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Rita Simon Interview

Rita Simon is Professor of Public Affairs at American University. She is a former editor of the American Sociological Review. 

She is a co-author of Intercountry Adoption: A Multicultural Perspective and International Migration: The Female Experience. She is the author of The Ambivalent Welcome; Adoption, Race, and Identity; The Case for Transracial Adoption; In Their Own Voices; and other works.

Rita Simon

New River Media Interview with: Rita Simon
Professor of Public Affairs, American University

QUESTION: You have described public opinion with regard to immigrants as being an example of "looking backwards through rose-colored glasses." What does that signify? 

RITA SIMON: In my study of public attitudes toward immigration, going back as far as one can, I have found that the American people, although they refer to the United States very proudly as a country of immigrants and they talk about the immigrant heritage and so forth, when you ask them specifically about immigration and about how many immigrants should be allowed to enter the country, they tend to put on rose-colored glasses and look backwards and suggest that those immigrants who came earlier, they were wonderful for this country. They helped build this country. They were model citizens. They were very good for the country.

But the immigrants who are coming now - and the now could be in the 1940s, the 1950s or any decade up until right now - they're no good for this country. They take more than they give. They're not really loyal. They're coming here only to make money. They will not make positive contributions. And we should really, as much as possible, not allow them in.

QUESTION: Talk about how the nativist [anti-immigrant] sentiment came through in the media of the time.

RITA SIMON: If you look at the leading magazines during the period, say, from the 1880s for the next hundred or so years - I'm talking about weeklies, monthlies and so forth - most of the print media were anti-immigrant. I think the New Republic stands out as an exception. But such a popular magazine as the Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and the post-World War I era was rabidly anti-immigrant. They had very popular novelists who used to write for them; Kenneth Roberts, who wrote Northwest Passage. He really saw the new immigrants coming - and these are basically people from southern and eastern Europe, so these are Catholics and Jews, unlike the Protestants who came during the earlier time - he saw these people as a great danger to the United States. He saw them as really lowering, tearing down American culture, American civilization and so forth.

And even for magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, which is a much more upscale magazine - you would expect to find that on the coffee tables of upper middle-class people in this country - you had people who would write for them - Francis Walker, even the president of Harvard at that time, Lawrence Lowell - who would see the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the ones who were coming after World War I, as a great danger to American society and as people who would have nothing to contribute of a positive nature.

QUESTION: Give us an idea of the scope and size of immigration in the past.

RITA SIMON: In terms of numbers of immigrants who've come to this country, we have data from 1820 on. And I believe that between 1820 and perhaps two years ago, we've had over fifty million immigrants come to this country. Now, some came and went back, but generally you can talk about sixty million. During different periods you had many more immigrants than you had during other periods. I think the period the first decade of the twentieth century probably saw more immigrants coming to this country than any other decade. The period between 1990 and 2000 is probably a close second. But I think that was the major period.

Now, we have to remember that immigrants came from different countries at different times. Certainly, the period just before World War I, most of the immigrants came from northern and western Europe. The Irish were the exception. They came right after the potato famine, in the 1850s and 1860s. We had very few French immigrants, so that most of the immigrants were from northern and western Europe, and they were Protestant. And the immigrants that we loved more than any other group were the Scandinavians, in part because they looked like our ideal immigrant. They were tall. They tended to be blond-haired. They were blue-eyed. And they wanted to farm. They didn't settle in the cities. And so they still kind of stand out as our image of the ideal immigrant.

But after World War I, most of the immigrants were coming from southern and eastern Europe, and they were different in several ways. One, they were not Protestants. They were Catholics and Jews. Many of them were urban-dwellers. Many of them were laborers, some with skills, some without, and so forth. And they came from countries that seemed to be farther away in terms of culture and institutions than those that we had in the United States. And that's when you had the major anti-immigrant sentiment really coming alive. That's when you saw it in the popular media. That's when you saw it expressed in the movies, in many different ways. And the fear was that these people would take over the United States and change it.

Well, obviously the Depression, which came in the 1930s, changed that. That was the one decade in which more people left the United States than came. And then you had World War II. So now we're picking up the immigration issue after World War II. There was some question of refugees in the late 1930s, and the United States was as anti-refugee as it was anti-public opinion. There was a chance that the Nazi regime would have allowed some people out in the mid-1930s and so on, but the United States wouldn't take them.

