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Alan Kraut Interview


Alan Kraut is Professor of History at American University. 

He is the author of The Huddled Masses: the Immigrant in American Society 1880-1921; and Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace.

Alan Kraut

New River Media Interview (excerpted) with: 
Alan Kraut Professor of History, American University 

QUESTION: What was the scope of immigration to this country in the period we are talking about, the turn of the last century? 

ALAN KRAUT: Between 1880 and the mid 1920s, approximately 23 and a half million immigrants came to the United States, more than at any other time. Our friends the demographers tell us that more people were on the move then than at any other time in human history. 

QUESTION: What were some of the things that were going on in Europe that were driving these migrations? 

ALAN KRAUT: Historians often talk about the migrations of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries as controlled by kinds of "pushes and pulls." The pushes were often economic changes that were going on in home countries. For example, in southern Italy there was enormous poverty, some of it stirred by natural disaster, some of it stirred by the oppressiveness of northern land owners on the southern peasantry, some of it stirred by unusual patterns of economic competition. 

QUESTION: Was liberty a real draw for the people coming here? 

ALAN KRAUT: The overwhelming number of immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were really in search of economic opportunity. They were in search of better jobs, higher wages, education for their young, a better livelihood and better lives down the road. But they were also concerned - and this was especially true of minority groups in parts of southern and eastern Europe - with political liberty, the ability to participate in the political system, the ability to function in the world without the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. And, of course, they were also interested in religious liberties. For evangelical Christians, for eastern European Jews, for any number of minority groups, the pull of the United States and its attitude of religious liberty was very, very great. 

QUESTION: Tell us how the face of the city was changing with this massive wave of immigrants. 

ALAN KRAUT: The vast majority of immigrants who came to the United States spent at least some time in cities. Many ultimately would go out to the countryside and would be engaged in farming activities, but most spent some time in the cities. And many made their livelihoods and their futures in the cities as industrial workers. Naturally, with such high concentrations of immigrants, it changed the whole nature of American urban life. Foreign language newspapers appeared. Stores that catered to the specific food needs and consumer desires of the newcomers arose. The newcomers themselves used the high concentration of population in cities as ways of launching themselves as entrepreneurs - push carts, small stores; these were the ways that many of these newcomers entered the economy. The cities buzzed with the activity that came out of these various immigrant groups. 

QUESTION: How was this group of immigrants different from previous waves of immigration? 

ALAN KRAUT: Prior to the end of the 19th century, the greatest number of immigrants coming to the United States were coming out of northern and western Europe. They were coming from England and Ireland and, of course, from central Europe, from the German states. They tended to be Protestant in religion with the exception of the Irish, who were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. And they tended to be very much skilled or semi-skilled immigrants who were coming to this country as well. They were often fair-skinned. And some, at least in the case of the English and the Irish, spoke English. 

This was, of course, not the case in the late nineteenth century. The late nineteenth century brought to the United States millions of Catholics and Jews and darker-skinned people, duskier complexions, many of them in much greater levels of poverty than those who had come at an earlier time. The result is that there was a tremendous belief on the part of American nativists that these newcomers were of inferior stock, that they simply were not as good as the western and northern Europeans that had come at an earlier time . . . 

QUESTION: Talk about the poverty issue. Is it true to characterize them as different economically? 

ALAN KRAUT: Well, every migration to the United States has had within it the very, very poor. Who could have been poorer or more downtrodden than the Irish who came during the 1840s escaping the potato famine? So there were certainly poor who had come to the United States before. But in terms of just raw numbers of poor, unskilled labor, the late 19th century, of course, took precedence. And what that meant was that there were enormous social problems that came with the newcomers; first, the need to find jobs, then the need to find housing, then the need to, of course, earn enough income to raise their families and to create some sort of sense of opportunity for themselves and for the next generation. 

When we think back at where the immigrants lived and we think about the teeming neighborhoods of New York's lower east side or parts of Chicago or we think of the crowded conditions of the Chinese in San Francisco or the difficulties of the Mexicans coming across the Rio Grande and living in communities within Texas, we think about real poverty that certainly shaped the immigrants' lives, shaped their view of America when they first arrived. America was the glowing land of opportunity, but when they actually arrived, they discovered something else other than a glowing land of opportunity. They discovered at best a land that had jobs, but often a land that was not completely receptive to them and where they would in some cases suffer even greater hardship and poverty than they had in their home countries. 

