The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Immigrants and their children have also played an important role in modern American politics, helping to form the Roosevelt coalition in the 1930s and again in the 1960s with the election of John F. Kennedy. The seeds of the 1932 Roosevelt coalition were established in 1928, when Al Smith, an Irish American (on his mother’s side) Catholic from New York City, attracted the immigrant urban vote to the Democratic Party. Although Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith in 1928, a number of scholars have attributed the shift from the Republican dominance of the government in the 1920s to the New Deal coalition of the 1930s to the increasing share, turnout, and partisanship of the urban ethnic vote following several decades of mass immigration (Andersen 1979: 67-69; Baltzell 1964: 230; Clubb and Allen 1969; Degler 1964; Lubell 1952: 28).

Although the age of mass immigration had ended in the 1920s, the children of immigrants formed 20 percent of the potential electorate in 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1965: 8). The political leanings of the second generation can be inferred from research on the relationship between religion and political preferences. In the decades following the World War II era, white Protestants, especially middle class white Protestants outside the South, have been the base of the Republican Party, while Catholic and Jewish voters have been disproportionately Democratic (Hamilton 1972: chap. 5). The majority of early 20th-century Southern and Eastern European immigrants were Catholic or Jewish (Foner 2000: 11; Jones 1992: 192-95). The reform periods of the New Deal of the 1930s and the New Frontier (which lead to the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson) were made possible by the mass migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Immigrants and their descendants were also important in the development of popular American culture and in creating the positive image of immigration in the American mind. Immigrants and the second generation have played a remarkable role in the American creative arts, including writing, directing, producing, and acting in American films and plays for most of the first half of the 20th century (Buhle 2004; Gabler 1988; Most 2004; Phillips 1998; Winokur 1996). The majority of Hollywood film directors who have won two or more Academy Awards (Oscars) were either immigrants or the children of immigrants (Hirschman 2005: Table 4). Many of the most highly regarded composers and playwrights of Broadway were the children of immigrants, including George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and Leonard Bernstein (Most 2004). These composers and lyricists who wrote much of the standard American songbook were largely second and third generation Jewish immigrants who were reared in ethnic enclaves, but their music has defined the quintessential American musical culture of the 20th century.

Although first and second generation immigrant artists have always been anxious to assimilate to American society and to adopt “Anglo-sounding” names (Baltzell 1964), they have also broadened American culture to make it more receptive and open to outsiders. The Hollywood theme that “anyone can make it in America” is an Americanized version of the rags to riches story—one that is appealing to people who are striving for upward mobility. Many Hollywood and Broadway productions have also given us poignant accounts of outsiders who struggle to be understood and accepted. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the Statue of Liberty has become the preeminent national symbol of the United States (Kasinitz 2004: 279).

Lessons from the 20th Century

From our current vantage point, it is clear that popular beliefs and fears about immigrants in the early 20th century were completely mistaken. In the early 20th century, most elites and many social scientists thought that immigrants were overrunning American society. Based on the prevailing theories of the time (social Darwinism and Eugenics), immigrants were thought to be culturally and “racially” inferior to old stock Americans. The arguments used to restrict continued Southern and Eastern European immigration in the 20th century paralleled those made earlier to end Chinese and Japanese immigration (in 1882 and 1907, respectively). For three decades, the battle over immigration restriction was waged in the court of public opinion and in Congress. In 1910, the Dillingham Commission (a congressionally appointed commission named after Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont) issued a 42-volume report, which assumed the racial inferiority of the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe relative to the old stock immigrants from Northwestern Europe (Bernard 1980: 492).

Social Darwinism and scientific racism were in full flower with many leading scholars warning against allowing further immigration of “beaten members of beaten breeds” (Jones 1992: 228-230). When the passage of a literacy test in 1917 did not have the intended impact of slowing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, Congress passed the Quota Act in 1921 to limit the number of annual immigrants from each country to three percent of the foreign-born of that nationality in the 1910 census (Bernard 1980: 492-493). These provisions were not strong enough for some restrictionists, who passed another immigration law in 1924 that pushed the quotas back to two percent of each nationality counted in the 1890 census, a date before the bulk of the new immigrants had arrived.

Looking backward, we can see that the impacts of the Age of Mass Migration from 1880 to 1924 were almost entirely opposite to those anticipated by contemporary observers. Based on standard measures of socioeconomic achievement, residential location, and intermarriage, the children and grandchildren of the “new immigrants” of the early 20th century have almost completely assimilated into American society (Alba and Nee 2003). Even groups such as Italian Americans that were considered to be a “community in distress” as late as the 1930s have blended into the American mosaic. A closer examination reveals that the “new immigrants” have remade American society in their image. The Anglo-centric core of the early 20th century has been largely replaced with a more cosmopolitan America that places Catholicism and Judaism on a par with Protestant denominations, and the Statue of Liberty has become the national symbol of a nation of immigrants. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Age of Mass Migration is that the children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants helped to pave the way for the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and the 1965 Immigration Act that allowed a new wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America to arrive.