A Nation of Immigrants?

What is the Immigrant Narrative?

The U.S. is a Melting Pot (Salad Bowl) in which immigrants become acculturated to American Values and Achieve Success Through Individual Initiative and Hard Work. The Horatio Alger Model.


Ronald Reagan: "Only in the United States is there a rich mixture of races, creeds, and nationalities–only in our melting pot… every promise, every opportunity is still golden in this land." Thus, government support for poor immigrants and other people is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive.

An Academic Variant of the Immigrant Narrative is the View Immigrant Acculturation as a Generational Process. This Model of Immigration and Acculturation was developed in the 1920's by Robert Park and the Chicago School

For Park, Urban Neighborhoods, not mythical figures like Alger, provided the best metaphor for understanding the process of immigrant assimilation. Park saw cities as concentric circles of acculturation. At the core were ghettoes in which new immigrants recreated the cultural milieau of their homelands. But as immigrant families became acculturated to American ways and began to achieve economic success, they moved out through a series of increasingly acculturated neighborhoods until they were unrecognizable from other Americans. Thus, since immigrant acculturation is a natural process, it dos not require government action in order to make it happen.


Constructing the immigrant narrative-- a political intervention against "nativist" attacks that sought to close the nation's borders to immigrants.


Thus the political purpose behind the Chicago School model was to demonstrate that immigrant acculturation was a natural and inevitable process that the government should stay out of. Park and his colleagues were thus reponding because he opposes government restrictions on immigration, not government aid.

The story of the Statue of Liberty provides an even earlierexample of how the immigration narrative emerged out of political efforts to defend immigration and immigrants from the attacks of nativists.



Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


With this poem at its base, the statue has become the most recognizable symbol of the U.S. commitment to immigration and to the granting of democratic rights to the oppressed of the world. However, the symbolic association of the statue with immigration was the intention not of those who originally proposed the statue but of immigrant advocates who successfully commandered the statue for their political agenda in the years after it was first proposed.


The French government commissioned the Statue as a gift to the people of the United States for the centennial celebration of the American Revolution in 1876. The purpose of the statue was to remember French support of the revolution and to honor the two countries shared commitment to liberty and democracy.

While the French government committed to finance the statue, it was left to the American people to raise the necessary funds for the statue’s base in New York harbor. When fundraising floundered in the U.S., Joseph Pulitizer, publisher of "The World", a New York newspaper, began an editorial campaign denouncing the city’s wealthy and middle classes for failing to support the project. Fundraising for the pedestal was not completed until the summer of 1885. The Statue was finally erected in July 1886, ten years after the centennial celebration.

FONT SIZE=4It was the delay in the fundraising campaign that gave advocates of European immigration the opportunity first to reconfigure the statue’s meaning. At an 1883 Art auction for the statue, Emma Lazarus, a published poet and one of the founders of the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, read her poem imagining the statue as a beacon drawing the oppressed of the world to the land of Freedom. Born into a very wealthy fourth-generation New York Jewish family, Lazarus was an outspoken advocate of Jewish and Immigrant concerns, while the Society that she had helped to found was a Zionist organization committed both to aiding Immigrant Jews and to raising international concern about anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe.

Lazarus died just a year after her first public reading of "the New Colussus." By 1901, however, advocates of Eastern European immigration had succeeded in having her poem inscribed on the statue’s base and over the generations since the Statue of Liberty has become a symbol not only of the role of Immigrant families and their descendants in nation's history but of the Immigrant Narrative itself.


Takaki's Retelling of the Immigrant Narrative

  1. A Story of Collective Action by Immigrant Communities-- Often the Face of Devastating Discrimination and Other Obstacles-- Not Simply of Immigrant Initiative and Success.
  2. A Story with Important Parallels and Commonalities Across Immigrant Groups, from Irish and Jewish to Chinese and Japanese in Takaki's narrative and, by implication, across all racial and ethnic lines.
  3. Immigration experience structured by American Laws that from the beginning differentiated between immigrants according to their race.
  4. The 1790 Naturalization Act: The 1790 Naturalization Act explicitly excluded non-white immigrants from the possibility of citizenship. Over the next century and a half, Immigrants from Asia would turn to the courts in effort to either challenge the 1790 Act's exclusions by race or claim that they were deserving of the white status delineated in the Act.


