Many wary Americans are convinced that today’s immigrants are fundamentally different than those who came to our country in the past. A look at the history, however, shows that today’s newcomers are not fundamentally different than Americans’ foreign-born grandparents, great-grandparents or even great-great-great grandparents.
First: Critics say today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated. Earlier waves of immigrants, the argument goes, had to learn English and assimilate. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture.
Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart. Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians.”
When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those in the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.
Second: Critics claim that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others.
But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions. Catholics would always remain separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”
By Tyler Anbinder for CHICAGO SUN.TIMES
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