Are immigrants today fundamentally the same as the immigrants from yesteryear?

I’m in an argument in another forum with someone who insists that “immigration is good” is a myth.

No one can deny that this country has benefited tremendously from immigration, right? At the very least, most Americans wouldn’t be able to call themselves Americans if it hadn’t been for immigration. To me, it is very self-evident that immigration is a good thing. The arguments against immigration that you hear today are really no different from the nativist arguments from previous generations. At least to my ears. “They are taking our jobs!” Check. “They carry diseases and poverty!” Check. “They are subversive!” Check. “They will mess up our gene pool!” Check.

Are my “ears” correct, though? Are immigrants today fundamentally the same as all the previous waves of immigration? And on a related note, have we reached a point where we can fully justify closing the doors without being labled “racist” or “xenophobic”. Or is there a lot more room left for immigrants to flourish and contribute, just as the majority of our ancestors have been allowed to do?

When the arch conservatives at the Washington Times and Reason magazine agree that immigration is good, one has to realize that virtually all points of the opponents to immigration reform are weak ones.

There are some significant differences that result directly from our changed immigration laws.

Previous waves of immigration (prior to WWII) involved people from all walks of life because there were really no immigration laws in America. So you got Italians and Irishmen (for example) from a relatively broad spectrum of society.

Modern immigrants must fit much narrower, stratified classifications. They tend to either be unusually high-status (well-educated, rich) or unusually low-status (refugees or illegal). It is extraordinarily difficult for a middle-of-the-road immigrant to get here and do middle or lower-middle class work–they can really only come as family members of people already here. So especially for new immigrant groups from post-1970 waves, there is a very stratified class. Arab-Americans are a good example. Generally speaking, first generation immigrants from the Arab world tend to be either engineers or struggling part-time employees. And that’s a policy choice we make, because they only get here by having a high-status job or as a refugee.

Of course, the fact that immigration is exponentially more difficult in 2016, unlike 1916, means that more of the immigrants are illegal. And illegal immigrants have a much more difficult time integrating, among other difference that are obvious from the fact of them being always in danger of deportation.

IMO, the immigrants themselves are not significantly different. But the approach to encouraging assimilation versus celebrating diversity is fundamentally different, and the social safety net is also tremendously exhanced, and these have significant impacts on the immigration outcomes.

Most immigrants in the Elis Island days came from Europe. Most immigrants today come from outside Europe. Whether that is good/bad/indifferent is debatable, but it’s clearly a difference.

I doubt that encouragement of assimilation or lack thereof has any significant impact on actual levels of assimilation. Were the Chinese immigrants of pre-1882 more assimilated than the Chinese immigrants of 2016, for example?

Well, at least they knew their place. :rolleyes:

Well I don’t doubt it, and besides it’s not just government.

Hard to say WRT to any specific group, and Chinese in particular seem particularly eager to assimilate from everything I can tell. (For example, they tend to adopt and use very stereotypical “American” names - despite also having Chinese ethnic names - far more than many other groups.)

And I would guess that the Chinese immigrants in 2016 are from a higher socioeconomic group (in China) than the ones in 1882.

Ok. So what groups does your theory apply to? And what is the evidence?

It’s a little known fact, but a large percent of the “Ellis Island era” immigrants ended up returning to their homelands. Between 1900 and 1914, something like 1/3 of all immigrants did not stay. We often hear about immigrants today (especially from Mexico) who come and go back to their country of origin, but this isn’t especially new.

I’m not comparing any specific group then to that same specific group now. I’m comparing the overall immigrant population in the earlier wave of immigration (19th century and 20th century through about 1920) comprised largely of Germans, Italians, Irish etc. to current wave aggregate population, comprised largely of South & Central America and Asia.

Evidence of what? That the factors I mentioned would have a difference in outcome?

Evidence that celebration of diversity harms assimilation.

You have to take this one step further and remember that every generation of immigrants or children of immigrants says they were better and this round of immigrants are somehow different.

Ben Franklin was worried that the Germans coming to Pennsylvania would screw things up with their weird language and customs.

The Irish were considered lazy, drunk and violent by the ancestors of the people who came over on the Mayflower.

Then the Jews, Eastern Europeans, Chinese etc. where all hated or feared and called different from the previous noble, hardworking generations of immigrants.


Canadian immigration was historically ‘whiter’ (and far more British) then it is today. This was primary due to various race based laws that added barriers to non-whites whenever the public was thrown into a “yellow/brown/black peril” inducted tizzy. Sadly, I’m certain Canada wasn’t alone in this too.

I’ve not seen any evidence either way. But it makes sense to me, so I assume it’s most likely true. YMMV.

[The other factor I mentioned was the expanded safety net, which also makes the experience different as well, in that it can sap the work ethic of a group which starts off as poor, and keep them “trapped” in that situation.]

Ok. Is this other factor also an evidence-free belief?

Depends on what you call “evidence”.

If you mean the general notion that having to do things to survive makes people do them even if they wouldn’t otherwise do them, then it’s supported by a vast amount of empirical evidence, to the point where it’s pointless to discuss it with anyone who might deny it.

If you mean specifically that immigrant communities who become eligible for social safety net benefits gradually adopt that as a way of life to some extent, then it’s also supported by a lot of empirical evidence.

If you mean controlled studies with statistical analysis and controlling for variables etc., then no. I have little doubt that this would be the result of any such studies would such studies be feasible and exist, but as they are probably not either of these you need to go with other evidence.

I meant in the broad sense. The reasons that have caused you to take this view.

What do you mean by “adopt that as a way of life”?

OK, well I’ve given that.

It becomes more commonly practiced and more socially acceptable, and hence more likely to be adopted as a “first choice” lifestyle option versus an absolute last resort fallback.

“It’s taking longer than we thought.”