National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 2/Our Foreign-born Citizens

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Our Foreign-born Citizens[edit]

Although the immigrants who have flocked to our shores since 1776 have mingled their blood with pre-Revolution strains until the American of unadulterated colonial ancestry is the exception and not the rule; although a great political party was formed and the presidential campaign of 1856 was fought with the immigration question as practically the paramount issue; although the coming of the Irish and of the eastern European each in turn stirred the nation, there never has been a time when the subject of our foreign-born population occupied such a deep place in the minds of the people as it does today.

Should we have departed from our time-honored custom of making America a homeland for whoever loves freedom for himself and craves liberty for his children, whether he be literate or illiterate? Would our polyglot population be a menace in war time, or would it, as we have proudly thought in the past, be fused into one liberty-loving, flag-defending race? And when the war is over and the world escapes from the horrible nightmare of blood and carnage and hate, will the consequent burdens drive hordes of people to America, as did the potato famine in Ireland, the social and political unrest in Germany in the decade preceding our Civil War, and other economic hardships in continental countries?

The most frequently vetoed measure in American history[edit]

Never in the history of the American people has a measure been passed by Congress as often and vetoed by the President as many times as the immigration bill recently enacted into law. Three Presidents of the United States have felt so keenly that the founders of the government and their successors were right in holding that the lack of opportunity to learn to read and write should not bar an alien from freedom's shores, that they have overridden the will of four Congresses and have interposed their veto between the congressional purpose and the unlettered immigrant's desire.

But Congress was strong enough at last to override the presidential veto, and so the immigration doctrines of a century and a quarter are changed and the practices of generations are to be made over. Hereafter no one above the age of 16 who cannot read and write may enter.

The effect of the literacy test applied to the immigration of the future may be shown by a few figures. More than one-fourth of all the immigrants admitted to the United States in the past two decades who were over 14 could neither read nor write. Out of 8,398,000 admitted in the ten years ending with 1910, 2,238,000 were illiterate. And yet so rapidly does illiteracy melt away that, adding to this number all the illiterates here before these came, there were only 1,600,000 illiterate foreigners in the United States when the census of 1910 was taken.

Under a literacy test we will turn back one-fourth of the Armenians, two-fifths of the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Montenegrins, more than a fourth of the Jews and Greeks, more than half of the South Italians, more than a third of the Poles and Russians, and a fourth of the Slovaks.

Who can estimate our debt to immigration? Thirty-three million people have made the long voyage from alien shores to our own since it was proclaimed that all men are born free and equal, and liberty's eternal fire was kindled first on American soil! It is as if half the German Empire should embark for America, or all of England except the county of Kent. It is as if all of the population of all of the States of the United States west of the Mississippi, plus that of Alabama, should have come bodily to America.

History records no similar movement of population which in rapidity or volume can equal this. Compared to it, the hordes that invaded Europe from Asia, great and enormous as they were, were insignificant.

Of the 33,000,000 who have come more than 14,000,000 still live among us, and their children and children's children are now in good truth bone of our bone and blood of our blood.

Not long ago America crossed the hundred-million line in the number of its citizens, and it is interesting to note the composition of that population.

To begin with, there are 11,000,000 colored people, including negroes, Indians, Chinese, etc. Then there are 14,500,000 people of foreign birth among us. In addition to these, there are 14,000,000 children of foreign-born fathers and mothers and 6,500,000 children of foreign-born fathers and native mothers, or vice versa. When all of these have been deducted from the 100,000,000, only 54,000,000 remain of full white native ancestry.

Notable people of foreign stock[edit]

Yet the 35,000,000 American people who are of foreign stock—that is, foreign born or the children of a foreign-born parent—include some of the most illustrious citizens of our Republic. Even the President of the United States himself has only one ancestor who was born in America, and the list is long and notable of statesmen, captains of industry, leaders of finance, inventors, makers of literature and progress, who have strains of blood not more than one generation on this side of the sea.

An examination of the statistics of American immigration shows that since the foundation of our government the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland have contributed 8,400,000 of her people and Germany more than six million. Ireland, with more than four million; Great Britain, with a little less than four million, and Scandinavia, with something less than two million, have, together with Germany, contributed more than half of the total immigration to our shores since the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

When we take the German immigration of the United States between 1776 and 1890 and compare it with that from other countries, a somewhat startling result, and one usually unsuspected, is disclosed. The total arrivals of aliens in those 114 years aggregated 15,689,000, of whom more than 6,000,000 were British and Irish and 5,125,000 were Germans, which shows that one alien out of every three arriving in America during more than a century of our existence was a German. Only the United Kingdom shows a greater proportion.

