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April 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


The topic of immigration is fertile ground in this country to a variety of popularly held myths.  We extoll with misty eyes our Statue of Liberty, lifting her lighted torch above the oft-quoted words of poet Emma Lazarus:  “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Nowhere does Liberty’s pedestal mention our other set of oft-quoted words used to greet immigrants:  greenhorn, wetback, mick, wop, dago, kike, polack, bohunk, chink, spook, nip, dink, paki, spik, gook . . .

The Green Lady in the Harbor is herself fraught with irony.  She was never meant to welcome anyone, and arrived at a time when backlash against immigrants was picking up steam.  Dedicated on October 26, 1886, she was a gift from France meant to symbolize a path of enlightenment for the countries of Europe still battling tyranny and oppression at home.  Instead, she became an invitation to come on over and seek a new life free of ethnic and religious persecution here.  Millions kept her inspiring torch in sight as they made their way to Ellis Island and met up with the first of many dichotomies woven into the American welcome mat:  Rich people passed right through customs; everyone else was subjected to lengthy, frightening, and often humiliating intake procedures.

Sometimes, we take pride in the notion of America as a melting pot, a salad bowl, a mosaic of cultures.  We enjoy pizza, goulash, mangers, salsa, gyros, pad thai, and sushi.  We tout the varied influences on our fashion, décor, art, theater, music, and dance.

Other times, we take offense.  The events of September 11, 2001, cast new suspicions on all Muslims within our borders, whatever their national origin and including those born in the United States.   Hard economic times have brought a hailstorm of protest against illegal immigrants from Central andSouth America who allegedly steal jobs belonging to our own citizens. 

We’re also known to reminisce fondly about a time when immigrants were hard-working patriots who quickly learned English, assimilated, and contributed to the common good.  We rankle at the current crop who insist on maintaining their own hyphenated national identities, languages, and mysterious ways.  Immigrants, it’s claimed, have turned our schools into Towers of Babel.  As more public signage and legal forms appear in Spanish as well as English, a clamor grows in favor of one official language.

Recent sentiments, yes.  But hardly new ones.  As with so much in our national drama, the cast of characters changes over the years, but the plot remains remarkably consistent.  The “outs” struggle long and hard to become the “ins,” then turn around and defend themselves against perceived threats by the next batch of “outs.”  Most current attitudes mimic discrimination against earlier immigrants. Whether they were Jewish or Catholic, African, Irish, East European, Southern European, or in some other way non-white, non-Protestant, non-educated, non-skilled, and/or non-wealthy, there was always somebody waiting on these shores to pronounce them unwelcome.

Much of this attitude is based on a skewed portrait of our national heritage in which Americans saw themselves as descendents of a special branch of the Caucasian race that arrived in the early and mid-1600s:  liberty-loving, white, mostly English, Anglo-Saxons. Only the “English race,” supposedly, had retained the Teutonic legacy, described 700 years earlier by the historian Tacitus, of “local self government combined with central representation.”

Though not overtly racist, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson acknowledged the leading role Anglo-Saxons played in the new nation’s development. Indeed, in the very act of revolution, the colonists were reinforcing their links with their assumed ancestors by separating from a mother country that violated their liberties. By the mid-19th century, American historians Herbert Baxter Adams, Stanley Burgess, and a bit later John Fiske, taught as gospel that American democracy traced back to the superior qualities of its Anglo-Saxon founders.

This myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority was used to justify the suffering or deaths of Mexicans, Indians, and blacks, and to force new immigrants to conform to the prevailing economic, political, and social system as established by their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Appreciation of other manly, blue eyed Aryans followed: Teutons from the German states, and Norsemen from Scandinavia.

The national myth of an American democracy solely begotten by an Anglo-Saxon race, as exemplified by the Puritans, excluded the displaced tribes already here and ignored the contributions of other immigrants who also arrived in the 17th and early 18th centuries – Scots Irish, Irish, French, Dutch, Swiss, and Spanish fleeing economic destitution or religious persecution or hoping to establish commercial ventures.  Ditto the back-breaking yet essential work of thousands of indentured servants condemned to endless debt and poverty and Africans brought here against their will.  Of these non-Aryan masses, none other than Ben Franklin worried in 1753 that “. . . they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, we will not . . . be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” 

The myth of “true” Americans as white, Protestant, land-owning, educated, and English-speaking persisted – and, in some circles, continues to persist.  In its spirit, the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795 made it increasingly difficult for the non-white and non-wealthy to achieve citizenship. 

