From the Archives: The 'Hopeless Burden' of Immigration

An 1896 lament about Italians and Eastern Europeans sounds eerily familiar today

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In 1896, Ellis Island was just four years old, but already more than 1 million immigrants had entered the United States through its port. In the coming years, the center would process 12 million people seeking a new home in America -- 69 percent of whom were from Eastern, Central, or Southern Europe. The demographics of the country were changing, much to the fear of some.

In an essay titled "Restriction of Immigration," Atlantic author Francis A. Walker took issue with the "vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry" from Europe immigrating to America. His argument: increasing foreign-born populations would put a "hopeless burden on our country," and take work away from native-born citizens. He writes:

No longer it is a matter of course that that ever industrious and temperate man can find work in the United States...When the country was flooded with ignorant and unskilled foreigners, who could do nothing but the lowest kind of labor, Americans instinctively shrank from the contact and the competition thus offered to them. So long as manual labor, in whatever field, was to be done by all, each in his place, there was no revolt at it; but when working on railroads and canals became the sign of a want of education and of a low social condition, our own people gave it up, and left it to those who were able to do that, and nothing better.

Sound familiar? 

"The anxiety about immigration in the early 20th century hits a lot of the same notes as the anxiety about immigration today does," says Richard Alba, distinguished professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. "It's the fear of the undermining the economic position of 'the native majority,' and also the fear of being swamped demographically by new groups that are racially and culturally different from the mainstream."

This fear of the "other" can have disastrous consequences, as seen in the recent tragedy in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik despised his government for allowing, what he called, a "mass imports of Muslims." His idea, however perverse, is not entirely different from Walker's desire to stop the flow European immigrants to America.

But Walker was no social deviant. He was a well-regarded economist who oversaw both the 1870 and 1880 censuses and was president of MIT from 1885 to 1897. The American Economic Association awarded the "Francis A. Walker Medal" for personal achievement in economics until 1977. (It was discontinued a few years after the creation of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.) His views might seem extreme today, but in 1896 they had a sizable audience. 


Ultimately, history has proven Walker wrong. The children and grandchildren of turn-of-the-century immigrants are now known as the "greatest generation," not the "hopeless burden." 

"There is no question that the immigrants of the early 20th century contributed a lot to the engines of American economic growth, and their descendants certainly became, over time integrated, assimilated into the mainstream," Alba says. "You have to see the period of prosperity after World War II as allowing the boundaries between the new populations and the established ones to fade in significance."

Although Alba says immigrants do compete with native-born Americans for certain jobs, the influx of people from other nations is, overwhelmingly, for the good of the country. Between 1980 and 2000, the Hispanic population more than doubled in size. But in the coming years, these immigrants and their children will revitalize an aging workforce as baby boomers retire.

"In the United States, like all the wealthy societies, there is a demographic transition underway to diversity," Alba says. "This transition is going play out over the next quarter century as the heavily white baby-boomers leave the labor market and new young groups enter. I don't see an alternative really, but that of replacing some of the highly skilled white workers who are leaving the labor market with the children of new immigrants. It's going to put people of new origins in positions of status and leadership."

Read the whole article "Restriction of Immigration,"

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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