Since 1890 the trend has been very different. With more than 17,000,000 immigrant arrivals since that date, only 1,023,000 have been Germans. If from this number a proper deduction is made for those who returned to their homeland and those who have died since their arrival, it will be seen that there are fewer than a million former subjects of the Kaiser in this country who have not been here more than twenty-six years. Of more than 8,000,000 people of German birth and immediate ancestry among us, less than 1,000,000 fail to have the background of birth or long residence in America behind them.

Ireland's gift to America[edit]

It is interesting to note the other foreign elements that have entered into the make-up of American population since 1776. What a wealth of blood that wonderful little island, Ireland, has given us! More Irish people have crossed the seas to become part of us than have remained behind. It is remarkable that so small an island—smaller, indeed, than the State of Maine—could in a century and a half send us enough people to duplicate the present population of eleven of our States having an aggregate area as large as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary together.

Austria-Hungary stands next on the list of contributors to the immigrant stream that has flowed from Europe to America. Although Austro-Hungarians began to immigrate in considerable numbers only when the arrivals from western Europe had begun to fall off, sufficient have come from the dual monarchy to populate the State of Texas to its present density. Italy has sent us enough of her people to duplicate the population of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, while England's and Scotland's contribution, 3,889,000 in all, together with Ireland's 4,500,000, gives a total of 8,389,000, or plenty to populate all of the States lying west of Texas and the Dakotas. The Russians who have come to our shores number 3,419,000. They could replace one-half of the population of New England.

Although the people of foreign birth constitute only one-seventh of the country's population, they contribute nearly one-fourth (22 per cent) of the arm-bearing strength of the nation. At the last census many of the States had a greater number of foreign-born men of arm-bearing age than they had of native-ancestry citizens, among them Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Taking the States where those of foreign birth and their sons together constitute a major portion of the men between the ages of 18 and 44, it will be found that the list includes the above States and the following: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Washington, and California—in all 20 States. We have considerably over 20,000,000 men of military age in the United States.

The immigrant's preference for city life[edit]

Another striking fact of our immigration situation is the unusual preference of the foreign born and their children for the cities. Of the 35,000,000 foreign-stock whites living in the United States, approximately 23,000,000 live in the cities. In only 14 of the 50 leading cities of the country do the whites of full native parentage constitute as much as half of the total population. Only one-fifth of the population of New York and Chicago is of native white ancestry. Less than a third of the populations of Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Newark, Minneapolis, Jersey City, Providence, St. Paul, Worcester, Scranton, Paterson, Fall River, Lowell, Cambridge, and Bridgeport are of native ancestry.

Conditions have played some curious pranks in the distribution of the immigrant population in the United States. More than two-thirds of the Germans live between the Hudson and the Mississippi and north of the Ohio. The same is true of the Austrians, the Belgians, the Hungarians, the Italians, the Dutch, the Russians, and the Welsh.

New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have 47 per cent of the Austrians, 34 per cent of the English, 30 per cent of the Germans, 54 per cent of the Hungarians, 45 per cent of the Irish, 58 per cent of the Italians, 56 per cent of the Russians, 34 per cent of the Dutch, and 46 per cent of the Welsh in the United States.

Nineteen-twentieths of our foreign born came from countries at war[edit]

An examination of the data at hand shows that nearly nineteen-twentieths of our foreign-born population come from the countries in Europe now at war. With such a surprising number of people among us who first beheld the light of day under flags now flying over Europe's battlefields, does it not speak well for our country's adopted children that there have been no more evidences of hyphenism than the past thirty months have disclosed?

The war in Europe has largely closed the gates of that continent to the emigrant. But three short years ago Ellis Island, the greatest immigrant gateway in the world, was one of the busiest places on the face of the earth. The wheels of the great machine that carried the incoming alien through the doors of America turned fast and long. Morning, noon, and night, the men who manned this wonderful mechanism labored as seldom men have to work in order to keep the machine moving fast enough to take care of the vast flood of humanity presenting itself there for inspection and adoption.