In the early 1800s, when the Irish came to work on the Erie and other canal-building projects, they were not greeted with enthusiasm, in spite of the need for their labor.  An 1854 article in the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party newspaper remarked, “. . . rum shops sprung up at every corner of the street, drunkards staggered in every alley, while prostitution reared its brothels at every thoroughfare leading to us, and held carnival in the very heart of the city itself.” 

Anti-Irish sentiments continued into the early decades of the 20th century.  By way of contrast, in the 1870s and the 1880s, thousands of promotional leaflets went out to Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians to populate areas where railroad companies offered to sell them land they had received for a song from the U.S. government as compensation for building railroads in the West.

The influx of some 20 million southern and eastern Europeans beginning in the 1870s revived fervid anti-immigration sentiments. These southern Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews, driven off the land by pogroms and other hostilities, were deemed incapable of assimilation, being by nature stupid, clannish, and dangerous. They practiced the wrong religions – Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Judaism.  They dressed funny, sported whiskers, and looked filthy. Some had a past as trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists – potential troublemakers all.

Late 19th century groups like the American Protective Association and Immigration Restriction League demanded protection for American workers against the onslaught of immigrants and protested against the practice of naturalizing aliens.  The Exclusion Act of 1882 banned further immigration of the very same Chinese who had been instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad.  In Rock Spring, Wyoming, in the summer of 1885, whites attacked five hundred Chinese miners, massacring twenty eight of them in cold blood.

Concern with white non-Nordic groups continued as well.  The reports coming out of the Dillingham Commission (1907-1911) reaffirmed that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were racially inferior and posed a serious threat to American society.  The Commission, composed of House and Senate members, urged restrictions on non-Nordic immigration.

These attitudes received affirmation from the so-called “scientific” racism of the period that postulated an inherent racial hierarchy in which these groups occupied a bottom ranking.  Madison Grant, in his 1916 best seller The Passing of the Great Race, claimed that undesirable physical and intellectual qualities of non-Nordic immigrants could be grafted onto the American Stock:  “If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without controls . . . the type of native American of Colonial descent will become extinct.”

Physical aggression against Asians subsided by the outbreak of WWI to be replaced by vicious sentiments directed against Americans of German descent. Under the direction of George Creel, the Committee on Public Information mobilized public support for the war in part by showing the dangers Germans, including their American-born kin, posed to the American way of life. Articles reported that German spies were everywhere.  Posters portrayed Germans as Huns, mad beasts carrying off innocent American women to ravish. The teaching of the German language in schools was prohibited; sauerkraut and German measles were renamed “liberty cabbage” and “liberty measles.”

Soon after World War I ended, America found itself caught up in a Red Scare. The new enemy was communists abroad and at home. American immigrants who came from Russia, or were suspected of having past ties to communism or socialism, were deemed suspicious and subject to severe scrutiny.  Foreign born laborers were disproportionately blamed for the wave of strikes besetting the nation in response to wage cuts and layoffs. In November, 1919, the government deported around 250 radical aliens, including the notorious anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman.

 The Ku Klux Klan, whose size and political influence reached its zenith in the early 1920s, not only lashed out against blacks, but also Jewish, Catholic, and east European immigrants. The growing antipathy to the post 1870 wave of “the wrong stuff” encouraged the National Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924, severely limiting annual European immigration.  The 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act imposed further restrictions.

World War II saw less anti-German sentiment because they had dispersed, no longer living in “little Germanies.”  The main villains became 110,000 first and second generation Japanese, who were herded into camps in remo te areas of California, Wyoming, and Arizona and whose property was confiscated and sold off to white Americans.  One of the few ways to avoid internment was to serve in the U.S.military; the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese-Americans, was the most decorated American unit in the European war theater. 

A game changer came with the 1965 Immigration Act that allowed more immigrants from the Third World.  In part, the shift was meant to address charges by Cold War rivals that despite paying lip service to equality among all peoples, American immigration policies discriminated against those with yellow, brown, or black skin.  Emphasis shifted to recruitment based on skill level, not country of origin. In the 1980s and 1990s, numbers were raised to accommodate family-based immigration.

