Wednesday, November 21, 2012

So much for the huddled masses

The most recent immigrant in my line came from Thuringia, in east central Germany, in the 1890s. They weren't particularly well off. The patriarch left first to escape conscription. He sent for his wife and kids but then decided a younger woman offered greener pastures. So when my great-great-grandmother arrived she was a single mother that didn't speak much (any?) English. That works out even less well in the late nineteenth century than it does today, so she wisely married another German immigrant (named Kuehn - I know a lot less about his origins). The Kuehns spoke progressively more English and got progressively better education, and it all worked out alright. They eventually married into a family that's been here almost four centuries (but who were no better off when they first arrived). They were always on the run from bad circumstances. The Joys running from English persecution in England. The Comeaus running from English occupation in Canada. The Luthers running from conscription in Germany. A couple branches were running from rotting potatoes. As far as I know nobody came here and contributed to American GDP by establishing a tech company (steam boats, railroads - you know). They came here and were poor and uneducated until eventually they weren't poor and uneducated.

None of them ever read: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

For one thing none of them came through Ellis Island. They also were all here by 1903 which was when the plaque was added.

I worry about the discussion about immigration today. There's always tension with new immigrants who don't act like us, of course. So long as it's just "tension" and not outright hate I don't worry about this too much because although it's misguided, it's a natural reaction to new things.

But you'd hope that more liberally minded public intellectuals and even policymakers would construct a narrative (what Rorty talks about as "imagining" a new "social hope") about why we want the huddled masses.

Andrew Sullivan reports that this sentiment is not particularly common anymore. Quoting Don Hopkins: "In the corresponding paper, we show that it’s not just Democrats and Republicans who agree: it’s liberals and conservatives, those with and without higher education, the wealthy and the poor, those who report biases against other racial or ethnic groups and those who do not. When it comes to the question of the types of immigrants to be admitted, there is a hidden American immigration consensus, one that crosses party lines. From these results, it seems clear that Americans would be likely to support a more skill-based immigration system, such as the one employed at the federal level in Canada."


  1. Interesting post, DK. We are all the sons and daughters of immigrants in some sense. (My own forebears had some interesting tales that brought them out to the south of Africa.)
    A brief comment:

    I'm not particularly well versed in the US debate, but my impression is that immigration policy in other parts of the world is pretty dichotomous. I say this as someone that has had to qualify for "highly skilled" (ahem) migrant worker permits before...

    In addition to white-collar candidates, advanced countries have prioritised trade-related skills, for instance. At least, that was the feeling I got when considering job opportunities in different countries a few years back.

    (I remember joking with some friends that it would be easier to get a visa for the UK or Australia if I had been a hairdresser, brick-layer or plumber than a university graduate. There certainly seemed to be less bureaucratic hoops to jump through.)

  2. What I always find so strange is the quasi-universal outrage of liberals at Republican treatment of poor Mexican illegal immigrants and at the same time a lack of support for anything more than the most tepid of immigration reform, except when aimed at high-skills immigrants. I am always completely beffudled.

  3. Something I've seen repeatedly: Americans really hate immigrants who don't speak fluent English. Whether they were quite so hysterical about that in the 1800s as today, I don't know.

  4. We want the huddled masses so much that we are creating our own. ;)

    As for the past, there was a time when we believed in democracy and opportunity for all, and the main way to achieve that was to accept immigrants.

  5. "she was a single mother that didn't speak much (any?) English"

    I see your family still finds English challenging. Perhaps the problem is genetic? :)

    My family moved from Europe in the 1950s and associated with other immigrants. My father used to say that every immigrant he knew had emigrated to get away from something.

    Canada's immigration policy is quite enlightened. It has a special admissions preference for strippers. ;)

  6. Do enlightened liberals recognize that technological improvements make migration much easier today than in the past? What per year increase in population do E.L.s consider to be too high?

    Are there any among the "huddled masses" whose cultural practices are so vile or antithetical to modernity, that their presence would be an obvious negative to the U.S.?


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