A Historian's View of America's Long Debate on Immigration

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Who We Are

•A Demographic Snapshot of America
The country continues to grow, with help from immigration

•The Very Unnatural Naturalization Process
A TIME editor describes what it's like to become an American citizen

•America's Long Debate on Immigration
A historian describes how our attitudes have and haven't changed

Where We Live

•A Geographic Breakdown
Compared with other developing countries, the nation is still just a vast prairie

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How We Live

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What We Buy

• How We Spend and Why
Experts say that as our population increases, we're going to feel an even greater pressure to spend

Otis Graham, author of Unguarded Gates — A History of America's Immigration Crisis (published in 2004 by Rowman & Littlefield) and a professor emeritus at University of California-Santa Barbara, talks to TIME's Lee S. Ettleman on how much has changed in our attitudes toward immigration since 1915, when America was a nation of 100 million. His answer? Not all that much.

TIME: What were the prevalent immigrant groups in 1915?

Graham: By 1915 we were well into the period in which the main flows of immigrants were quite large. They were from different parts of Europe than the older immigrants such as the Irish, the Germans and the French. We began to receive heavy immigration in the 1890s and it was still running strong in 1915 from Eastern Europe, southern Italy — the fringes of Europe. The different source country was a part of the controversy at times. They were Lithuanians, they were Romanians, they were Italians from the southern parts of Italy and they were Jews from parts of Russia.

How were they stereotyped and why?

There are always stereotypes of groups. I don't think there's ever been a time when one group didn't stereotype another. But in 1915 there was a considerable concern around the country that this new flow of immigrants, coming in from different parts of Europe and some not from Europe at all, would not assimilate quickly and possibly not assimilate at all. Their stereotypes had to do mostly with the concerns about the sharply different cultures that they brought with them.

How are public attitudes today different from those in the early 1900s?

It was quite similar in some respects and quite different in others. It was similar in the sense that there was a widespread concern among American workers and people who sympathize with American workers. The volume [of immigration] in 1915 was unprecedented and had been running high for some years. The concern about labor markets and the impact on the American worker was very strong — and it's still strong. There was considerable concern about community standards and crowding in the street. There was some concern about crime.

There are two differences that I think deserve to be put in front. The concern about population growth is very much a contemporary thing, really gaining a lot of momentum in the 1960s and growing thereafter. In 1915 [it] was really pretty minor. There were a handful of intellectuals who worried about the numbers and pressure on the environment, but the country was much more thinly settled then. The environmental movement was pretty young. We today have 300 million and ought to be asking how many Americans is best for America, and, if immigration is driving it, we better get an immigration policy that gives us the numbers we want. They had almost none of that in 1915 — it's not that they were dumb; it's that they had different problems.

I mentioned a second difference — the civil rights movement happened in the 1950s and '60s and to some extent is still going on, and we have a profoundly different public sense of what language to use and about the unacceptability of public discrimination. The immigration reform files today are almost entirely devoid of racist language and the sort of language that, 100 years ago, was taken for granted. Your ear, if you were transported back to 1915, would hear things you don't hear now, and it would be a shock.

Does America generally have a history of welcoming or begrudging newcomers?

We've always been of mixed minds about immigrants, and that's because immigrants bring both bads and goods. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — you can find them one week welcoming immigrants and the next week saying there are too many. It's a strong theme in American life to be ambivalent about immigration because there are benefits that we see and there have always been costs paid by the locals.

What role has the media played?

Immigration in modern America started to reach mass numbers in the 1960s and has been growing ever since, so we've had four decades really coping with immigration. I would say the media tried to ignore it for the first two decades and paid a little attention in the third decade. In the last five years they've been paying some attention.

Was there as much discussion in 1915 as to the role immigrants play in the economy?

There was a presidential commission headed by Sen. [William Paul] Dillingham that became called the Dillingham Commission, and it reported to the American people and Congress in 1911. Nothing like it had ever been done. The main findings were that on balance, contemporary immigration, as they experienced it in 1910 and as they were studying it in the years before, was bringing more harm to the country, more disruption and more regret on the negative side than on the positive side and that the answer was to cut the numbers back and come up with a system in which we selected immigrants that would be of the most use to America. That meant primarily the economy, but also immigrants who would fit in. In other words they recommended that immigration be controlled and the numbers come down and the principles of selection be changed. It was quite a turning point intellectually — nothing happened immediately, but it piqued the debate and put a governmental commission on the reform efforts of controlling immigration for the first time.

How important was immigration to politics? Were there races that are seen to have been decided on competing immigration policies?

I don't think I could name a presidential race that tilted on that one issue. Presidential elections didn't turn on it. Some local elections did. It was a factor, but it wasn't a major factor most of the time. Feelings ran pretty high on it but of course there are always a lot of other issues about which people care.

What role, if any, did the First World War play in attracting immigrants to America?

World War I did two things that are completely contradictory. The first thing it did was it shut down all immigration from across the Atlantic Ocean. Since there hadn't been much immigration from Asia in a couple of years since it was regulated, and since there was very little immigration from Latin America in those days, the source of immigration was from across the Atlantic and the Atlantic Ocean was not a pleasant place for any immigrant boat during the war. Immigration just flat-out stopped during the war years.

The second influence was the reverse of the first. The war produced a tremendous surge of unhappy, dislocated, economically troubled people from the broken-up empire of Austria-Hungary, and people just poured out of Europe. You had four years of an absolute lull, and then you had boats arriving in numbers we had just never seen.