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The making of Americans

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(Read caption) Middle-schooLers in Eugene, Ore., performed at an Ellis Island immigration simulation last year

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All Americans are immigrants. Some arrived ages before there were visas and borders or even countries; most came after. Some arrived against their will; most arrived hungry for what lay ahead. As recounted in thousands of immigrant stories, the first days in the New World could be glorious, dizzying, and upsetting. Opportunity was abundant and freedom exhilarating. But language, laws, and customs could be puzzling. Natives could be brusque. Work could be tedious and dangerous.

When the speed and excess got to be too much, there was always a sanctuary of fellow immigrants, where faith, food, and conversation were familiar. From the outside, Little Italy, Chinatown, and every other ethnic neighborhood could seem strange, even threatening. In the early 20th century, Anglo-Americans worried that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe weren’t fitting in. They were creating separate cultures and threatening the status quo. This was not just paranoia. Anarchists and labor activists, many rooted in immigrant communities, challenged the power structure. Criminal groups operated out of ethnic communities. IQ tests appeared to show a gap between native- and foreign-born.

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But earlier immigrants had also kept to themselves (Germans in Pennsylvania, Swedes in Minnesota), challenged the power structure (1776 for example), suffered their share of criminality (the Bowery Boys of the 1840s, the outlaws of the West), and were considered less intelligent, motivated, and hygienic than those who arrived before them. 

All the while, however, the assimilation engine was running. Music, manners, and food were sampled – gingerly at first, then creatively. Tacos with Vietnamese hot sauce? Why not? Accents altered, friendships kindled, rings were exchanged. It was not always smooth, but year by year families blended, neighborhoods integrated, new citizens voted, and the nation evolved.

As Congress considers legislation that could grant citizenship to millions of people, the question hanging in the air is whether the assimilation engine still works. Scholars such as the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard University and commentators such as Pat Buchanan have warned that the influx of Latin Americans risks dividing the country into two societies. Census data and social-science research – measuring everything from educational achievement to homeownership to intermarriage – say otherwise. 

As Stephanie Hanes’s report shows (click here), the process of assimilation is far from straightforward, especially among first-generation immigrants. Most flourish, some don’t – just like the native born.

“So why is it that some residents in some states with large new immigrant populations believe that integration is not occurring?” asked a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress. “One reason is that new arrivals increased over a short period while assimilation, by definition, can only be observed over time.”

If all Americans are immigrants, we all have an immigrant story. My father’s parents, for instance, arrived from Italy in the early 20th century; my mother’s family was from Germany in the mid-19th century. Along the way, the name got changed. There is no “Y” in the Italian alphabet. So Yemma is an American name – as is Smith, Garcia, Yee, Shapiro, Shaloub, Nguyen, Patel, Obama, and every other name in the American phone book.

If I may speak for them: It isn’t always easy becoming an American, but it’s always good to be one.

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John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at