Immigration Then and Now

Last week’s blog—about the 1890s immigration setting of Guardians of the Gate compared to today—promised next time to give some surprising facts about the impact of immigrants on American society, both past and present.  Here goes.

Demographers measure the immigration impact in different eras by using an immigration rate.  Similar to other rates—the crime rate, for example—this approach creates a ratio by dividing the total (e.g., the number of violent crimes by the total population).  This way we can compare unlike population totals, such as the crime rate in NYC with the crime rate in, say, Dallas.

Let’s compare immigration in 1851-1860 (mostly Germans and Irish), and in 1901-1910 (mostly Italians, Central and Eastern Europeans), and in 2001-2010 (mostly Asians and Hispanics).  If we apply the immigration rate to these decades, we find that it was 9.3 in 1851-1860, 10.4 in 1901-1910, 3.2 in 2001-2010, and 3.6 in 2012.

What does this mean?   In actual numbers, immigrant arrivals now are higher, but so too is the total population.  Put differently, 8.8 million arrived in 1901-1910, and the 1910 U.S. population was 92.2 million.  That’s a 1 to 10 ratio of foreigners to Americans.  In 2001-2010, 9.5 million immigrants came here and the 2010 population was 308.7 million, or a 1 to 32 ratio.

To grasp the difference more easily, imagine going to a meeting with the room filled with nine strangers and then going to another meeting in a room with 31 strangers.  With the smaller ratio, you probably will have more conversations with one another and get to know each other by name.  Some of that may also happen in the larger group, but certainly not to the same degree.  On a larger scale (society), a 1 to 10 ratio greatly increases the likelihood of encounters with strangers (immigrants) than if the ratio were more than triple.

You might say, though, that you have seen dramatic changes in your lifetime in the increase of so many more Asians and Hispanics.  Your eyes don’t deceive you, no matter what the statistics say.  However, past generations also reacted to striking immigration shifts, which were three times today’s ratio. One hundred years ago, most Northeast U.S. cities contained from two-thirds to three-fourths first- and second-generation Americans, a far higher proportion than today.

Your counterargument might be that Asians are racially different from past immigrants, and Hispanics are so numerous that a second language now prevails in the U.S.  Yet, generations ago many Americans saw Italians as racially different and the many overpopulated Little Italys so alien with everyone speaking in Italian.  Similarly, German speakers in the 19th-century Midwest were so common that the Cincinnati to Milwaukee to St. Louis region was known as the “German Triangle,” and if you could time travel there, you’d swear you were in Germany, not America. Today, these groups are assimilated into the fabric of American society, even though back then most Americans thought that would never happen.

Every generation thinks it is witnessing a new immigration phenomenon, but the same patterns repeat themselves, even if the groups are different.


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