The Relevance of 1890s Immigration to Today

In an interview last week, the reporter asked me if the events of the 1890s described in my novel, Guardians of the Gate, can in any way relate to current issues on immigration.  The simple answer was “yes,” and some of the details are the topic of this week’s blog.

Americans in the 1890s saw the tide of immigration change, for in that decade the numbers from southern, central, and eastern Europe easily surpassed the arrival of those from northern and western Europe.  Most Americans back then traced their roots to the latter, and they saw little in common with these other Europeans.  Furthermore, these “greenhorns,” as they were called, were highly visible in their sheer numbers (thousands arriving every day at Ellis Island), physical distinctiveness (darker complexions, head scarves on many of the women), and clustering in tenement neighborhoods where the “babble” of foreign languages was common.

Keenly aware of the presence of these culturally and somewhat physically distinct newcomers, many native-born Americans saw them as a “threat” to the American way of life and democracy.  This negative reaction triggered calls for immigration restrictions to curb the large influx of so many undesirable aliens. (See, for example, the comments of Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge in the New York Times article, “Must Guard Our Gates.”) Ellis Island administrators, bowing to political and public pressure, adopted more stringent standards, which resulted in denied entry and deportation of a highly disproportionate number, particularly Italians.

Today, of course, Ellis Island is no longer an immigrant processing center, but the reality of large numbers of Asians and Hispanics steadily entering the country—far exceeding those whose homelands are in Europe—has once again generated a backlash, including among some media commentators and politicians.  They express fear about the changing composition of American society as a result of such immigration and subsequent higher birth rates among the foreign born (also a concern in the 1890s).  Add in tough economic times (“They take jobs away from Americans!”) and concerns about illegal immigrants, and you have all the necessary ingredients for hostile reactions and demands that something be done about the situation.

You no doubt have your own view on the current state of affairs, and it is not my intent here to persuade you to my way of thinking.  Rather, my point in this blog is to declare that history does indeed repeat itself.  The immigrant groups currently arriving are mostly different from those who came to these shores in the 1890s, but the responses of those already here—in their perceptions and reactions—follow similar patterns.  No matter what time period or who are the people involved, human behavior is somewhat predictable.

In next week’s blog, I will share with you some surprising facts about the impact of immigrants—past and present—on American society.

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