The tenement house, which loomed kind of like a giant against the night sky, many, many stories high, with all of its disadvantages - airless, sunless, inner rooms - for many immigrants, while not a pleasant place to live, was at least a place where they had neighbors who spoke the same language that they did, where they could raise their children and hope for something better and work for something better. 

QUESTION: Did many of them go home again? 

ALAN KRAUT: When we think of the immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we're talking about essentially 23 and a half million people who came between the 1880s and the mid-1920s, when restriction was imposed. But of that 23 and a half million people, approximately a third returned to their place of origin. Not everyone who came to the United States liked it. Not everybody who came to the United States succeeded in the way that they thought they ought to. Many were also lonely for family and for friends. In some cases, men returned to find wives because they weren't happy with the women who they met in the United States. They wanted a woman from the old country who understood the ways of their group. 

And so there was a constant flow, a circulation, if you will, of immigrants back and forth between their home countries and the United States. And some groups were actually labor migrants. The Italians, the southern Italians, are the best example of that, of a group that migrated seasonally, until restriction. Many of those Italian laborers [went back and forth] quite a few times before making the decision to stay in the United States or return to Italy permanently. 

QUESTION: What were some of the sources of the nativist [anti-immigrant] response to immigrants? 

ALAN KRAUT: There was an old immigrant saying: "America beckons, but Americans repel." That old immigrant saying, translated into many languages, conveys the kind of love-hate relationship that the United States and its people had with new arrivals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the one hand, the United States desperately needed the labor of these newcomers. On the other hand, they were strange to many Americans. They were of different religious persuasions. They were poorer. They looked different from most native-born Americans. And so, there was a fear of the stranger. On the one hand, we wanted immigration. On the other hand, we didn't want immigrants. And so there was an effort to repel those newcomers, sometimes by simply discouraging them, not giving them jobs, not being decent to them and fair to them in terms of housing, and so on. 

There was also an effort to pass laws and restrictions that would repel newcomers. Many Americans felt that they needed protection from these immigrants, protection from their bodies and protection from their culture. In terms of their bodies, the inspection procedure at Ellis Island, the medical inspection, was one way that Americans attempted to express, through their government agencies, the desire to admit only immigrants that would benefit the United States, not sickly, weak immigrants who would be unproductive workers. 

QUESTION: How significant were the restrictive policies such as inspection? 

ALAN KRAUT: The United States, in its desire to repel undesirable immigrants to the United States, focused, of course, on those they regarded as physically unfit, mentally unfit, emotionally unable to support themselves in the United States. And yet, with all of the restrictions, with all of the inspections, with all of the interrogations to eliminate criminals, prostitutes, anyone who might be morally suspect, when we look at the overall figures for how many immigrants were accepted and rejected, we know that only between 2 and 3 percent of newcomers in any given year actually were rejected. Why is that? 

Well, in part it was the desire of the United States to continue this very, very valuable influx of newcomers to fuel American industry. And at the same time, it reflects the desire of Americans to admit those who would be productive. And consequently, the Ellis Island hospital admitted cases that could be cured, and people were then admitted after spending time in the Ellis Island hospital. Immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century tended to be between the ages of eighteen and thirty. In most individuals, that's the healthiest portion of life. And so, consequently, this was not an enfeebled group of newcomers who were arriving, by and large, but rather young men and young women who were enjoying robust health and looked, at least, as if they were going to be very productive. And that's exactly what the United States wanted. 

QUESTION: Can you characterize the forms of nativist reactions to the level of immigration at this time? 

ALAN KRAUT: Opposition to immigration was really of two kinds. There were Americans who feared that the newcomers would take their jobs or drive down the wage scale and resisted immigration because it simply wasn't in their own economic best interest to support immigration. American labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor, opposed immigration very often because the immigrants worked for lower wages. 

But there was another genre of immigration opponent that was concerned with who the immigrant was and what the immigrant was. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League was concerned about the racial composition of these newcomers. In the United States and in other countries of western Europe during this period, there was an increasing attention to eugenics, the belief that you could improve the human condition and improve human stock by careful breeding. 

