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Who Should Get In?

America’s Demography in the New Century: Aging Baby Boomers and New Immigrants as Major Players

by William Frey and Ross DeVol
Milken Institute, 62 pp., $10.00 (paper, also available at www.milkeninstitute.org)

Immigration from Mexico: Assessing the Impact on the United States

by Steven Camarota
Center for Immigration Studies, 64 pp., $12.00 (paper)

America’s first immigrants, the ancestors of today’s Indians, came from North Asia at least 13,000 years ago. They spread quickly across North and South America, but their numbers remained low. In 1600 Western Europe had at least ten and perhaps a hundred times more people per square mile than what is now the United States.1 Once Northern Europeans began to appreciate the military and economic implications of this demographic imbalance, a second wave of immigrants started coming to America. By 1700 roughly 250,000 Northern Europeans were living along the Atlantic coast. By 1890 Northern Europeans and their American descendants had spread across the entire continent and numbered more than fifty million.

Migration from Northern Europe slowed after 1890, but the growth of American manufacturing had already begun to attract a third wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. This wave peaked just before World War I and ended in 1924, when Congress established strict quotas based on national origin. In 1965 Congress adopted a new system of quotas, which admitted some people with scarce skills, some political refugees, and a lot of people with relatives in the United States. This new system led to a fourth wave of immigration from Latin America, the West Indies, and Asia. This wave has grown steadily since 1965. If it continues to grow at the same rate, post-1965 immigrants and their descendants will make up almost half the total population by 2050.

The revival of immigration poses many questions, but I will concentrate on only three. Here I discuss what recent scholarship can tell us about the way successive waves of immigrants have affected the people already living in the United States. A subsequent article will discuss how the children of recent immigrants are doing in the United States and why Congress has let the number of immigrants keep growing.


Large-scale immigration seldom leaves a region’s native population untouched. Soon after the first Indians’ arrival, most large North American mammals, including mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and camels, disappeared. Some experts blame these extinctions on climatic change. Others blame the Indians, who are said to have engaged in overhunting. Shepard Krech, an anthropologist at Brown University, assesses this long-running controversy in The Ecological Indian. Krech thinks that climatic change is a somewhat more plausible culprit than overhunting, but the issue is far from settled and new evidence keeps emerging.2 In any event, even those who blame the extinctions on climatic change agree that hunting reduced the life expec-tancy of many North American mammals. Given a choice, these mammals would surely have voted to send Homo sapiens back to Siberia.

Immigration from Europe clearly had catastrophic effects on the Indians. In 1492 the Indian population of today’s United States numbered at least two million. Krech guesses that the number was probably more like six million, and some writers propose even higher figures. By 1910, when the US Bureau of the Census made its first serious effort to count the Indians, it found only 266,000. This demographic disaster appears to have been caused mainly by the introduction of European diseases, although war, malnutrition, and marriage with whites also had a part.

Krech suggests that Indians usually welcomed European traders, who were a source of weapons, tools, blankets, and alcohol. But Europeans were also a source of smallpox, measles, influenza, and many other diseases to which the Indians had little resistance. Had the Indians known more about epidemiology, they would presumably have quarantined or killed every European they encountered; but they kept trading and kept dying. Once Europeans began establishing agricultural settlements and making land claims, Indians came to see them as a serious threat. But the Indians still lacked the political unity, the military technology, and the absolute numbers they would have needed to seal their borders. So European settlers kept coming, and in less than three hundred years the Indians’ way of life was destroyed.

When Southern and Eastern Europeans began entering the United States in large numbers, Northern Europeans also felt threatened. This time, however, the natives were more numerous, better organized, and better educated than the immigrants; so instead of worrying about being pushed onto reservations, the natives worried that the new immigrants would undermine the institutions and traditions that had made America so successful. American workers also worried about immigrants taking their jobs. Taken together, these fears generated broad national support for a more restrictive immigration policy.

The depression of the 1890s sparked the first serious efforts to restrict immigration from Europe. Had Congress seen the problem primarily as a matter of economics, the obvious solution would have been to suspend immigration until the labor market tightened. But because so much anti-immigrant sentiment derived from the change in immigrants’ national origins, Congress took a different tack. In 1897 it voted to exclude immigrants who were illiterate. Grover Cleveland vetoed this proposal, which would have cut immigration from Eastern Europe by a third and immigration from Southern Europe by nearly half. The literacy test was revived regularly, but it did not pass until 1917. Quotas based on the national origin of European immigrants were passed in 1921. These quotas were sharply reduced in 1924, virtually ending immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

There is little evidence that immigration caused unemployment, as many American workers feared, but there is evidence that it impeded the growth of blue-collar workers’ wages. Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard, has shown that between 1890 and 1915 wages grew more slowly in those American cities where the proportion of immigrants grew fastest.3 Some historians have argued that immigration also led to ethnic conflict among workers, making union organizing more difficult. Because labor was weak, politicians favored owners over workers, keeping the overall distribution of income extremely unequal. Some circumstantial evidence supports this view. When the proportion of recent immigrants in the labor force declined during the 1930s and 1940s, unions grew stronger and the distribution of income became more equal. New Deal legislation favorable to the labor movement, as well as the social consequences of World War II, also played a central part in these changes, but curtailing immigration may have made unionization easier.

