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Immigration in America

Terms in this set (55)

In equating the maintenance of ethnic culture with emancipation, Vecoli, Gutman, and other new immigration historians had arrived at a position similar to Handlin's. Handlin, to be sure, had not made class an important component of his analysis of immigrant communities, nor did he consider that immigrants of one class might have benefited - or suffered -from Americanization more than those of another. Moreover, Handlin had argued that the cultures of ethnic groups had been created in America and were not simple carry-overs from Europe. Still, the perception shared by Handlin and Gutman that American society was exploitative, and alienating might have generated a stimulating dialogue between the two camps.
The influence of the Gutman-Vecoli school was huge. A wholly new picture of American society for the period from 1880 to 1920 emerged. American cities were full of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, many of whom -perhaps a majority- had no intention of staying in America. They were here to work, to save money, and to return home. They clung tenaciously to their ethnic heritages and never experienced the Handlinesque period of disorganization and isolation. Many were indifferent to the United States, others hostile to a capitalist society that promised much but offered its workers inadequate welfare and safety. An extraordinarily large number displayed their alienation by refusing to naturalize or participate in American politics. As late as 1920, less than a third of immigrants from Poland, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Portugal had become citizens. There were exceptions to this pattern, most notably among Jewish immigrants from Russia. But the pattern remained striking.
The opposition between Americanization and ethnic persistence was false. "Immigrant settlers and their progeny," Fuchs argued, "were free to maintain . . . loyalty to their ancestral religions and cultures while . . . claiming an American identity by embracing the founding myths and participating in the political life of the nation." In Fuchs's telling, if immigrants declared their allegiance to the American political ideals of democracy and individual rights and to the founding documents -the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights - they became participants in the country's "civic culture." But the civic culture governed only political participation, leaving questions of religion, morals, customs, and traditions to the individual. Many immigrants chose to retain their ethnic culture, creating a system of "voluntary pluralism" that became a defining characteristic of American society. Immigrants, Fuchs argued, were devoted to the United States because it maximized their freedom to be Germans, Slovenes, or Jews. In a sense, Fuchs had rehabilitated the Americanization formula that German immigrants had pioneered in the nineteenth century, by declaring that they would become American in politics while remaining German in culture. Fuchs did not shrink from pointing out the discriminations visited on new comers, but he regarded these acts as ephemeral. American history became a saga of the civic culture realizing itself, eventually opening itself even to minority groups-blacks, Indians, Asians, Mexicans-who had long been excluded from democratic participation and from voluntary pluralism.
The Bracero Program and its successors marked the beginning of a massive movement of Mexicans to border states in both Mexico and the United States, one that continues into the twenty-first century. In addition to the major population shifts that the programs brought about, the social and cultural consequences of the programs were profound. In other words, not only did these labor programs bring hundreds of thousands of Mexican persons to the United States, but they established powerful narratives concerning the status and entitlement of these individuals once they entered United States society. The Bracero Program fostered the notion that Mexican workers were entirely dispensable, and that once they were no longer needed, they could simply be returned to Mexico. The government's notorious Operation Wetback is a prime example: under its auspices, 2 million Mexicans - and Mexican Americans who were actually US citizens or legally resident aliens - were deported back across the border between 1953 and 1955. (More than 300,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans - some historians set the number at twice that - were likewise deported from the United States during the 1930s.) Furthermore, the apparently inexhaustible supply of Mexican laborers allowed large agribusinesses to keep wages low for non-Mexican and Mexican workers alike. Because of the vulnerability of Mexican workers, it was common for growers to refuse to pay their wages, to demand excessive hours in the field, to ignore hazardous working conditions (especially pertaining to poisoning from pesticides and herbicides), and to violate provisions for housing and transportation. In short, the braceros and their children lived in poverty, with few opportunities to seek relief.