Overall, eugenicists looked at immigration as an enormous challenge. Not all immigrants were inferior, but many eugenicists believed that it would be to the advantage of the United States to limit immigration severely, particularly from parts of Asia and parts of southern and eastern Europe, precisely those areas that were the big donors of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so eugenicists became major advocates of limiting immigration. 

Around the same time the eugenicists were making their arguments, there was a great enthusiasm for IQ testing; that is, finding out what the intelligence quotient was for different segments of the American population. World War I provided a tremendous opportunity for those who were interested in mental testing. They could give mental tests to recruits and determine exactly how the young American male stood up in terms of intelligence to other populations that were being tested at the time. And so approximately 1.75 million young men in the World War I period were given IQ tests. 

Some were given IQ tests that involved written instructions and written answers, the Alpha test. And some were given the Beta version of the intelligence test, which involved pictures and a lot of non-verbal material, non-written material. The result was, from the standpoint of many testers, very surprising. They discovered that the average mental age of the Army recruit was approximately thirteen, and for some ethnic portions of the population, even lower. Italians were estimated to be, I believe - to have a mental age of 11.3 years; Russian Jews equally low. 

What should one make of these results? Critics of the test pointed out that there was an enormous cultural bias in the testing procedures. The questions asked often required an understanding of the culture more than they did the content or the response of the question. So, for example, one question accompanied by a picture of a tennis court asked, "What's missing from this picture?" Well, the tennis net was missing from the picture. But if you were a newly-arrived immigrant who had never played tennis, you'd hardly be aware of what this field was or that there was a net missing from the picture at all. 

So, consequently, there were many who challenged the validity of these tests at all in any way assessing the intelligence and capabilities of immigrants coming to the United States. The frightening part was, of course, that these social scientists published their results. The information was being disseminated. Congressmen and senators read the information; many of them, of course, immediately calling for a consideration or reconsideration of the issue of immigration restriction. 

In addition to that, there was a scientific response/refutation, principally by Franz Boas, a prominent anthropologist at Columbia University, who had studied immigrants. He had studied them physically to determine whether or not they could be as robust as native-born Americans, given adequate diet and exercise and living conditions. But he also was a major critic of the intelligence testing that was being done. 

QUESTION: How well accepted was eugenics at the time? 

ALAN KRAUT: When we talk about eugenics, we often have a kind of knee-jerk reaction that's shaped by the experience of Nazi Germany, who after all took eugenics to the ultimate extent, by attempting to systematically exterminate those who they decided were genetically not valuable, unfit to be part of the population. 

But if we go back to the earlier part of the twentieth century, intelligent, bright, well-meaning reformers and intellectuals thought very highly of the science - and they did believe it was a science - of eugenics. After all, if farmers could breed cattle and other animals and get the best results, why couldn't well-meaning social planners do the same thing with human stock? Eugenics was not a notion confined to a narrow group of scientists somewhere off in an isolated laboratory. It was rather a very popular notion that people talked about all the time. 

QUESTION: Let's focus in specifically on the Dillingham Commission [1911] and the influence of this government report. Boas wrote part of it, but wasn't he the lone voice saying that genetics didn't determine everything? 

ALAN KRAUT: Every conceivable kind of stereotype made its way into the nativist literature of the time, and not just from evil-minded kind of marginal figures, but respected academics spewed forth a kind of constant barrage of epithets and criticisms of newly-arrived immigrants as being simply unfit to join the American population. 

And so there was this kind of academic critique of the newcomers and the belief that they really weren't fit. Well, if they weren't fit, what could you do about it? Some argued for extreme moves such as sterilization. Others argued that simply immigration restriction would do the job. And so the Dillingham report, a report sponsored by the Congress of the United States, consisting of approximately forty-two volumes of data collected on every aspect of the immigration experience, by and large concluded that there was a need for some kind of control of immigration to the United States, especially some sort of restrictive measures. 

And not everyone who participated in the Dillingham report agreed. There were voices like that of Franz Boas, the anthropologist from Columbia University, who argued that immigrants weren't of an inferior genetic type; they were simply people whose life experiences, had been different, and that if they had had similar life experiences, similar diet, similar exercise, similar opportunities to native-born Americans, their bodily types would not be all that different. 

