Immigration: Past and Present

By Molly Igoe

News Editor

On Oct. 22, Mae Ngai, professor of history and Lung Family Professor of Asian American studies at Columbia University, visited Washington College to speak about immigration. The talk was called “The United States as a Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea.”

Ngai said, “A common appeal made by immigrant rights activists is their claim of belonging to the U.S., which is known as a nation of immigrants.  This is, of course, a central trope of American history.  Many Americans believe that the democratic and inclusive character of our society—specifically our ethno-racial diversity and lack of hierarchy based on one’s birth and the opportunity for socio-economic advance—are most brightly illuminated by the immigrant experience.”

Ngai scrutinized the “nation of immigrants” concept in her lecture by considering its validity, origins, and its uses and abuses.

She said, “In particular, I test the idea by comparing and contrasting the experience and conditions of possibility for socio-economic mobility for the two great waves of labor migration to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century and at the turn of the 21st.”

Ngai’s talk about the history of immigration is relevant, especially in America today, where immigration is a widely contested and controversial topic.

Data from the Migration Policy Institute reveals that in 2013, there were 41.3 million immigrants living in the United States. According to the MPI website “In 2013, Mexican-born immigrants accounted for approximately 28 percent of the 41.3 million foreign born in the United States, making them the largest immigrant group in the country. India was the second largest, closely trailed by China (including Hong Kong but not Taiwan), which both accounted for about 5 percent, while the Philippines (4 percent) was the fourth largest sending country. Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, and Korea (3 percent each), as well as the Dominican Republic and Guatemala (2 percent each), complete the top ten countries of origin. Together, immigrants from these ten countries composed close to 60 percent of the U.S. immigrant population in 2013.”

The number of immigrants living in the United States in the 1970s was 9.6 million, which has since quadrupled to 41.3 million in 2013. Historically, immigrants largely came from Europe, especially throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Now, the large influx of immigrants coming from Latin America and Asia changes the way that immigrants today are viewed.

Some of the hostility aimed at immigrants today stems from the large amount of immigrants who cross into the United States from Mexico, Central America, and South America, sometimes illegally.

To avoid misinformation, it is important to know the facts and data on illegal immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2014, with Mexicans making up about half of this amount. Many of the immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America are fleeing economic hardships, violence, and political turmoil.

Ngai makes a strong argument by questioning the validity of America’s “nation of immigrants” concept. Perhaps because immigration today is seen as something drastically different from immigration that occurred one or two centuries ago Americans are less willing to accept these immigrants into society; but, it is worth noting that certain groups of immigrants like the Chinese in the late 19th century, were kept from immigrating with the Chinese Exclusion Act and faced discrimination and persecution while working in the United States.

As a nation of immigrants, why have we as a nation had such a hard time welcoming the countless refugees who have migrated to the United States to seek solace and start a new life? Ngai raised a valid point by questioning if America really is a great land of opportunity for immigrants looking to find better paying jobs and economic stability.

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