In the 1920s, however, labor was weak and national origin quotas would never have passed without overwhelming support from rural America and much of the urban intelligentsia. Many opponents of immigration were just cultural conservatives who preferred living in a country where everyone spoke a familiar language, attended familiar churches, and followed familiar customs. But some restrictionists took a more apocalyptic position. They argued that the United States had prospered only because its early settlers brought their English customs and institutions with them. These “principled” restrictionists expected the new immigrants to make America more like Southern and Eastern Europe: undemocratic, corrupt, impoverished, and ignorant. They saw the rise of urban political machines such as the Irish-controlled Tammany Hall as a foretaste of what lay ahead for the nation as a whole. Except in the case of urban politics, however, these fears were not realized. Far from making America more like Southern and Eastern Europe, the new immigrants blended with their Northern European cousins surprisingly quickly, and the country as a whole became richer, better educated, and more democratic.


Sociologists have traditionally viewed ethnic assimilation as a matter of generations. The immigrants themselves are the first generation, their children are the second generation, and their grandchildren are the third. Because many habits and attitudes are hard to change after adolescence, first-generation immigrants seldom assimilate fully. Southern and Eastern Europeans who came to America as adults usually continued to speak their native language at home, for example, and they seldom became as fluent in English as in their native tongue. The second generation almost always spoke fluent English. Many other measures of assimilation followed a similar pattern.

One reason second-generation Southern and Eastern Europeans almost all became fluent in English was that while they were very numerous, they had no common language. No linguistic minority dominated any large American city the way Spanish speakers now dominate Miami, for example. Furthermore, while the new immigrants often lived in ethnic neighborhoods, they still needed some English at work, and they could see that their children would need even more English if they were to get ahead economically. As a result, they almost all sent their children to schools conducted entirely in English.

Religion remained a divisive issue far longer than language. The new immigrants almost all wanted their children to learn English, but relatively few wanted their children to become Protestants. Fortunately, America already had a legal system for protecting sectarian diversity. Nonetheless, the specter of Vatican political influence haunted some American Protestants until the 1960s. Only after John Kennedy became president and nothing happened was this specter banished. Neither major party nominated a Jew for national office until last year, but now even that taboo seems to have evaporated.

Intermarriage is probably the best measure of social and cultural convergence. Initially, Italian immigrants usually married other Italians, Polish immigrants usually married other Poles, and so on. But ethnic intermarriage rose sharply in the second generation, and by the third generation it had become the norm. Americans of Southern and Eastern European descent born between 1916 and 1925 were usually the children of immigrants. Those born between 1946 and 1955 were usually the grandchildren of immigrants. If we compare these two cohorts, the proportion marrying outside their own ethnic group rose from 43 to 73 percent among Italians, from 53 to 80 percent among Poles, from 74 to 91 percent among Czechs, and from 76 to 92 percent among Hungarians.4

Intermarriage made the American melting pot genetic as well as cultural. People from different parts of Europe often have distinctive physical features, and at one time writers such as Gobineau tried to divide Europeans into distinct races. The Holocaust discredited such ideas, but blond Italians and swarthy Swedes remain atypical. In America, in contrast, ethnic intermarriage redistributed such physical differences in unpredictable ways, reducing their symbolic significance. When white Americans talk about ethnicity today they are usually talking about religion, holiday rituals, or cuisine, not physical differences.

One reason cultural differences between the descendants of old and new immigrants diminished so quickly was that Northern Europeans from rural America were also moving to America’s cities during the first half of the twentieth century. Both groups found that the rules they had learned from their parents were often inapplicable in this new environment. The anonymity of urban life offered the migrants and their children more personal freedom than the small communities from which they came, but urban jobs demanded new forms of discipline. Newspapers, magazines, movies, soap operas, and popular music offered the entire uprooted urban population new dreams, new ideals, and new rules for everyday living. Because these commercial enterprises wanted the broadest possible audience, they emphasized the things that their audience had in common, not the things that divided them.

  1. 1

    Western Europe had between 72 and 90 people per square mile (see Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian, p. 265). Estimates of the pre-Columbian Indian population range from two to twenty million. If we ignore Alaska, these estimates imply population densities between 0.7 and 7 people per square mile.

  2. 2

    For a recent analysis that supports the overhunting hypothesis see John Alroy, “A Multispecies Overkill Simulation of the End-Pleistocene Megafaunal Mass Extinction,” Science, June 2001, pp. 1893–1896.

  3. 3

    See “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921,” in The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, edited by Claudia Goldin and Gary Libecap (University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 223–257. In their chapter for The Handbook of Inter-national Migration, Susan Carter and Richard Sutch argue that wages grew slowly in cities with high levels of immigration only because immigrants gravitated to cities with unusually high wages, which inevitably fell once their labor shortage was relieved. Goldin shows, however, that the negative relationship between immigration and wages persisted even after adjusting for a city’s initial wage level.

  4. 4

    Between half and two thirds of all spouses from these countries reported that their own ancestry was mixed. The estimates in the text count everyone who said they had any ancestors from a given country. The data are from Stanley Lieberson and Mary C. Waters, From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America (Russell Sage Foundation, 1988), p. 199.

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