And, in fact, Boas conducted a study which demonstrated that in the second and third generations, the children and grandchildren of newcomers in their bodily type tended to resemble more native-born youngsters than youngsters coming as new immigrants to the United States. Those findings were very, very significant because they told those Americans who were sort of on the fence, not completely opposed to immigration but not quite in favor completely either, that they really had less to fear than perhaps they thought about these newcomers and what their bodies would mean to the American population. 

QUESTION: Describe the political path that ended in the quotas of 1921 and 1924. 

ALAN KRAUT: Well, by the 1920s, the debate resumed over immigration to the United States. It was the period after the First World War. It was a time when many Americans felt that the economic advantages of immigration had been fulfilled to the extent that they could be - that is, immigrants were making up a large part of the American labor force in our factories and in our mines - and that immigrants might represent a national security hazard. After all, was it not true, many argued, that many eastern Europeans were sympathetic to communism, to Bolshevism as it was called, and to the ideas of anarchism? At the very least, many seemed to be socialists. 

And so arguments began to grow that the United States should restrict immigration. Some of those arguments were the old biological arguments, the arguments that eugenicists had raised. Some of them were the arguments raised by the American Federation of Labor; that is, immigrants were lowering the wages of American workers and taking jobs from native-born American workers. 

And then there were the arguments that the immigrants were of different genetic stock and were dangerous to Americans and a political threat beside. By the 1920s, Congress was debating immigration restriction. And the intent was not to restrict any one particular group, as in the case of the Chinese exclusion law, but rather a broader kind of restriction that would limit the various groups that had been coming to the United States in greater numbers since the 1890s. 

In 1921, Congress passed temporary legislation which limited the number of the percentage of immigrants of each particular group coming to the United States. And that notion of a national origins quota system was made permanent in 1924 with the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that limited immigration of any particular group to 3 percent of that group's population in the United States as of the 1890 census. And so a national origins quota system was instituted as a way of limiting, once and for all, immigrants coming to the United States from Asia and southern and eastern Europe. 

QUESTION: Let's talk about how far some of the immigrant groups had come in just those 20 or 30 years. 

ALAN KRAUT: In the period from 1890 to the restriction in the 1920s, even as newcomers were continuing to arrive, those who had arrived at an earlier period were engaged in a process of Americanization and integration, a kind of national integration. Their children were going to school and learning American ways. Many were becoming citizens, were becoming naturalized Americans. They were climbing the socioeconomic ladder. 

And so by the mid-1920s, when immigration restriction is being debated in Congress, there were those who had succeeded, those who had become prominent, who were very angry with the American Congress for shutting the door. Fiorello LaGuardia, the famous mayor of New York, the Little Flower himself, had been an immigration interpreter on Ellis Island while he was going to New York University law school at night. He had very vivid memories of the immigrants coming through Ellis Island, gateway to the United States. And as a politician and later as a mayor of New York in the 1940s, LaGuardia was one of the really vocal opponents of immigration restriction. 

QUESTION: Can you say something about the post-1965 act? 

ALAN KRAUT: Beginning in the mid 1970s, and especially during the 1980s, 1990s, the United States experienced an increasingly large and robust wave of immigration to the United States. Unlike the earlier waves in the early part of the twentieth century coming out of southern and eastern Europe, this new wave was coming primarily from Latin America, from Mexico, from countries in southeast Asia, and by the end of the century from eastern Europe as well, post-Cold War eastern Europe. 

The response to this immigration was very different than the response in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1965, there was a sea change in American immigration law. The country abandoned the national origins quota system and adopted a system which stressed family reunification, the admission of immigrants who offered something to the United States professionally or in terms of badly-needed skills. We no longer wanted to restrict immigration from particular countries the way we had in the earlier period. We were more interested in the overall number of immigrants who were coming to the United States and what those immigrants could offer the United States and what the United States could offer those newcomers in terms of keeping families together and so on. 

