Back in 2000, The Economist, ran an article ("Who gains?") on the pros and cons of a liberal immigration policy. Not surprisingly, the arguments then were not unlike those we hear today. Toward the end of the article I came across a phrase that has stuck with me: "a self-selected elite." That is how a representative of the Cato institute characterized the immigrant - going on to add, "in a world where nine out of ten people live within 100 miles of their place of birth, they have already taken a big, bold step simply by coming to America."
I have often wondered at just how accurate a characterization this was and is. From tales passed down through our family and others, there WAS little doubt that those who dared, arrived with great hopes but no promises. There were no welfare offices, job placement facilities, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, relief programs or any of the other amenities that exist today. As Rose Lane Wilder put it in one of her essays, the standard admonition to pigs, freemen, the indentured, and the immigrant was "Root, hog, or die."
For today's immigrant, there IS a variety of organizations, both public and private, which do much to alleviate some of the difficulties initially encountered. Many, in fact, have grown substantially and, it is argued (with some merit), for reasons that go far beyond genuine compassion - the politics of the voting booth have played a central role. Immigrants under the impression that they are valued for their unique folkways, cultural vibrancy, and intellectual contributions, are sadly mistaken.
Observers will testify that while one side cynically welcomesimmigrants as a source of votes, the other side insidiously welcomes them as a source of cheap labor. True enough…for certain groups. But it must be noted that all immigrants (legal or illegal) are not equally solicited. An undocumented, unskilled continental European, for example, would find few organizations specifically designed to help him gain permanent admittance. Those from eastern Europe, Russia, and the Indian subcontinent would encounter similar indifference.
If this were not true, movies would be sub-titled in Russian, Norwegian, Farsi, and Hebrew. Automated phone answering machines would ask non-English speakers to push different numbers for those wishing prompts in Polish, Lithuanian, German, or Italian. And our public schools would offer special classes for students of those nationalities. Why are these "conveniences" not available? Quite simply because we "expect" speakers of those languages to be capable of communicating in English also.
It behooved early immigrants to this country to learn the language; especially as the nation industrialized and the machinery increased in complexity and the necessity of understanding instruction became essential to life and limb. Going a step further, immigrants were expected to accept the laws of the land (which were far fewer then than now). Some native folkways and traditions continued to be practiced in the ethnic enclaves which developed and, in many cities, still exist.
However, newcomers were strongly advised to adhere to our governmental and legal systems. At the time, America's political structure remained a severely tested, never-before experienced structure. New challenges in the form of new and imported social and/or economic doctrines, were unwelcome. The degree to which Americans trusted either of the two major political parties can be seen in how frequently the party leadership of both houses changed regularly. The rise and fall of various "splinter" factions was not an unusual and destabilizing occurrence - what endured was an often uncomfortable compromise between democracy and republicanism.
With the abolition of slavery and as immigration accelerated so too did the constituencies most likely to push for democratic changes. So various poll taxes, land ownership requirements, gender qualifications, and citizenship tests were put in place to limit access to the polling booth. In the late 1800s the Populists attempted to harness these groups into an effective bloc, but failed.
However, the Panic of 1893 was to become a watershed event leading to dramatic and lasting changes in the American electoral process.* At the time, it was the worst depression the county had experienced and was brought about by over-lending, over-expansion, and over-speculation (sound familiar?). While no segment of society was unaffected, the poor, the black, and the recent immigrant were impacted most. On the eve of the panic the Democrats controlled the White House and the Populists still had measurable influence. As a result, both parties were trounced in '94 elections and the Republicans swept both houses. By '96 things were still dismal and the Republicans (in McKinley) gained the White House also.
By 1897, the economy was recovering and the Populists had been replaced by the Progressives, an amalgam of educators, scientist, lawyers, physicians, and clergymen. Notably, these had all been very influential groups prior to the introduction of technology, big cities, and big business. They were to achieve influence once again, first at the local level, and then nationally, through an ideology that most problems, if submitted to scientific scrutiny, could be adequately diagnosed and cured.**
The passing of the Depression may have had some positive effects on business, but "Big Business" was held in contempt. Nor was the situation alleviated by the influx of 8.8 million immigrants between 1900 and 1910. Their addition to the labor pool fueled a push toward even lower wages and increased big city poverty. While many big city "machines" worked to ease this burden among favored ethnic groups through nepotism, patronage, and aid (in return for votes), the federal government had neither the funds nor inclination to step in.
However, the Progressives, aided in no small part by the burgeoning popularity of the "muckrakers", pushed for a stronger national role in the economy, the regulation of business, and immigration. Government action, though, came about less through a sense of equity or largesse, and more through an appreciation of the dangerous economic and social implications should it go unaddressed.
Many of the dynamics that drove the next developments exist today. In the next installment I'll examine what followed and see if we can get an idea of what to expect in the near future.
*Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.
**Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.