Okay, after World War II, under, I think, President Truman's leadership, people who had survived the concentration camps and people who had escaped from eastern Europe, and the War Brides Act and so on, you had special groups of immigrants coming in. But there were still very strong quotas on the actual number of immigrants. I believe, as late as the 1960s, the number of immigrants who were allowed to come in were 290,000 a year. But the scene was shifting, starting in about the 1960's. By 1965, for example, more than half of the immigrants coming to this country were coming from the western hemisphere, mostly from Mexico and countries south, but even Canada was sending people into the United States. And less than a third were coming from European countries. So the biggest chunk from western hemisphere, less than a third from European, any part of Europe, and then the rest of the people coming from Asia. So that was a big change. And over the years, since the mid 1950s, fewer and fewer immigrants are coming from any part of Europe.

QUESTION: Between 1890 to 1924 the new immigrants were primarily unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. Was there a response in the labor movement?

RITA SIMON: The major group of immigrants who started arriving just before World War I, and then for the decade and a half after World War I, were coming from southern and eastern Europe. They were people who came and settled in the major urban centers of the country. New York was a favorite place; Boston, Philadelphia and so forth. And they tended to live in very crowded tenement areas. They were also people who were laborers, some semi-skilled, some unskilled. Some had some particular skills.

The American Federation of Labor joined with the other anti-immigrant groups in saying, "These people are a great danger to this country. They are particularly a threat to the American laborer, because they will work for lower wages. They will bring down the wage level in this country. They will lower our standard of living. They will keep American workers from getting an honest job at decent wages."

QUESTION: How were the immigrants actually received in this country at the time?

RITA SIMON: Well, I think what we see on the part of people who were anti-immigrant in this country, way back 100 years ago, and perhaps even today, is their belief that these people will never assimilate into American culture, that they will always stand outside. They'll never learn English, for example. They will not learn about the American tradition. They won't understand about what it means to live in a free society. They won't understand about the responsibilities of freedom and democracy, that they're used to living under dictatorship or used to living in countries where they had no rights and no responsibilities and so forth, and that they were incapable of learning. And I think that all the data show that whatever cohort of immigrants we're talking about, that the immigrants want their children to learn English, that they understand that you cannot make it in American society unless you speak the language and unless you speak it well.

QUESTION: Can you clarify the demographics of the immigrant wave in this period?

RITA SIMON: I think if you look at the pattern of immigration in this country, you find that most of the people who came at any era came because they wanted to make a new life in this country. Now, it's true that there were different periods when the men came first. They came first either because they wanted to make a living and then bring their wife and children, or they came first because they were unmarried and they wanted to start a new life.

What's very important to understand about immigrants is most immigrants who come are young people. They are young, courageous, strong, healthy people. Now, especially back 100 years ago, it was a tough journey. So that the notion that it would be the old and the feeble and the hungry, et cetera, who were coming, that sounds nice coming from the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus's poem, but it doesn't fit reality. Most immigrants, most of the time, are people who are courageous and young and are willing to work hard, and so on. And so what we saw in this country, for example, was, yes, there were times when men came at higher rates than women. But, for example, after World War II, when the War Brides Act passed and so on, you had periods of time in which there were more women immigrants coming than men.

It's very interesting to listen to people who say, "Oh, immigrants, they'll never integrate into American society. They'll never learn about American society. They'll never want to be like Americans." But certainly one very important indicator of how Americanized they become is the fact that after one generation, immigrant women have about the same number of children as American women who've either been born in this country or whose families have been in this country for a great many generations. So after one generation, you see practically no differences in the number of children immigrant women have and native-born American women have.

QUESTION: Let's kind of talk about how the idea of eugenics and scientific racism played out.

RITA SIMON: There's certainly a long history in this country, going back probably to the time the Irish started coming here - because, after all, everyone knew that the Irish were all drunkards and so forth and that their loyalty would be to the pope and so forth - somehow that they were inferior and that, even though they came to this country and they might make it as saloon-keepers and so forth, that they would never have the integrity, they would never have the education, that native-born Americans had.

And we saw that, for example, in references to the Mediterranean races and so forth; that the Nordic race or the Teutonic race, they had a monopoly on understanding self-government, that these were people who would always be the intellectual leaders of the country. These were the people who would take American culture to new standards. And it was a racist idea. The language is very clear - Nordic race, Teutonic race - and that these other races were just really people who were unimaginative, who would never really succeed, and neither would their children.

World War II really does away with this kind of language, because if you were to continue using this language, who would you sound like? You'd sound like Nazi Germany. And so one's language is cleaned up during World War II, and one hears nothing more about different races. You don't hear about the Nordic race, the Teutonic race, et cetera. It took a Holocaust, it took World War II, for everyone to clean up their language. That simply disappears.

