Immigration, Civilization, and America
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
The Independent Institute Copyright © 2013 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
THERE WAS A time when the word "immigration" was synonymous, in many minds, with the United States. That association was made not only by Americans, who referred to themselves proudly as a nation of immigrants, but just as importantly, by people everywhere for whom the United States was a confluence of migratory flows from the four corners of the Earth. The United States stood in the imagination of millions as a country of countries, a sum total of human diversity.
In recent years, however, the pitched political battle over immigration in the United States has blurred this perception. Opponents and critics of recent immigration have repeatedly argued that the history of the United States is not one of successive waves of immigrants of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds who continually shaped and reshaped the country, but one of early dominance by people of Anglo-Saxon origin followed by intermittent additions that did not significantly alter or influence the so-called national identity established by the dominant colonizers.
According to this argument, the very substantial Hispanic immigration of the last four decades constitutes not a confirmation of the country's history, but a challenge — even a menace — to the Anglo-Saxon cultural legacy. Not everyone who opposes migration offers this line of argument, but some form of it is never far from the bitter exchanges sparked off by the issue of "aliens" — as foreigners are known in the language of legalistic bureaucracy — a word that also describes extraterrestrial beings. As is usually the case in heated political confrontations, the passionate exchanges over immigration have tended to lead people away from nuance and towards dogmatic simplification; the effect has been to blur the rich, evolving history of immigration that is the history of the United States.
As a result of such simplification, American history has, in effect, been parceled out into three distinct chunks: (1) a vague but centuries-old period of English or northern European immigration, (2) a shorter period in which additional immigrant waves fit quite nicely into society's prevailing mold, and (3) a recent flood of "barbarians" constituting an unprecedented, transformative experience capable of diluting and eventually eliminating the rich legacy of immigration. Thus many people have turned away from the notion that the United States is indeed a country of immigrants and have come to believe — or speak and act as if they believed — that the history of America is essentially split into an age of English colonization followed by a long period of consolidation in which immigrants were not really immigrants but, rather, kin of one form or another; and then, in the latter part of the twentieth century, a Hispanic invasion (accompanied, to a much lesser extent, by an Asian one.) Strident immigration critics further claim that this division is an American issue, rather than one shared by many other countries, including much poorer ones.
No, U.S. immigration history is not divided into a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) era and a darker, culturally unprecedented recent invasion. Nor can one speak of modern-day immigration as a sudden spurt or a uniquely American "problem."
Any discussion about immigration in the United States, or anywhere else, needs to begin with a close look at the country's history. Viewed over centuries, U.S. history presents an ample migratory spectrum with a constantly evolving cultural and institutional pattern whose roots cannot be traced to a single source. The successive waves of immigrants constitute a multitudinous history of "naturalization" — that is, of foreigners of very diverse backgrounds assimilating into the host society, either directly or through their children and grandchildren. The process is ongoing.
Thus, in recent years, an Arabic-speaking descendant of Lebanese immigrants, General John Abizaid, was able to head the United States Central Command, which oversees military operations in a vast area hinging on the Middle East. Similarly, a grandson of Mexican immigrants, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sánchez, was able to serve as V Corps commander of the coalition forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2004. And, a third example, Major General Antonio Taguba, born in the Philippines and the son of Filipino parents, became deputy commanding general for support of the Third United States Army at the Central Command, based in Kuwait; in 2004, he was assigned to write the politically sensitive report on the abuses committed by United States personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Thus the United States military, an institution perceived as the quintessential symbol of patriotism, put on the shoulders of a Filipino immigrant the responsibility of holding it to the highest moral standards of civilization.
Without question, the early European presence in the newly colonized territory that comprised part of today's eastern United States established a sort of matrix from which sprang much of the country's history, culturally and institutionally. The European colonizers in the North American continent were predominantly English and, to a lesser extent, Scottish. They and the English and Scottish immigrants who followed dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, after which there was a pause in migrant inflows into the American colonies because of the Napoleonic wars. It was not until the nineteenth century that immigration became much more diversified.
