Coming to America to Contribute

Review of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century, by Robert L. Fleegler Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013

A glance at recent opinion pages and political blogs reveals that immigration is a hot topic. Robert L. Fleegler’s history of immigration policy provides a useful perspective on this current debate, and reminds us that we’ve had these fights before. Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century is not about Ellis Island, nor the experience of the immigrants that arrived there. Rather, it explores evolving attitudes towards immigrants and how these attitudes have been expressed in popular culture and public policy.

The history of immigration to the United States is characterized by three great waves of newcomers. The first wave came primarily from Ireland, Germany, and other parts of northern and western Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. The second wave arrived between 1882 and 1924, coming largely from eastern and southern Europe. This was the population that came through Ellis Island and other east coast ports. We are currently experiencing the third wave of immigration that began in the 1970s and consists primarily of newcomers from Asia and Latin America. Like earlier waves, this influx has provoked political controversy, especially the undocumented migrants who cross the border from Mexico.

The three waves of immigrants have engendered a variety of responses. Some Americans have welcomed immigrants, but others have objected that newcomers adversely alter the character of the nation. This resistance has sometimes been vitriolic and occasionally violent. Even though Latino/Latina immigrants are currently on the receiving end of these ambivalent attitudes, some contemporary political leaders have otherwise embraced the position that, “we are a nation of immigrants.”

Fleegler explores how we have arrived at this “nation of immigrants” consensus. He terms this attitude “contributionism.” This concept embraces the belief that immigrants have made important contributions to American society through their family values, economic activity, religious diversity, and varied cultural heritages. Through a variety of sources, he traces the development of contributionism beginning with the enactment of restrictive immigration legislation in 1924, through to the implementation of a more open policy in 1965. His use of school textbooks is especially helpful, because he documents the lessons about immigration that elite educators were trying to teach the nation’s school children.

In his introduction, Fleegler considers the attitude towards immigrants at the start of the twentieth century. Through the nineteenth century, the United States had not restricted European immigration, though many individuals and groups became increasingly wary of the tides of new migrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe.

In 1908, a play entitled The Melting Pot added that phrase to the lexicon. The “melting pot” had a variety of meanings. For some it embraced the contributions that various ethnicities, religions, and nationalities brought to the American scene. For others, the melting pot erased differences between immigrant groups, homogenizing them into conformity with white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant norms.

As America’s entry into the First World War approached, the process of “Americanization”—the erasing of old national identities—became a priority. Politicians and other elite leaders insisted that all groups, regardless of origin, contribute whole-heartedly to patriotically supporting the war effort. For me, this Americanization is epitomized in a formal photograph of my grandfather wearing an Uncle Sam costume. His parents, both migrants from Germany, emphatically established their young son’s American identity.

Author's grandfather wearing an Uncle Sam costume as a child.

When World War I ended, concern over the loyalty of new immigrants did not diminish. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 raised fears that radicals were pouring into the country intending to foment socialist revolution rather than accept democracy and American capitalism. Fears of radical infiltration, concern that immigrants were driving down wages, and racial and religious prejudice combined to build support for restrictive legislation.

Passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 marks the start of the core of Fleegler’s book. This Act established quotas for each nation substantially constricting immigration from southern and eastern Europe. And, Asian immigration continued to be barred—as it had been for several decades. Immigration dropped precipitously after the Act took effect.

During the Great Depression, competing views of immigrants contended in the public sphere. On the one hand, nativists continued to proclaim the inferiority of those who differed in religion, ethnicity, or race. At this point, conceptions of racial science placed Anglo-Saxons at the top of a racial hierarchy, with other Europeans and Slavs occupying lower ranks, and then Asians, Africans, and various aboriginal peoples at the bottom. But, liberals began to stress the valuable contributions that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe made to American society. This rhetoric of inclusion emphasized the contrast between American ideals and the racist ideology of rising totalitarian nations such as Nazi Germany. But, during this period, contributionism continued to ignore the contributions of Asians, Latinos and Blacks.

During the Second World War, contributionism was an important part of domestic propaganda. Posters depicted people of different backgrounds working harmoniously together on assembly lines. “Platoon” movies typically depicted Italian, Irish, and Jewish soldiers fighting alongside their WASP comrades. The stated purpose of the war was to make the world safe for democracy and to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, was treated decently. But, opinion polling revealed that most soldiers continued to harbor prejudice towards ethnic minorities. And, when American journalists began reporting on the concentration camps, they obscured the fact that Jews had been singled out for extermination.

After World War II, as America entered a period of unprecedented economic growth, potential immigrants began to clamor for entry from countries with restrictive quotas, and the Cold War emerged as the era’s defining crisis. Contributionists contrasted the openness and diversity of American culture with the enforced conformity of communist nations. A generation had passed since the unrestricted influx of immigrants ceased in 1924, so many Americans began to feel less threatened by immigrants. The Ellis Island generation of immigrants had been assimilating into the American mainstream for several decades, and their children were coming of age. Some politicians began advocating for an end to restrictive immigration quotas.

At this point in Fleegler’s book, he includes a chapter discussing attitudes towards religious differences—an issue that was intertwined with general attitudes towards immigrants. He concentrates on the contentious issue of John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic religion. This is a departure from his overall focus on immigration, but it is a useful essay.

By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement emerged as the paramount domestic issue. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an inconsistency became apparent—federal law no longer tolerated discrimination against African-Americans, but mainstream US society still discriminated against immigrants based on nationality. This led to the Immigration Act of 1965 which abolished national quotas and opened up immigration from Asia.

In his Epilogue, Fleegler carries the discussion of immigration from the 1970s through to the post-9/11 period. During these recent decades, people coming from Latin America, Africa, and Asia have struggled for the same level of acceptance that was eventually accorded to their Ellis Island predecessors. It remains to be seen whether contributionism will prove large enough to fully embrace the newest, sometimes undocumented, immigrants.