Now all is different. Military necessity must be served, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of those who would have come to man our ever-expanding industries are now on the battlefields of Europe, some still surviving the awful avalanche of fire and steel, and others, alas, asleep in those last trenches where the unending truce of death has stilled the enmities of life! And so Ellis Island is a somewhat lonesome place today. The twelve hundred thousand who came in 1914 are followed by the three hundred thousand of 1916.

The war's relation to immigration[edit]

But what of the morrow of American immigration? Will the war, whose military necessities all but stopped the immigrant tide from Europe, be followed by a peace whose economic opportunities will have the same effect?

One searches the pages of history in vain for a satisfactory answer. The history of past wars throws no certain light upon it. After our own Civil War, the South, burdened with debts, wanted a million things. But empty pocketbooks and poor credit form a combination that has little buying power. And so the South, unable to solve its economic difficulties at once, had to sit by and see thousands of its people go into the North and West to start over again. The end of the Russo-Japanese War brought great hordes of Russians to our shores, economic necessity impelling them to leave their homelands.

The Franco-Prussian War, on the other hand, sent only a normal number of French people to America as one of its aftermaths, and all the people who left Europe following the Napoleonic wars were fewer in number than those coming here in a single three-months' period of our normal immigration history.

There are those who say that the reason the South could not rebuild after the Civil War was because it did not get the support of the Federal Government—a support which the governments of Europe will give their people. They point out that none of the warring nations, however much they may owe, have borrowed as near to the margin of their credit as many Latin-American countries, and that people who would not buy their war bonds will take their peace obligations readily. They point to the experience of Baltimore and San Francisco to show how new prosperity and fresh resources can arise out of the ashes of calamity.

Six Panama canals a year interest charge[edit]

But the difference between an isolated city and practically a whole continent is too great for such an analogy to be significant. Furthermore, no State, no nation, no continent has ever before staggered under such an overwhelming debt. If the war were to end now, its financial obligations alone, to say nothing of the devastation, would reach a total of $60,000,000,000. Think of a continent, with much of the flower of its brains and brawn either dead or maimed, and vast areas of its productive territory in ruins, facing a debt whose interest charges alone annually will equal the cost of six Panama canals! And that continent one which, before the war, sent us a million of its people every year because living was hard at home!

Whoever has stood at the gate at Ellis Island and watched the human tide surge through, and whoever has traveled among the peasants of Europe must realize how narrow before the war was the margin between their total income and their necessary outgo. Against these things must be matched the efficiency that the war has forced upon the people and the nations and the spirit of self-sacrifice it has engendered.

America has always been a polyglot nation, although all tongues do finally melt into hers. It is said that twenty years after Hudson discovered Manhattan fourteen languages were spoken in New Amsterdam. The religious wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sent thousands and tens of thousands of French Huguenots, German Protestants, and English Puritans to our shores. One American-built vessel is said to have made 116 round trips between New York and Liverpool in nineteen years, during which time it brought 30,000 immigrants to America.

A man valued at fifty dollars[edit]

The first colonial charter granted by England for the purposes of new settlement was conditioned on homage and rent. This was the Virginia charter for the land extending from Cape Fear to Halifax, the rent of which was to be one-fifth of the net produce of gold, silver, and copper. The land aristocracy was promoted by the provision that a planter might add fifty additional acres of land for every person he would transport into Virginia at his own cost. When the Pilgrims were outfitting, each immigrant was rated at a capital of ten pounds. No divisions of profits was to be made for seven years.

In the early days the people who came were largely of the sturdy pioneer type. A great many of them could neither read nor write, while most of those who could were able to do so only in a limited way. The transpositions in many names in America came from the carelessness or inability of public officials in spelling men's names straight in deeds, wills, and other documents.

Governor Berkeley opposed the printing press[edit]

In 1718 three hundred and nineteen Scotch-Irish empowered their agent to negotiate terms with the Governor of Massachusetts for their settlement in that colony. Ninety-six per cent of the whole number wrote their names out in full. It has been said that at that time in no other part of the British Empire could such a proportion of men miscellaneously selected have written their names. Twenty-six per cent of the German male immigrants above sixteen years of age who came to America in the first half of the eighteenth century made their marks.

Different communities took different views as to education in those early times. In Connecticut every town that did not keep school for at least three months in the year was liable to be fined. In Virginia, Governor Berkeley thanked God that there were no free schools, nor printing presses, and expressed the hope that they would not arrive during his century, since he believed that learning brought disobedience, heresy, and sects into the world, and printing developed them. At one time in Virginia, out of 12,455 male adults who signed deeds and depositions, 40 per cent made their marks.