    In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act banning all future immigration from China. In 1905 the federal government reached a Compact (Agreement) with the Government of Japan greatly limiting further Japanese immigration to the United States. And in 1924, Congress passed an Immigration Act that established immigration quotas by country that significantly limited continued European immigration and virtually banned immigration from anywhere else in the world. In each case, these changes in immigration policy were justified by the goal of insuring the country would remain one for white men and their families.

    As Takaki shows in his discussion of Irish immigration, the claiming of white status was central to Irish claims not only to American citizenship but to an American Identity (i.e. not only the right to vote, but to be treated as equals in the political and economic arenas, and to exclude others from those arenas.) Meanwhile, the concepts race enables employers, white workers (immigrant or not) and government officials to see non-white workers (blacks, Asians, Mexicans) as part of a permanent lower labor caste and to erect legal and customary barriers to their advancement.


  5. Immigration resulted, and continues to result, from both push and pull factors



    The Enclosure: English Protestant Landlords force subsistence tenant farmers off of estates so that they could raise cattle for the English market.

    The Potato Famine: Between 1845 and 1855 more than a million Irish peasants die from malnutrition after potato blight wipes out 10 years of potato crops, the staple of the Irish diet. As a result of British colonial policy in Ireland, 5 million Irish immigrated to the U.S. between 1815-1920.


    Growing British Imperial influence leads to increased taxes, social disruption that impoverish the poor, restrict economic opportunity for large portions of the population.

    Imperialism and the Market Revolution:

    Ireland, Eastern Europe, China & Japan were all located on the Periphery of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lacking capital/financial systems necessary to compete with British and American economies, these countries, along with the rest of the non-Euro-American world, became sources of natural resources and low-wage labor for those economies.


    "Pull" Factors

    --Industrial development means jobs at wages significantly higher wages than those available in the immigrants' homelands.

    --Employers seeking cheap labor arrange affordable passage. For example, English workers offered Indentured Servitude in the 17th century and the credit-ticket system in the 18th century; following the Civil War, southern planters recruit Chinese labor to compete with freedpeople in an effort to keep down the cost of agricultural labor.

    --Immigrants and Labor Recruiters Tell Stories of the Instant Riches Available in the U.S.

  7. Immigrant Responses ranged from resistance to acculturation.

    Acculturation: We are familiar with individual acculturation strategies: particularly education and economic entrepreneurship. As Takaki tells us, 73% of the students at the City College of New York were Jewish in 1916, while the Nisei, the first generation of Japanese-Americans born in the U.S., averaged two years of higher ed. Common not only to the Jews and the Japanese but just about every immigrant groups was the belief that economic success was the key to becoming American. This idea we might call Earned Citizenship-- the belief that hard work and loyalty to one's new country will convince native-born (white) Americans to treat immigrants and their communities as full members of the nation.


    Resistance: It’s important to remember that acculturation was not the goal of every immigrant. Many were what Takaki calls Sojourners, who came to the U.S. to make their fortune and then to return home. More than half of Chinese immigrants to California and Japanese immigrants to Hawaii before 1930 returned to their homeland. The return rate for Italian migrants was 60%.

  9. Institution-building: In many ways, though, the immigrant experience was more collective than individual. For most immigrants, their ability to survive and prosper in the U.S. was based on their ability to build collective organizations and strong communities: families, churches, fraternal organizations, unions, businesses, and ethnic enclaves. Within each of these institutions, we can find elements of resistance and acculturation. They were sites both for defending ethnic traditions and solidarities and for claiming Americaness, either by asserting their democratic rights or by demonstrating their fitness to be included in American society (earned citizenship).
  10. Irish involvement in institutions like the trade union, the church, the fraternal society, and the urban political machine demonstrates how immigrants utilized both resistance and acculturation strategies to defend their communities and to create opportunities for their families.

    Urban Political Machines: The intersection of ethnic solidarities and American aspirations was evident in the urban political machines that emerged in this period. Ethnic (largely but not exclusively Irish) political leaders used a combination of ethnic solidarities and desire to participate in the American political process in order to dominate local politics in many Eastern and Midwestern cities. Initially, these ethnic-based political organizations emerged as a strategy simply to protect immigrant communities from native-born political majorities and their support for public policies that disadvantaged ethnic neighborhoods and workers, but eventually they developed into a mechanism for commandeering public resources (i.e. municipal jobs, government contracts, etc.) and delivering them to the ethnic entrepreneurs and workers who formed the base of the ethnic political machine,

    The key to the success of ethnic political strategies was the concentration of European immigrants within ethnic ghettoes, in northern and midwestern cities (Boston, NY, Chicago, etc.) and the fact that European immigrants, unlike Asian immigrants, were eligible for naturalization. Irish political activists enjoyed a particular organizing advantage because their communities were English-speaking and the Irish largely saw themselves as permanent, rather than temporary, immigrants. Only 10% of Irish immigrants returned to their home country as opposed to between 40-60% of Italians immigrants.