The early embrace of immigration is stirringly contained in the Declaration of Independence, where one of the charges against King George III was precisely that he had impeded the open door policy espoused by the leaders of that enlightened movement: "He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither...."
After the American Revolution, immigration to the United States remained low until the 1830s. During that period, no more than a quarter of a million people migrated to this country. After the so-called First Great Lull, the flow picked up and remained very high for most of the nineteenth century and into the first part of the twentieth century. Between the mid-1800s and 1932, one of the greatest migrations of modern times took place: 52 million Europeans, a mass larger than the current population of South Africa, moved overseas, the bulk of them to the United States (before restrictions were imposed in the early 1920s). By 1870, one in every three people working in manufacturing and mechanical industries in the United States were natives of foreign lands; given the constant arrival of newcomers, the proportion did not change in the following fifty years.
It would be a mistake to assume that those the waves of migrants between the mid-1800s and 1932 were homogeneous waves of migrants. Eighty percent of the foreigners who settled in the United States between the 1830s and the 1880s came from countries dotting western and northern Europe, and they settled in different locations across America. The Germans, who constituted the key group between the 1860s and the 1880s, famously opted for the Midwest. The northeast attracted the English, the Scots, the Welsh, and, to a lesser extent, the Irish. The Scandinavians headed west across the plains, while the French Canadians worked in the mill towns of New England. After that, immigrants continued to pour into the United States, but they came predominantly from southern, central, or eastern Europe, which were at much lower stages of economic and political development than the areas where previous U.S. migrants had originated, with starkly different cultures.
Appalling economic conditions sent millions of Irish men and women to America in the nineteenth century — bringing into America's immigrant mix a religious, political, and cultural tradition that was profoundly at variance with that of Germans and other northern Europeans. Even though there was a religious motive of sorts in the Irish migration of the 1820s — Catholics suffered discrimination at the hand of the Protestants who had forced Ireland's union with Britain, subsequent waves in the mid-1840s flocked to the United States after the failure of the potato crops, on which millions of peasants depended for their livelihood. By 1880, more than 3.5 million Irish migrants had come to the United States.
The Italians were also from a very different background than the English and the Scots — who were the original colonizers and immigrants — and, of course, than the Germans. There was also a stark contrast between migrants from Italy's two main regions, the north and south, making it senseless to speak of a homogenous Italian migration. In 1850, there were no more than 4,000 Italians in America; by 1930, 5 million had migrated to America. Two million of them returned to their home country.
Another compelling addition to the Protean demographic mix was the Jews. If we overlook the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, overwhelmingly secular, who arrived in the early part of the nineteenth century, the great wave of Jewish settlers came after 1880. Between then and World War I, more than 2 million Jews moved to the United States, mostly of central and eastern European background. Four-fifths of them came from various localities in Czarist Russia, including the Pale of Settlement. A large majority of those very poor Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in New York.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the mixture of migrants flocking to the United States could not have been more complex and heterogeneous: Italians, Russians, subjects of the Austria-Hungarian empire, Irish, Brits, Germans, Swedes, and others. The kaleidoscope of nationalities and resulting tensions reduce to nonsense the notion that America's migratory history is essentially divided into a long-standing WASP era and a recent brown Hispanic period. Immigration was never a smooth process; it was a traumatic experience for both the receiving society and for the newly arrived.
The perception that the United States from its early days was a land of immigrants inspired romantic ideas — perhaps inconveniently from the vantage point of immigration critics today. Writers and politicians spoke of a fusion of different peoples, a crucible of nations, a melting pot in which all cultures could dissolve into a larger, integrated whole. The immigration ethos is spectacularly symbolized in the Statue of Liberty, donated by France to commemorate America's centennial. But, as we will see later, things were anything but smooth.
The statement earlier in this chapter that U.S. immigration history is not divided into an original WASP era and a recent period marked by a culturally threatening influx of low-skilled immigrants does not underestimate the enormous impact of modern-day immigration in the United States. In the new millennium, the foreign-born population, in large part due to Hispanics, is larger, in relative terms, than at any time since the 1930s. By the end of the first decade of this century, almost 12 million of the U.S. foreign-born population were undocumented, a majority of them between the ages of 25 and 34.
