicize foreign-sounding names, immigrants from varied ethnic and regional backgrounds were also lumped together under broad national identities that meant little to them. As sociologist Alejandro Portes has said, "Nationalities were created in America for peasant newcomers whose original identities and loyalties did not go much beyond their local villages."

According to Portes, Italians represented the "archetypal example" of this process. The largest of the Ellis Island immigrant groups, Italians came mostly from the Mezzogiorno, the southern half of the peninsula and Sicily. At Ellis Island, the peasant boy from Sicily may have been told that he was "Italian," but his sense of belonging did not extend beyond family and village. His identity could be captured in the term campanalismo, from the Italian campanile ("bell tower"), a fellow feeling extending only to those within earshot of the tolling of the village church bell. From Ellis Island, he would have settled in a neighborhood with others from his village or region, perhaps one that Americans would call "Little Italy." This community would likely have been a microcosmic reflection of the old country, divided into regional enclaves.

But life in America was fluid. As memories of his home village receded against day-to-day experience with Italians from other regions, newcomers from other countries and perhaps even old stock Americans, his social frame of reference grew. He recognized affinities with Italians from Catania, Bologna, Abruzzi, and Napoli. Once divided from them by dialect, he now felt united with them by language. This was particularly true during World War I or during the Depression, when enlistment in the Army or service in the Civilian Conservation Corps brought him into close contact with a motley assortment of Americans. The differences he had once felt towards the Italians now paled by comparison to the strangeness of these others. In this way, immigrants were drawn together as they never were in the old country. It was a process repeated over and over again. Sometimes it was language that united, as did German or Italian. Sometimes it was religion, as did Lutheranism for Dane, Swede and Norwegian. Almost always unity was achieved against the backdrop of established Americans failing to recognize differences among the newcomers and treating them with blanket disdain.

In Letters from an American Farmer, the 1782 paean to America, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur found a "strange mix of blood" unknown in Europe. "I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations." Yet, such intermarriage was not so common for the immigrants of the Ellis Island era, or for their children. Perhaps the most telling indicator of assimilation, intermarriage implies social intimacy that goes beyond the couple involved, encompassing family and friends from their two groups. The social distance that the Ellis Island immigrant groups maintained from others was due in part to the times. This was an era of extreme nativism in America. In 1924, the year Congress enacted severe immigration restrictions, the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its influence and the country was in an isolationist mood. The trajectory of intermarriage suggested a century before by De Crevecoeur went unrealized as America's new nationalities closed ranks against outside discrimination.

"Mixed marriages" would only become common-indeed, the norm-in the third and fourth generations. The trend began after World War II, almost as if the wartime platoon buddies-Murphy, Roselli, Pappas and Goldberg-had agreed to introduce each other to their sisters after the war. Among whites born after 1950, only one-fifth of spouses would come from the same ethnic ancestry. Examining data from several censuses, sociologist Richard Alba found that less than a third of whites born in 1920 or earlier had ethnically mixed ancestry. The figure climbed to 60 percent for those born after 1960 and to two-thirds born during the 1970s. One result of this mixing is that the number of people who claimed German, Irish, English or most other European ancestries on the 2000 census declined sharply. All told, 39 million fewer Americans claimed European ancestries than in 1990. For example, 43 million Americans claimed German descent on Census 2000, 15 million fewer than the previous decade.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the latest immigration is that the new immigrants are intermarrying at a faster rate than their Ellis Island predecessors. Asians and Hispanics, who make up around 85 percent of newcomers today, are more likely to intermarry than European or African Americans. Gregory Rodriguez sums up the trend in a recent Atlantic Monthly article:

Nationally, whereas only 8 percent of foreign-born Latinos marry non-Latinos, 32 percent of second-generation and 57 percent of third-generation Latinos marry outside their ethnic group. Similarly, whereas only 13 percent of foreign-born Asians marry non-Asians, 34 percent of second-generation and 54 percent of third-generation Asian Americans do.
Rodriguez attributes this readiness to mix to deep cultural factors, particularly a less rigid view of race among contemporary newcomers exemplified by the Latin American notion of mestizaje, racial and cultural synthesis. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the number of Americans of mixed racial ancestry will quadruple to 81 million in 2050 (out of a total projected population of 387 million). Needless to say, the social meaning of the categories by which we now divide ourselves-White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American-will have become hopelessly antiquated. By then, too, the achievements of contemporary immigrants will no longer be hidden, and today's newcomers will be allowed to stand alongside their Ellis Island kin in the broadly expanded pantheon of ancestral gods.

[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

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.