  11. Ethnic Niche Strategies: Central to the range of immigrant strategies for life in the U.S. was the development of Ethnic Niches within the American Economy that served as the basis for either immigrants to save money for their eventual return home or as a springboard, usually for the next generation, for entering parts of American life and business that had previously been blocked to people of one's ethnicity and race.
  12. Why did specific immigrant groups tend to end up concentrated in specific industries and occupations? The reasons are myriad-- from the presence of specific skills and experiences brought from the old country and the success of individual entrepreneurs to anti-immigrant discrimination in other parts of the economy. What is important for our course is to pay attention to the ways that ethnic niche strategies combined old world traditions and ethnic solidarities with American aspirations and individualist ideals, particularly the belief that hard work would enable immigrants to earn the wealth and cultural attributes necessary to enter into mainstream American society.

    For example, it was the intersection of entrepreneurial initiative, Old World skills, and the growth of Irish-led political machines that enabled Irish immigrants to build an ethnic niche in the construction industry in the nation's cities. Irish political leaders were able to funnel government building and road construction contracts to Irish entrepreneurs who not only became successful construction and highway contractors but also employed Irish skilled construction workers who organized themselves into craft unions within the building trades industries. In return, Irish entrepree conditions for their members by limiting the size membership and convincing employers to hire members of their union within their given field. In this way, Unions became a mechanism for immigrant workers to resist exploitation and claim the privileges of American citizenship usually preserved for the white and native-born. Beginning in the late 19th century, many craft unions used ethnic and racial membership restrictions as one mechanism for limiting the size of their membership. It was not until the emergence of the Affirmative Action policies of the 1960's that the American Federation of Labor, which was made up primarily of craft unions, finally banned its member unions from maintaining racial bars to membership.

    As a result, employment in cities like Chicago, Boston, NYC and San Francisco, Irish immigrants and their children came to make up 30% of municipal employees, 20% of construction contractors, and a disproportionate percentage of the cities' skilled construction workers. As many as 78% of Irish blue-collar workers were skilled trades unions.

    Craft unions and Urban Political Machines were thus variants of the kinds of ethnic niche strategies pursued by immigrants. Other examples mentioned in Takaki were Chinese laundries, Japanese fruit and vegetable farms in pre-World War II California, and Jewish garment factories

    At the same time, the history of union organizing in the United States in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century is full of examples of immigrants building unions both along and across ethnic lines. Takaki discusses a number of examples of labor organizing across ethnic lines, particularly in California and Hawaii. In fact, the history of industrial unionism in the United States can be traced back to the Knights of Labor. Founded as a secret fraternal organization for working men in Philadelphia in the 1860’s, the Knights grew under the leadership of Terrence Powderly-- a second generation Irish coal miner-- into a national organization of producers (manual workers) with 750,000 members. Moreover, most of the Knights local units were mixed assemblies which accepted any and all workers, irrespective of skill-level, occupation, ethnicity, and in some cases even race. At its peak, the Knights had 60,000 black members. "In the field of labor and American citizenship," Powderly declared in 1886, "we recognize no line of race, creed, politics, or color." Under the leadership of unions like the Knights, between 100,000 and 500,000 workers went on strike every year between 1881 and 1896. The Knights, however, did not survive the century, collapsing after losing a series of spectacular strikes. The unions that survived and prospered into the 20th century were the craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, although the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILG), a largely Jewish union, was committed to building a union made up of all workers in a given industry, no matter their ethnicity or skill-level.

    In contrast, there are also examples in which the development of an ethnic niche reflected a desire to say removed from mainstream America. For example the Amish are the descendants of German religious immigrants who came to the U.S. to avoid religious persecution and to this day consciously organize their rural communities in order to avoid what they saw see as the excesses of modern "English" (to use their term) society.