The 2010 Census indicates that the portion of the U.S. population of Hispanic origin increased from 13 to 16 percent between 2000 and 2010. If the rate of growth of the Hispanic population continues, by 2050 some 100 million people in the United States, counting those born in the country, will claim Hispanic heritage.
These figures have given rise to numerous sensationalist studies and news reports bombarding the public with the notion that Hispanics are taking over the country, and that American whites will soon be a minority. Those reports — true only if one divides the population into so-called white Anglos and everybody else — are only part of the story, and not one with which everybody agrees. The large non-white Anglo population, for example, is not an organic block of people who think of themselves as the coming majority. Immigrants form a very diverse group of people that includes whites, as well as many shades of skin pigmentation.
The current controversial climate surrounding immigration, amplified by sensationalist media stories, has made many Americans lose sight of the fact that there have been other times in the history of the United States when the population of foreign origin constituted a similarly large proportion of the total population. The censuses taken between 1860 and 1920 found that between 13 and 15 percent of the population was foreign-born. Within that period of more than half a century, there were times when the flow of newcomers was in relative terms greater than in recent years.
From 1901 to 1913, an average of 1 million foreigners — about 2.5 percent of the domestic population — came into the country every single year! By contrast, recent annual immigration at its peak has not amounted to more than 0.5 percent of the national census. More generally, in the two centuries between 1820 and 2000 the average proportion of the foreign-born population has hovered around 10 percent of the total, a statistic that belies the notion that an unprecedented foreign invasion has recently taken place.
Until I arrived in the United States, I had never thought of myself as Hispanic. I had been disdained in Peru, my country of birth, for being of Spanish origin — even though my Peruvian ancestry can be traced back at least three centuries — by those who thought that there are two classes of Peruvians — indigenous and Spanish — and that the second class of Peruvians constitutes the enemy. I had also been looked down on, during my stay at a British boarding school in my youthful years, by British kids for whom I was a dark-haired dago because of my looks and my tongue-twisting Spanish name. Because some Pakistani and, to a lesser extent, Chinese, kids were also treated with the same contempt, I found myself making common cause with these other non-natives from time to time — and therefore feeling like a perfect Asian.
But I had never thought of myself as belonging to any particular ethnic or racial group until I began to be labeled, with millions of others, as a "Hispanic" — the fascinating term used in the United States to refer to persons who come from, or descend from, the Spanish-speaking Americas. It has never been clear to me whether a citizen from Spain is also a Hispanic. The word "Hispanic," derived from "Hispania" — the Latin name given by the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula (on which Spain is situated) — would seem to fit a Spanish citizen like a glove. What makes my Hispanic condition particularly ironic is that the name Llosa comes from Catalonia, a region of Spain whose more determined nationalists do not even accept that they belong to a Spanish nation.
The only constant in my various experiences with labels relating to my Spanish ancestry is the fact that such labels were never aimed at lifting my spirits. I first discovered this when I was thirteen. In 1992, I acquired Spanish citizenship and thereby became a citizen of both Peru and Spain. As the years went by, I sometimes had trouble explaining this to some people, particularly in Peru, who did not understand how a person can have more than one nationality. The fact that many thousands of other Peruvians also hold dual citizenship did not seem to cross some people's minds.
I moved to America in 2001, although I had spent short periods of time here for professional reasons earlier in my life. My arrival in the United States confronted me with a puzzling dilemma. I could reconcile my two nationalities, Peruvian and Spanish, to the term "Hispanic" — since it referred to Latin Americans of Spanish origin. But still I wondered: Why are Hispanics, a racially diverse group, labeled as such in lists and databases that seem to classify people by race — the much-debated racial profiling? And why are Hispanics labeled at all in a classification that leaves out so many other ancestries? If the term refers to people from countries that were former colonies of Spain, why are Filipinos not included? And if the term describes essentially Latin Americans, why are Brazilians and speakers of the Portuguese language left out? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Global Crossings by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. Copyright © 2013 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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