The notion that immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries assimilated much more quickly than today is largely untrue. In fact, most Americans in the early part of the 20th century believed that the failure to assimilate by Lahren’s ancestors and millions of others like them was a matter for grave concern. These days, we read over and over again that the laws passed in the 1910’s and 1920’s restricting immigration were motivated primarily by racism. But that is a gross distortion. If you read political commentary at the time when those laws were debated, you will certainly find discussion of race (usually referring to what we would now call “nationality,” not to what we now call “race”), some of it quite offensive to modern sensibilities.
But the most important concern expressed by immigration restrictionists was that too many immigrants were failing to assimilate. Most immigrants were not becoming citizens. Consulting my grandfather’s trusty, albeit brittle and yellow, 1924 World Almanac, I see that in 1914, the last year before the first restrictive immigration act was enacted, the Census Bureau reported that there were 1.2 million immigrants to the United States but only 0.1 million naturalizations.
The vast majority of immigrants moved to a few large cities in the North. Census figures in 1910 revealed that in most major northern cities, Americans born of parents who had been born in America (as shorthand, in order to avoid wordy repetition, I’ll call them “American-Americans”) were outnumbered by immigrants and their children. In many cities, the number of immigrants was more than twice the number of American-Americans, and the number of immigrants and their children (about two-thirds of them born to two immigrant parents) was often three to four times the number of American-Americans.
Moreover, most immigrants clustered in insular ethnic neighborhoods where they continued to speak their native languages and follow their native customs, standing largely outside the broader American society. In the 1910 census, the population of the United States was 92 million, of which 33 million were immigrants and their American-born children. Of those 33 million, 23 million told the census that English was not their primary language, with 3 million admitting that they did not speak English at all (although the actual number was generally believed to be much larger). Those heart-warming Italian, Irish, Jewish and other ethnic neighborhoods that you see in countless movies and books? There was a widespread conviction that those neighborhoods were a serious social problem. They were viewed, not unfairly, as encouraging their inhabitants to maintain dual loyalties or primary loyalty to their native countries, perpetuating European ethnic hatreds that imported from their native countries, breeding ethnic criminal gangs (Irish, Italian, Jewish and others), fomenting anti-democratic political tendencies, and most of all, undermining America’s sense of itself as a people joined by common values and purposes. Most Americans believed that something should be done to induce people in those neighborhoods to assimilate into the mainstream of American society; and that this necessary assimilation would never happen if immigration were not curtailed.
In addition, it is not generally recognized that the restrictive immigration laws were accompanied what was called the “Americanization movement,” which was viewed as a vital part of the program to solve the problem of non-assimilation. This movement was a strenuous effort, sometimes well-organized and other times spontaneous, by the government, civic groups and private individuals (most notably the movie industry) to turn immigrants into assimilated American citizens. The most significant efforts were educational, carried out not only in the public schools but also through widely available adult education classes, teaching immigrants and their children about American history and civic institutions (all portrayed in a favorable light); staging large-scale patriotic events and public celebrations of traditional American holidays; disseminating movies and literature with patriotic themes; encouraging immigrants to become naturalized citizens; and above all by teaching immigrants English, requiring their children to speak English at school and establishing widespread, free or inexpensive adult education English classes, often sponsored by employers. (The slogan at the time was, “Many peoples, one language.”) It was a combination of immigration restrictions, the Americanization movement, compulsory ethnic mixing in the armed forces during World War II, and in the end the abandonment of ethnic urban neighborhoods for ethnically mixed suburbs, that drove assimilation.
I fear that the problem today is not that immigrants and their children are failing to assimilate – most of their kids learn passable English from TV and rap songs, don’t they? — but rather that they are assimilating to a sick culture of grievance, resentment and rejection of what were formerly considered core American values.
[For the record, the other two major concerns most frequently identified by immigration restrictionists were not race but:
1. The flood of immigrants was driving down wages for ordinary working Americans. The strongest supporters of immigration restrictions were the labor unions. The strongest opponents were the rich, who benefited from cheap servants for their homes and cheap workers for their factories. They cheerfully acknowledged that immigrants drove down wages, but they insisted that was a good thing in a free market. The most common epithet directed by immigration supporters against restrictionists in the early 1920’s was not “racist” but “Bolshevik.”
2. Immigrants brought disorder and crime. Some of this was attributed to the race (nationality) of the immigrants. But the reason given at least as often was that far too many immigrants were clustered in the demographic (young, single men, often unemployed) that was most prone to drunkenness, violence and crime.)]