Donna R. Gabaccia: Today's Immigration Policy Debates ... Do We Need a Little History?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Donna Gabaccia is a professor of history and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She is author of many books and articles on immigrant life in the United States and Italian migration around the world. She is an editor of the recent special issue, "Gender and Migration," of the International Migration Review and (together with co-editor Vicki Ruiz) American Dreaming, Global Realities: Re-thinking US Immigration History. ]

In their everyday life, most Americans seem to agree with Henry Ford who once said, "History is more or less bunk... We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today." Certainly a great — but now also deadlocked — debate on immigration figures prominently in the history being made today in the United States and around the world.

What is surprising is how often the debaters evoke the past through references to "history." Some insist that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants. Others respond by insisting that today's immigration problems — illegal entry, globalization of labor, and threats to national security — are unprecedented.

Assertions of continuity, of change, or of deep rupture between past and present are all temporal claims, familiar to specialists in my home discipline — commonly called "history." As an historian, I'm fascinated by Americans' sudden interest in the past. What do debaters seek from the past when they argue policy alternatives? Does history, as a discipline, have special authority in interpreting the past or is "every man his own historian," as Carl Becker, himself an historian, once insisted? ...

Concerned with time, historians find it interesting to ask when scholars began to study immigration. The timing of scholarly interest in migration tells us much about how policy debates have shaped our understanding of immigration as an influence on American life.

Sociologists typically cite Harvard's Oscar Handlin (author of the 1951 book The Uprooted), as the first immigration historian, but contemporary immigration historians like Jon Gjerde more often trace their field to Midwesterners George Stephenson, Theodore Blegen, and Marcus Hansen. These men began writing in the 1920s and 1930s; they were contemporaries of the sociologists studying immigration, who formed the influential "Chicago School" at the University of Chicago.

In both history and sociology, scholarly work on immigration was sparked by the great debates of the 1920s, as Americans argued over which immigrants to include and which to exclude from the American nation. The result of that particular great debate was the exclusion of Asians as racially undesirable and the restriction of immigration from southern and eastern Europe through discriminatory national origins quotas. In both cases, scholars responded to political decisions to exclude and to restrict with positive interpretations of immigration and of immigrants.

Reacting to the debates of their time, sociologists and historians nevertheless developed different central themes. While Chicago School sociologists focused on immigrant adaptation to the American mainstream, historians were more likely to describe immigrants engaged in building the American nation or its regional sub-cultures.

Historians studied the immigrants of the past, (which in the 1920s meant the 18th and 19th centuries), usually in the context of nation-building and settlement of the western United States, while sociologists focused on the immigrant urban workers of their own times — that is, the early decades of the 20th century.

Sociologists' description of assimilation as an almost natural sequence of interactions resulting in the absorption, modernization, and Americanization of foreigners reassured Americans that their country would survive the recent arrival of immigrants whom longtime Americans perceived as radically different.

Historians insisted instead that the immigrants of the past had actually been the "makers of America;" they had forged the mainstream to which new immigrants adapted.

Both groups of scholars posited change over time. For sociologists, however, it was immigrants who changed and assimilated over the course of three generations. For historians, it was the American nation that changed and evolved.

In the 1920s and 1930s, neither historians nor sociologists of immigration used the term "nation of immigrants." First used by a former missionary in 1882, picked up occasionally in the 1910s and 1920s by a mixed group of businessmen, critics of immigration restriction, and the occasional scholar, the idea of the United States as a "nation of immigrants" did not really capture the American imagination until the early 1950s, when immigration had waned to its nadir and when the scholarly study of immigration by historians and sociologists had practically ceased.

The popularity of this phrase — still heard in contemporary debates — was the product of another great debate about immigration. In his efforts to prevent Congress from including in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act the discriminatory national origins quotas introduced in the 1920s, Harry S. Truman began asserting that the United States was and always had been a nation of immigrants. ...

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