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Originally published September 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 13, 2010 at 11:54 AM

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America's Immigration Dilemma

Old fears over new faces

They were portrayed as a disreputable lot, the immigrant hordes of this great city. The Germans refused for decades to give up their native...

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — They were portrayed as a disreputable lot, the immigrant hordes of this great city.

The Germans refused for decades to give up their native tongue and raucous beer gardens. The Irish of Hell's Kitchen brawled and clung to political sinecures. The Jews crowded into the Lower East Side, speaking Yiddish, fomenting socialism and resisting forced assimilation. And by their sheer numbers, the immigrants depressed wages in the city. As for the multitudes of Italians, who settled Mulberry Street, East Harlem and Canarsie? In 1970, seven decades after their arrival, Italians lagged behind every immigrant group in educational achievement.

The bitter arguments of the past echo loudly these days. Most concerns voiced today — that too many immigrants seek economic advantage and fail to understand democracy, that they refuse to learn English, overcrowd homes and overwhelm public services — were heard a century ago. And there was a nub of truth to some complaints, not least that the vast influx of immigrants drove down working-class wages.

Yet historians and demographers are clear: New York and the United States owe much of their economic resilience to replenishing waves of immigrants. Descendants of those Italians, Jews, Irish and Germans have assimilated.

Did you know?

About 7.9 million people moved to the United States in the past five years, the highest such period on record.

Source: Center for Immigration Studies

Now another wave washes over. Fully 38 percent of New York's 8 million residents are foreign-born, nearly the same percentage as a century ago.

"It would be easy to say the short-run costs of immigration outweighed the benefits," said Joe Salvo, a director at New York's City Planning Department. "But the benefits are longer term. We wouldn't be the superpower we are if we hadn't let them in."

The early system

Advocates of stricter enforcement argue that those who came a century ago were different because they arrived legally. Movies and novels depict agents at New York's Ellis Island — that keyhole through which 16 million immigrants passed from 1892 to 1922 — examining immigrants and their papers with an eye toward shipping back laggards.

Immigration legislation since 1790

The Naturalization Act of 1790 established rules for naturalized citizenship, as per Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. The law provided the first U.S. rules for granting national citizenship. Citizenship was allowed only to free whites.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first race-based immigration act. It excluded Chinese laborers from the United States for 10 years and barred Chinese from citizenship. The act was repealed in 1943.

The Immigration Act of 1924 established a national-origins quota system and was aimed at restricting southern and eastern European immigration. Also known as the National Origins Act, Johnson-Reed Act or the Immigration Quota Act of 1924.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran- Walter Act) established the basic law of U.S. citizenship and immigration. Immigration was restricted by nationality but not by race.

The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act or the INS Act of 1965) abolished national-origin quotas and gave preference to those whose skills were needed and close relatives of U.S. citizens.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had been in the United States before 1982 but made it a crime to hire an illegal immigrant.

The Immigration Act of 1990 established annual limits for certain categories of immigrants and eased immigration for skilled foreign workers.

Sources: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, University of Massachusetts, Center for Immigration Studies, Senate Judiciary Committee

Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, wrote about her Irish forebears in a Wall Street Journal column: "They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come. ... They had to get through Ellis Island ... get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge."

But these accounts are flawed, historians say. Until 1918, the United States did not require passports; the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals were required only to prove their identity and find a relative or friend who could vouch for them.

Customs agents kept an eye out for lunatics and the infirm (and after 1905, for anarchists). Ninety-eight percent of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were admitted to the United States, and 78 percent spent less than eight hours on the island. (The U.S.-Mexico border then was unguarded and freely crossed in either direction.)

"Shipping companies did the health inspections in Europe because they didn't want to be stuck taking someone back," said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College and author of "From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration."

"Eventually they introduced a literacy test, but it was in the immigrant's own language, not English."

At the peak of that earlier wave, 75 percent of immigrants landed in New York. Some, such as Germans fleeing failed revolutions, sought democracy. Others, such as the Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, sought safety.

But perhaps half of Italian immigrants returned to Italy, often with cash to buy a farm or own a business. Greeks, too, returned in large numbers.

"People complain about Mexicans coming for economic reasons, but they don't realize how many earlier immigrants just sojourned here," said Richard Wright, a geography professor at Dartmouth College. "The rates of return are staggering."

When Congress enacted immigration quotas in the 1920s, it left the door ajar for northern Europeans and Mexicans, even then sought by U.S. businesses as cheap labor.

European immigrants found plenty of backlash. Nativist sentiments ran strong, and white Protestant reformers championed English-language instruction and temperance, the latter reflecting the Establishment's disdain for hard-drinking immigrants.

By the 1950s, Germans, Irish and Jews had abandoned immigrant enclaves. Although barriers of prejudice remained — Ivy League schools and white-shoe law firms in New York maintained stringent "Jewish" quotas well into the 1960s — the sons and daughters of these immigrants moved quickly into white-collar professions.

Varying progress

Italians, Poles and Greeks took a much slower climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Like today's Mexican immigrants, these earlier immigrants often came from rural lands and stressed work over education; sociologist Foner notes it was unusual for a child of Italian immigrants to finish high school.

When in the late 1960s the City University of New York allowed any high-school graduate to enroll regardless of grades, Italians were the greatest beneficiary. Studies so far show a similar pattern for Mexicans: The second generation is doing better economically than the parents but not keeping pace with other ethnic immigrant groups.

"There was a lot of catching up for the Italians and Poles, and a lot of social costs which this imposed on the country," said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard. "I don't see any reasons the Mexicans can't catch up, too, but three or four generations is a long time."

In a pattern perhaps rooted in human nature, each generation of immigrants tended to look down on those who followed. Journalist Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, remarked upon this in his 1890 book, "How the Other Half Lives."

"The once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman," Riis wrote, "and has himself taken a hand at opposition, quite as bitter and quite as ineffectual, against these later hordes."

Lewis Fidler grew up in the 1960s in East Flatbush and Flatlands, working-class Brooklyn neighborhoods with a smattering of professionals. He recalls hearing Italian and Jewish neighbors — sons and daughters of immigrants — worry that an influx of black immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados would run down the neighborhood.

Fidler now is a city councilman in much the same district. Except that his constituents are West Indians — the Italians and Jews have moved on.

The transition was in fact rough. Two decades ago, vacant stores, marijuana fronts and chop shops for stolen autos pockmarked the avenues. Restaurants with bright-blue awnings now boast of the best jerk chicken, and a public park is being renovated to add cricket fields.

"The old-timers can't get over the fact that the bagel shop is now a roti shop," Fidler said. "But we've got lots of young families, and all they want to talk about are the schools."

Fidler, who is Jewish, is fine with that. "I run up bigger majorities in the West Indian precincts because the immigrants just want guys who deliver."

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