QUESTION: Talk about the public perception surrounding the need to restrict immigration.

RITA SIMON: I think Americans recognized that we had a very big country and we had to settle the land. Indeed, one of the statements in the Declaration of Independence, one of the reasons why we wanted to break away from England, is because the English wanted to limit immigration to the United States. And so Thomas Jefferson and anyone else who was involved in writing the Declaration of Independence said, "We need immigrants coming to this country. We need to settle the land." And, indeed, the immigrants who were coming at that time from England and Scotland, the Scandinavian countries and so forth, they indeed were welcomed and they did go out and settle the land.

So, again, it's only when a different kind of immigrant starts to come, and the first different kind are the Irish. They're different, one, because they're Catholic, and two, because they're urban-dwellers. And the feeling was that they are dangerous. And from that time on, in almost any account of immigrants that you read about, even by social scientists, "Did you know that all immigrants smell badly?" That was a very common thing, that certainly for the Irish immigrants, that they drank very heavily and that their mothers were indifferent about when their children would start drinking, and so forth.

So one has the negative picture of immigrants begin when a different type of immigrant starts coming, and the different type for the first time was based on religion and based on urban versus rural dwelling. And then we see that accelerating very much in the 1880s and 1890s, when the eastern and southern European immigrants start coming, where they're either Catholics or Jews; again, largely urban-dwellers; again, people who were probably not interested in settling the land but in living in crowded urban centers and working in industrial jobs, et cetera.

And again, it is the feeling that these people don't have the same sanitary standards. It isn't only a matter of money. They just don't understand about it. They're dirty. They don't believe in bathing. They don't believe in keeping their children clean, and so forth. The negative images are very, very strong. And people who write about these are really American intellectuals at that time and American social scientists, for example.

QUESTION: What are some examples of the kind of rhetoric that one would hear or find in public discourse?

RITA SIMON: Here's something from E.A. Ross, a famous sociologist at the University of Wisconsin: "The immigrant seldom brings, in his intellectual baggage, anything of use to us. The admission rate into our electorate of backward men, men whose mental, moral and physical standards are lower than our own, must inevitably retard our social progress and thrust us behind the more uniformly civilized nations in the world."

The Saturday Evening Post, which was one of the most popular magazines in the country during the 1920s, had Kenneth Roberts, the famous author of Northwest Passage, writes, "But the situation gets continuously worse. Instead of being a great melting pot, which it was prior to 1880 because of the similarity of the early Nordic immigrants, America has largely become the dumping ground for the world's human riff-raff, who couldn't make a living in their own country."

Once again, in the Saturday Evening Post, from the period of the 1920s: "If America doesn't keep out the queer alien mongrelized people of southern and eastern Europe, citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn." The warning, the fear that many of these writers tried to strike in the American public is very, very strong, and in many ways, as you know, very successful.

I think what these writers were telling the American public is that these people are dangerous and that they will organize and they will take over, that they will have the political clout to elect people who represent their interests and not the interests of the American people as the American people have come to identify themselves, that they will bring in corruption, that they will bring in all kinds of power politics that's just outside the American experience. And be careful; that they will organize socialist parties, that they will take over the labor unions in this country and not make them trade unions but make them part of some larger political union. There was a feeling that these people would change America and make it Europe, and the worst parts of Europe.

QUESTION: Let's jump forward to talk about recent attitudes toward immigration - has acceptance increased?

RITA SIMON: One of the things that characterizes the American public's attitude toward immigrants is that those who came earlier were always better; those who are coming now, whenever now is, are either not as good or downright dangerous. And we have some systematic evidence of that, because when you asked the American public, for example, in 1993, "Was immigration a good thing or a bad thing for this country in the past?" you found that some 60 percent said it was a good thing in the past. You found that about 30 percent said it was a bad thing. The others had no opinion.

When you'd say to them, at the same time and in the same poll, "Is immigration a good thing for this country now?" the figures are reversed. You have 60 percent or more saying it's a bad thing, and about 30 percent or fewer saying it is a good thing. So the feeling always is, "Yes, in the past, they built this country. Now they're tearing it down."

I believe it was in the mid 1980s when the question was asked by a national poll, "Here are various ethnic groups who have come to this country over various times. All things considered, have they been good for this country, bad for this country, or really didn't make any difference?"