  13. Ethnic identity in American society. While Immigrants to the U.S. bring with them a sense of ethnic identity and cultural values and traditions, it is within their American experience and their interactions with both native Americans and other members of other ethnic and racial groups that their sense of identity-- of what means to be Irish, Jewish, Japanese-- is remade. Moreover, what it means to be Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese in America is largely defined by distinguishing one group from another. Drawing contrasts with the other is crucial to the development of in-group understanding of what makes one's group different from others.


The clearest example of what I mean can be seen by looking at the process by which the Irish, Jews, Italian ethnic groups have become defined as white in our society. To our late 20th century minds, the equation of race to skin color seems common-sense. Bu in the 19th century, it seemed equally naturally to define the Celts or the Jews as a distinct race from Protestant northern Europeans. It was largely through a process of European ethnics claiming white status and distinguishing themselves from images of non-white groups that in the second-half of the 20th century it has become commonplace to see white or Caucasian as racial terms that embrace a pan-European identity.

As Takaki demonstrates, at first nearly every immigrant group goes through the experience of otherness, of being seen and treated as unwelcome and/or inferior outsiders to American society. Thus, initial generations of Irish immigrants were stereotyped in similar ways to blacks, as sexually unrestrained, as having low intelligence, as subservient, as innately (i.e. racially) different, as lazy & impulsive, as having a fondness for drink & gambling, as being half-barbarous.


It is at this point, however, that the immigrant experience has tended to diverge along racial and class lines. Some immigrant groups and their descendants have been able to find a place within the American majority–so long as they are endowed with one or more of the following characteristics:

      1. European heritage
      2. White skin
      3. A willingness to assimilate
      4. The good fortune and ability to take advantage of economic
      5. opportunities resulting from industrial growth and unionization, a decline in discrimination towards their race/ethnicity, educational opportunities, access to federal programs like the G.I. bill and subsidized home loans, and/or entrepreneurial initiative

      6. reductions in new immigration from one’s homeland

As in any process of boundary drawing between groups, much of this process of remaking group and individual identity from immigrant to assimilated American was, and is, a process of defining what one and one’s group is not. For example, in the years before the Civil War in the North, Irish immigrants and free blacks often competed for the same low-skill and low-wage jobs. In this competition, Irish workers and political leaders often asserted their whiteness, (i.e. their commonality with the white American majority), while blacks responded by asserting their native-born status against the claims of Irish-born workers. This competition led many Irish-American workers and organizations to opposed the abolition of slavery-- for fear of increased competition newly freed blacks from the South. In 1863, during the Civil War, Irish workers rioted in opposition to a military draft law that allowed the wealthy to pay $300 for a substitute to replace. also that jobs on the city’s docks be reserved just for whites, the rioters attacked blacks and black neighborhoods in New York for 4 days, killing 105. The rioting did not end until a U.S. Army regiment arrived from Gettysburg.

A Comparison of Irish and Chinese immigration. Beginning in roughly the same era as Irish immigration, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. had reached 63,000 by 1870. These immigrants represented 29% of the population in Idaho; 9% of Californians. By 1930, 300,000 immigrants had left China and of those half remained in the U.S., despite their continued exclusion from U.S. citizenship by the 1790 Naturalization Act. During the 1860’s, 67% of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. in 1860’s work in the California gold mines, while Chinese workers made up one-half of tobacco, shoe-making, woolens and sewing workers in San Francisco. In rural California, Chinese labor was the key to the development of the fruit and vegetable industry. Working at 1/3 the cost of white labor, Chinese workers also made up 90% of labor on the transcontinental Railroad.

The large presence of Chinese workers in the industrial labor force in California engendered high levels of resentment among white workers. By defining Americanesss as whiteness, white employers and employees remade Chinese labor into a permanently lower labor caste. In terms analogous to antiblack racism, the Chinese were defined as racially inferior; the men as sexual predators and the women as prostitutes. In an era of business crashes, strikes, and unemployment, racial exclusion was proposed as a way to protect whites against the loss of land and jobs. Thus, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed as a way to insure that Asians would not erase the achievements of a racially-homogenous society. By the end of the century, white-only trade unions and anti-Chinese organizations had driven Chinese workers out of the tobacco & textile industries in the state’s cities.

Facing high levels of racial discrimination, many Chinese immigrants turned toward self-employment and thus created an ethnic niche in the laundry industry. By 1890, Chinese immigrants made up 69% of laundry workers in CA. Starting up retail laundries in the era before the automatic washer required little capital.