La Shawn Barber writes:
"Back in the day, immigrants flocked to the United States, ready, willing, and able to become assimilated, English-speaking Americans. They prized not only America’s opportunities but what America symbolized. These immigrants didn’t just want a good job or higher standard of living. They wanted to be productive and proud Americans. Today’s “immigrants,” mostly from Central America, have no such ambitions. They come to the U.S. for the employment opportunities and to take advantage of America’s social services. They know what suckers we are for the “disadvantaged,” and they use our own generosity and laws against us."
Great aunts, and great grandfather, Sicily c. 1913. My great grandfather was a shoemaker, thus the nice shoes.
Restoration, Dr X., Photoshop, 2005, click photo for full-size view
Barber's assessment of earlier immigrants to the US is consistent with a popular American narrative, but that narrative is hardly the entire story of immigration to the US. Plenty of scholarly work on immigrant history has been done, and there is a great deal of worthwhile material available to the nonacademic reader as well.
My own family history is typical of the nearly 7 million Italians who arrived in the US between 1880 and 1925. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience includes a well-rounded account of Italian immigration to the US. That account is entirely consistent with what I know from first hand contact with my immigrant relatives, the last of whom died in the early 1990s.
I don't know if Barber had some particular group of past immigrants in mind, but if If she includes Italians (the single largest non-English-speaking immigrant group of the early 20th century) in her generalization about earlier immigrants to the US, then Barber is wrong in her opinion about the acquisition of English language skills. Only a few of my immigrant family members ever learned to speak fluent English. Their children were bilingual and their grandchildren spoke only English, but the latter heard Italian spoken daily because it was used to communicate with the older relatives.
Barber is also wrong about the reasons these immigrants came to the US. They didn’t come here because they wanted to be Americans. For the most part, they came for economic reasons. This was typical of Italian immigrants who were born into the entrenched poverty of Southern Italy and Sicily.
And when times were tough in America, many received public assistance. For example, they regularly made use of free NYC hospitals when they suffered serious illnesses. When he was a teenager, one uncle of mine had a severe spinal problem requiring surgery and a six-month hospitalization. New York City picked up the entire tab.
These immigrants were decent, hardworking people who were not looking to game the system, but when they needed help, they sought and accepted it. I realize that doesn’t fit the current mythology of the good immigrant of the past, but the mythology has gotten the story wrong.
One little known fact about Italian immigrant history is that many of these immigrants had no intention of remaining permanently in the US when they arrived here and they had mixed feelings about life in America. A fair number never became US citizens at all. Most of those who became American citizens did so only after they decided that they would never return to live in Italy.
And even though travel by sea was slow and costly, there was more travel back and forth between the US and Italy than is generally realized. While some of my ancestors never returned to Italy, one great grandfather made the trip six times and another made the trip twice. A group including a great grandmother, an aunt and an uncle moved back to Italy for several years in the 1960s. After several years, they returned to the US to live out their lives having concluded that they weren’t quite Italian or American. This was not an uncommon experience for these immigrants, although it was unusual to make the move back so many years after initially coming to the US.
There is a complex history behind why these immigrants came to the US in the first place, why they stayed or returned to Italy, how they felt about their lives here and how the succeeding generations became part of mainstream America. Obviously, Barber did not grow up with intimate, sustained contact with Italian immigrants, nor I suspect did she know any other southern European immigrants. She is way off base in her sweeping generalizations about past immigrants. It is terribly unfair of her to rely on a fictional narrative to demean today’s arrivals.