What's very interesting is those groups who, at the time they were coming in great numbers - and we're talking about Italians, we're talking about Jews, we're talking about Chinese, we're talking about Mexicans and so forth - all of these people today are viewed as, by and large, making a more positive than negative contribution.

But as you get closer and closer to the immigrants who were coming in great numbers at the time the survey was conducted, you find that those groups - the Haitians, the Cubans, the Koreans - it is those people who are viewed as primarily bad and not likely to make a positive contribution. Now, all of a sudden, we look back and say, "The Irish, they were really okay." There were riots when the Irish started coming to this country in great numbers, and similarly for some of the other groups that I just mentioned.

QUESTION: I know it's hard for a social scientist, but how do you reconcile that?

RITA SIMON: I think one of the reasons that we see the pattern that I described about liking immigrants who came in the past and being fearful of those who are coming now is there's genuinely a fear of change. And somehow I think there's a fear that these people are different, that they will not behave as all previous groups have behaved, that something will have happened here and now that will change it and that these will be the cohort of people that will not integrate, that will not become part of the American dream and will not become part of American society. I think it's fear and insecurity.

And I would say this, that if you look at which groups of Americans are more likely to have positive attitudes toward immigrants at any time since we've looked at poll data, you'll find that persons of higher education and of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to have positive attitudes toward immigrants, and I think that's almost completely because they are not threatened by them.

I think the amazing thing about the American immigration experience and the kinds of immigration legislation that have passed - was that the 1990 Act actually passed, because the 1990 Immigration Act - and that's the act that we're operating under now - is the most liberal immigration act that was ever passed. Now, more people could come - if there were no immigration restrictions, there was no question that in 1990 the American Congress, backed by the American president, said that as many as 700,000 people could legally enter the United States. And that didn't include refugees. How that act ever got passed is still a mystery to me.

QUESTION: Give us the view backward from the end of the century.

RITA SIMON: If one looks at the whole history of American immigration and who came went and how many people came at different times, I think that the one decade between 1900 and 1910 were the largest single number of people coming; I believe almost nine million. That's probably going to be competitive with the number of immigrants who come from 1990 to 2000. And, of course, now in this decade, up to 2000, we also had refugees coming in. And there have been times during this decade that a great number have come in. But nevertheless, the period from 1880, when the eastern and southern Europeans started coming, until the Depression hit, with the interruption of World War I, was the period in which the greatest number of immigrants came to this country.

I think that we saw attempts to limit that immigration by the literacy acts, but they had presidents who stood up against some expression of public law, such as passed by Congress four or five times, to limit immigration. So I think the story is, as the anti-immigrant sentiments were building and gaining more and more strength in this country and finally became victorious with the passage of the Quota Act, you nevertheless still found that some twenty million people had come into this country.

QUESTION: Why do you think that is, that they still made it through?

RITA SIMON: I think there are a great many forces in this country that wanted them to come in. I think there was a great deal of work that needed to be done in this country, and there were people that were inviting them to come in. And as some immigrants came to this country, they wrote back and said, "It's a wonderful place. You really have a chance, if you work hard, to succeed. You have a chance for your children to be able to go to schools, to be able to live decently, and so on."

So when some immigrants came, the word spread. As you know, there are all these wonderful stories about the streets of New York are paved with gold and so forth. I'm not sure the immigrants believed all that, but they did believe that the United States was a land of opportunity. So, one, they wanted to come. And there were industries and there were people in this country who needed them and worked very hard to bring them here.

QUESTION: Do you think that peoples' attitudes toward immigration can be changed at all?

RITA SIMON: I teach a course called Justice in Public Policy, and immigration is one of the issues that I look at. I take polls, anonymous polls. I actually have students, paper and pencil - "Don't put your name on it; I just want to see where you are, what your feelings are about legalizing drugs or immigration or the death penalty," before we start discussing the issues and afterwards. And I have found that most of the students start out being anti-immigrant because they think immigrants take jobs from people who are already here, that immigrants will never integrate into American society; they don't care about learning English and so on.

And after we examine the data they say, "You know, there isn't such a thing as a fixed number of jobs; if you have more people who need to buy things, you have to have more people who are producing things. So maybe instead of just taking jobs, who knows, maybe they even make more jobs," and so forth. So as we go over the data and, for example, as we look at those cities that have had the fastest growth, they say, "Now, isn't that interesting, because they've had the greatest number of immigrants." I find that the data are persuasive to people, and particularly data that show that immigrants contribute rather than take from American society, culturally as well as economically, that they bring with them new forms of music, new styles of dress and so forth. And that happens every semester.


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