Immigration to the United States was not large in the early history of the country. Europe did not look upon the young republic with any favor, and the people of that continent did not regard America as offering attraction for the ambitious home-seeker. Between 1776 and 1820, a period of 44 years, less than 250,000 immigrants are believed to have arrived in the United States—an average of fewer than 6,000 a year.

The students of immigration differentiate between the immigrants from northwestern Europe and those from southern and eastern Europe by calling them “old” and “new” respectively. The “old” immigrant arrived with his family and came with a desire to make America their home. Only sixteen out of every hundred of the “old” immigrants returned to Europe, and more than two-fifths of those who came were females. On the other hand, thirty-eight out of every hundred of the “new” immigrants return to their native lands, while only one-fourth of those who come are females. It will be seen from this that proportionately more than twice as many of the “new” immigrants return to Europe as of the “old,” while the number of women among the “new” is vastly smaller.

Labor's debt to immigration[edit]

Northwestern Europe has given us 17,000,000 immigrants, where southern and eastern Europe have sent us 15,000,000.

The labor supply which immigrants have brought to the nation constitutes an incalculable debt. Seven out of every ten of those who work in our iron and steel industries are drawn from this class; seven out of ten of our bituminous coal miners belong to it. Three out of four of those who work in packing towns were born abroad, or are children of those who were born abroad; four out of five of those who make our silk goods, seven out of eight of those employed in our woolen mills, nine out of ten of those who refine our petroleum, and nineteen out of twenty of those who manufacture our sugar are immigrants or children of immigrants.

The story of Calumet, in the northern part of Michigan, shows how much of a monopoly the immigrant has in the mining industry in America. It is a city of 45,000, who live and work in the copper mines under Lake Superior. Twenty different races share in its population, and not even Babel heard more tongues. Sixteen nationalities are represented on its school-teaching force. In New York the foreigners colonize, as on the East Side; in Calumet it is the native population that colonizes, the American colony there being known as Houghton.

Americans sometimes are inclined to complain about the lowering of wage standards through the advent of the “new” immigrant. Where once the native citizen and the home-builder from northwestern Europe had to engage in ditch digging and in dirty and dangerous occupations, the coming of the “new” stream of humanity has released them from such task and has permitted them to take higher positions in the industrial world. The Irish, German, Welsh, and Scandinavian within our gates, along with the native American working-man, are now able to give their time almost wholly to work in the field of skilled labor, and as overseer for the “new” immigrant in the industrial centers. The latter has been the ladder on which his predecessor has climbed.

Moving into better quarters[edit]

Go to New York or any other principal city, and you will find that the quarters that were once occupied by the Germans, the Irish, the English, and the Scandinavians are now occupied by the Italians, the Slavs, and the immigrant Jew. Their coming has permitted the foreign born who came in earlier decades to command better positions and to live under better conditions than they otherwise could have done.

From whatever country the immigrant comes, he is, as a rule, above the average of the working classes in his community; for money is scarce in southern and eastern Europe, and the peasant who can accumulate enough to bring him to the United States must have some purpose in life, a fair share of ambition, and no little ability to practice self-denial. The great majority have come from the small villages in the rural districts.

That the alien's children are less illiterate than he is; that they commit less crime than he does, and have less tendency to insanity than he is shown by the statistics gathered by the United States Bureau of the Census and by the Immigration Commission of 1911.

Furthermore, these statistics prove that his grandchildren are about as free from illiteracy as the American child of native lineage, and even less disposed to insanity than the child whose ancestry may be traced to colonial times. In everything that goes to show good citizenship the grandchild of the immigrant stands the statistical test as well as the child of native parentage. How many immigrants we shall receive in the future no one can say. But, assuming that we have no immigration, and that the United States will grow as fast during the three centuries ahead of us as Europe grew from 1812 to 1912, we will have a population of nearly 500,000,000 in 2217, or approximately 166 to the square mile.

Agricultural students have declared that the soil of the United States has a sustaining power of 500 to the square mile. Assuming that one-third of the country is occupied by waste land, we have room on this basis for 900,000,000 people.

Source: — (February 1917), “Our Foreign-born Citizens”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(2): 95–130.