So the United States had a very immigrant-friendly legislation - has had immigrant-friendly legislation since 1965. By the same token, the United States entered a new period of immigration flow. Beginning in the 1970s, particularly after the Vietnam War, when we got refugees coming out of Southeast Asia. We began slowly, and in a kind of crescendo movement, to see more and more Southeast Asians, Latin Americans, Indians, Chinese and, since the end of the Cold War, eastern Europeans, finding their way to the United States, emigrating to the United States, most as immigrants, some as refugees. So now the United States found itself with a new wave of immigration, coming often from countries that were quite nearby. 

QUESTION: Can you compare the two periods of immigration, then and now? 

ALAN KRAUT: As we approach the first decade of the 21st century, one of the striking things about immigration is that while it seems large - and indeed, the current wave of immigration may ultimately be the largest in American history - in terms of the percentage of immigrants in the American population and even in states with the highest percentage of immigrants, it's relatively modest compared to what we saw earlier in the twentieth century. 

For example, the percentage of immigrants at the turn of the century in cities like New York and Chicago and Philadelphia tended to be in the neighborhood of 12 to 14 percent. Today they're more in the neighborhood of 8 percent at most, and in some cases less. So the American population is certainly feeling some of the pressures of immigration, but by the same token, immigrants are today making some of the same important contributions that immigrants made earlier in the twentieth century. They're enriching the labor force with their labor. They're paying taxes, which increase revenues. And they're, of course, enriching American culture by their very presence, contributing to the very heterogeneous culture of the United States. 

QUESTION: Let's talk about kind of old paradigms of immigration versus new. And I guess it would be really the uprooted person, the transplanted, or those kinds of ideas. 

ALAN KRAUT: In 1961, Oscar Handlin published a very important and very eloquent book called The Uprooted. Handlin's model is a model of donor countries and host countries, migrants going from one place, uprooting themselves, totally abandoning their societies, and going someplace else and replanting themselves and starting new lives. Immigration historians no longer look at it in quite that kind of pattern. And that immigration paradigm has been abandoned in favor of a much broader, what we sometimes call a transnational paradigm. 

What is one to say about a businessman in Florida who wakes up in the morning, hops on a plane, does business in Santo Domingo, and returns by dinnertime, or families who spend part of the year in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela and part of the year in Miami or others who continue to go back and forth between homes, having two domiciles, one in their home country in Asia and one in the United States; Indian engineers and scientists who are doing business in the United States via computers and email but are residents still of villages at home and come to the United States for periods of time and then go home for periods of time? 

When we talk about the transnational paradigm and we talk about individuals and families who are sharing their time and their lives between old world and new world, we're not talking about something that's a recent phenomenon alone. We can look back at the early twentieth century when Italian laborers, who were sometimes called "birds of passage" by American immigration officials, spent part of their year in the United States working and earning money and part of their year at home with their families and friends in their villages in southern Italy, but who, in the meanwhile, were also sending dollars home, dollars that were important in supporting families and in generating activity within the economies of their villages in their home country. 

QUESTION: Is there something that your students are consistently surprised by, that dispels their myths about immigration? 

ALAN KRAUT: Many Americans who see docu-dramas about immigration on television or movies or read novels about immigration or listen to Neil Diamond's song "America," as if everybody is coming to America, are sometimes amazed to discover that not all those who have unsatisfactory lives choose immigration as an option. And not all those who have chosen to migrate, to leave their home countries and go elsewhere, have chosen the United States; that from our point of view, from the point of view of Americans, immigration is a very, very important part of the American experience, and we feel that we have been enormously generous and open to the foreign-born of other lands. 

And yet for many, the United States was not the most desirable place to go. Other countries have also been recipients of immigrants, host nations. And many of those who, in fact, have come to the United States have not been happy here and have wanted to go home and have gone home and stayed home and not joined the American population. Many Americans are surprised to learn that the United States was not the only host country of choice for migrants, and many Americans are also very surprised to learn that those who come here are often disillusioned, don't want to stay, and, in fact, go home, and that there has been an enormous outflow of immigrants as well as an influx. 

Having said all that, the United States nevertheless remains and continues to view itself quite properly as a nation of nations, a nation that has grown enormously strong and vital and robust because of the economic skills and cultural richness that has been brought to these shores by the foreign-born. As we enter the twenty-first century, if we stop and think about what is true of the United States, one of the great truths about this country is that it is a nation of nations, a nation composed of many, many other groups from other parts of the world.


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