Contrary to popular belief about the rapid and eager assimilation of early immigrants, most new arrivals dispersed to big cities where they gravitated to neighborhoods already settled by kinsmen who had maintained aspects of the old culture, from language to cuisine to houses of worship, restaurants and taverns. While ethnic quarters like a Germantown or Little Italy formed recognizable but not exclusionary areas, Chinese and black sections were less integrated because of formal and informal segregation.  Lowly though the poor white immigrant might be, he was still white.

The new denizens toiled in specific industries depending on opportunity, availability, skill level, and influence. The Irish hung steel from the sky, and together with the Chinese built the railroads. The Chinese also opened laundries, not from a love of detergent but because it was one of the few other areas permitted for them to work. Slavs went to the coal fields of Pennsylvania and the stockyards of Chicago. Jews worked as peddlers and merchants and in garment sweat shops, along with Italians.  The same willingness to do whatever’s available remains evident in the current influx of migrant workers, legal and illegal, from Mexico, Central, and South America.

The 1960s witnessed a surge in “hyphenated Americans”:  African-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Japanese-Americans, to name a few. The process was part of a broader movement by people long ignored by historians who told the American story through the eyes of Great White American Males. That group’s reputation sank when it was blamed for getting the country into the Vietnam conflict, and ignoring injustices and lack of equal opportunity for those at the bottom of society. A revolt triggered by young people challenged the cultural and political hegemony of the establishment. Immigrants joined African-Americans and women in the broader demand for affirmation and recognition of their participation in American history.

While laudable in many ways, and far closer to the truth about our country than the long-cherished myth of the One True American, the shift to multiculturalism carries with it the danger of distorting how immigrants actually fit into the development of the United States; that is, first and foremost by becoming American citizens, and secondarily as carriers of ethnic identities.  It should be noted that the word “American” receives the stress in these hyphenated identities.

Since the founding of the Republic, more than 150 different ethnic groups have come to these shores.  Today about one in every ten American residents is an immigrant, a high figure but below the 15% in 1890.   And still they come.  Why?  And how have they managed to survive – even prosper– considering our history of bad behavior?

For all its shortcomings,America has always been more welcoming than most countries, and the potential for a good life is still better here.  Immigrants continually remind us of that.  We see it in the joy and gratitude expressed at naturalization ceremonies, and we see it in their outstanding contributions.  To name only a very few of many major contributors:  Alexander Graham Bell (Scotland), Jonas Salk (Poland), Albert Baez (Mexico), Nicholas Tesla (Croatia), Subranh Manyan (India),  Bjarne Stroustrup (Denmark), Joseph Pulitzer (Hungary), I.M. Pei (China), Irving Berlin (Russia), Ang Lee (Taiwan), Mariah Cary (Venezuela) . . . .

According to a recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy, two in five Fortune 500 companies “had at least one founder who was an immigrant, or was raised by someone who immigrated to theUnited States.”

 There are no comparable lists of massive and lasting damages inflicted by infamous immigrants.  And still some cling to the myth of the One True American, and others struggle to define who we really are.  Mid-18th century essayist Jean Saint de Crevecour wrote, “What, then, is this new man, the American?  They are a mixture of English, Scottish, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes.  From this promiscuous breed, that race, now called Americans, have arisen.” 

Being a man of his time, he left out a lot of us, but he called it right:  We were then, as we are now, unlike any other nation of people on earth.  We continue to be a work in progress, and in the words of the late comedian Jack Paar, “Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”




Charles Hirschman, “The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future,” .

Immigration Impact, .







Leave a Comment
  1. Meryl Baer / Apr 1 2012 9:12 pm

    It is always interesting that the newest immigrants want and demand acceptance, yet are also in the forefront of closing the gates on others clamoring behind them…As for the list of immigrant contributors to American society, I have to unfortunately admit I am no familiar with all of them.

    • Harvey Asher / Apr 4 2012 2:09 pm

      Hello, Meryl —

      Good to hear from you. I purposely chose some unfamiliar names in hopes folks would be inspired to search beyond the usual cast of characters.

  2. Herman Johansen / Apr 4 2012 4:52 am

    this is a really good installment Harvey! Thank you!
    Herman Johansen

    • Harvey Asher / Apr 4 2012 2:10 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Herman. Denmark’s loss is our gain!

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