Decades ago Yale historian G.W. Pierson characterized American immigration from
a “3-M” perspective.
1. Folks from various parts of the world migrated from their homelands to the United States.
2. Once they reached the U.S., many participated in movements to other parts of our vast nation.
3. Successes for immigrants were measured through mobility in society (often with the second and third generations) – increased earnings, education, leadership and status.
Is this “3-M” framework still relevant for migrants in the 21st century?
Coming to America and becoming part of the new nation was never easy.
There is often a tendency to celebrate immigration as an affirmation of U.S. society. Indeed, the ideal of the “melting pot” is clearly the highest affirmation, indicating that a fusion of all nationalities is superior to any single ethnic ingredient.
However, we tend to be unmindful that newcomers have experienced hostilities from U.S. born citizens (and sometimes from previous immigrants). People who were different were often feared; would they represent a threat to the existing American culture?
At its worst, negativity towards newcomers became virulent xenophobia. John Higham’s powerful book, “Strangers in the Land” documents the organized hate directed too often toward arrivals that were seen as outsiders.
Migration and Movement phases have always been stressful. In his Pulitzer-prize book, “The Uprooted,” Oscar Handlin (son of immigrants) graphically depicts the agonizing process of trying to reach American borders.
Not unlike the migrants in northern Mexico today, many were taking their first extended treks from home, often on foot or primitive means of travel. Then, as now, numbers of migrants did not get far in their journeys (trapped in cities along the way, vulnerable to exploitation because of their poverty, their lack of knowledge and of support groups).
Then, as now, sojourners did not reach their destination; several stopped along the way, or returned to their homes (dispirited from the failure to fulfill their hopes).
In “The Anguish of Becoming American,” Thomas Wheeler does for the 20th century what Handlin’s “Uprooted” did for the 19th.
But our immigration saga – past and present – has always been more complex and nuanced than most Americans recognize. Despite travails, many people have always wanted to come to the U.S. Andrew Rolle’s “The Upraised” documents immigrant positives, as does Thomas Kessner’s “The Golden Door,” and his sequel, “Still the Golden Door.”
Part of the immigration complexity reveals that first migrants often clustered in ghettoes for group security and comfort (like deep sea divers coming up from depths, they were smart in wanting to adjust to a new environment slowly and carefully).
Many of the immigrants (like my relatives) are properly described as “being IN America, but not being OF America.”
However, as Tocqueville wrote in the 19th century, and his disciple Henry Steele Commager in the 20th, the vastness of the United States and its great resources became magnets for movement to new towns and new states. Americans have relocated more often than any people in history.
Both Tocqueville and Commager highlight this optimistic view of the U.S., where the future is expected to be better than the past, and where change will lead to progress.
In recent weeks our media has been replete with stories of migrants coming through Mexico in quest for asylum in the U.S.
Over the centuries the rules of immigration have undergone many shifts.
How different are we from the new nation that Thomas Paine (in “Common Sense”) celebrated as “an asylum for all mankind.”
Even at the start of our nation, Paine pointed out that “Europe, not England, was the mother of America.” His fellow immigrant, Hector Crevocoeur, was already describing the emerging melting pot among “this new man, the American.”
Our nation has evolved from open door immigration to a screen door, to more limiting policies on numbers, and regarding which people can be admitted.
All of us have ties with the 3-M experiences. Will it be helpful if we reflect on our own families’ migrations, movements and mobility to address today’s urgent questions about our nation’s immigration practices?
It is an embarrassment to our democracy that it has taken so long to update and modernize our immigration policies.
As we go forward we need to address both short and long-term issues. In 2013, the Senate passed a bill that offered long-term comprehensive immigration reform (supported by 68 Senators across the Party divides).
Why was that blocked in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives? Can a similar bill succeed now with a Democratic House majority?
How can we address the fierce urgency of quests for asylum and refugee status?
This December marks the 70th anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the landmark post World War II document (led by Eleanor Roosevelt). It offered hope and explicit language to support people who needed refuge in other nations.
[Next: my proposals for new U.S. immigration policies – and practices]