America – The Great Melting Pot – the “Crucible” of Humankind
A commentary by Hank Boerner
At least until recently, many of us took pride in the idea that our great United States of America was “a melting pot,” where immigrants from many nations, of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds, could figuratively “come ashore” as many of our ancestors did via Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
Lately, listening to the presidential and congressional campaigns and now the post-campaign rhetoric, the “Golden Door” of America (as attributed by numerous writers to the essence of our Statue of Liberty astride the gateway) is in danger of being sealed up and replaced by the promised wall along the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the U.S.A. (As one author told us of the door, “…it is the entrance into liberty and freedom from oppression that is the promise of America, a land, a people, a way of life…”
You might recall the words of poet Emma Lazarus, firmly inscribed on the base of the statue: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” (“The New Colossus,” 1883.)
I grew up in New York, and have lived and worked here most of my life, with brief interludes in Washington, D.C. and Florida. Riding on the city subway system most days, it is clear that at least in this bustling urban center, we here are still an example of the melting pot.
Where did this concept come from? “The Melting Pot” was the title of a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill; it depicts the life of a Jewish-Russian immigrant family that survived an early-1900s pogrom in the Old Country and escaped to safety in America. The play was staged in Washington, D.C., and then-President Teddy Roosevelt (#26, a Republican) was in the White House and attended the debut performance. (TR was born in New York City and lived most of his life in the Empire State.)
From this stage drama came the familiar phrase, “Melting Pot” to describe America…the “glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward…” In the play, author Zangwill has his hero, David, write a musical symphony, “The Crucible,” with the dream of ethnicity disappearing in America.
In the early-1900s theatrical work, the phrase “Melting Pot” quickly gained in popularity to describe the American immigrant experience.
Thinking about this recently, I consulted the National Geographic (NG) magazine, mid-1914 issue, published just as the Old World (Europe, Near East) plunged into the worst armed conflict ever — the Great War, now known to many of us as World War One (which began in summer 1914). One consequence of WW I for America would be that immigration to our shores would slow to a trickle. That was a dramatic societal change when we consider what preceded the war.
In 1914, NG reported, one-in-seven people in the U.S.A. were born outside of our borders (13-and-a half-million), equal to the population of Belgium and The Netherlands combined, or Norway/Sweden/Denmark/Switzerland combined. (Of course, all of those nations were the former homelands of millions of new Americans.)
The magazine writers tantalized the readers with lively descriptions: We had more Germans than the City of Berlin; enough Irish to populate four Dublins; enough Italians to populate three Romes.
Immigration Pushing Westward
The American civil war between the north and south states involved 23 slavery-free states and five border states supporting the Union and 11 states of the south forming the Confederacy. That five-year long war that killed 600,000 Americans ended in April 1865. In May of that same year, the transcontinental railroad was completed, linking America’s east and west coasts, and cementing our notion of “Manifest Destiny.”
Europeans (primarily) poured into these once again-United States of America — some staying in coastal cities, many more flowing westward. The Erie Canal helped to move goods and people westward through the Great Lakes. Railroads began to criss-cross states, old and new. Vast agricultural lands were settled (Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma, and on and on).
As the swelling American population began moving from farm-to-city to work in the factories of the new Industrial Age, many more immigrants poured into the cities. Five million-plus arrived on our shores between 1900 and 1910 (when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House). Actually, eight-and-a-half million arrived, but three million-plus turned around and returned to their home country.
The American Dream was sought by those “huddled masses” from: Germany, Russia, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Austria, England, Sweden, Hungary, Norway, Scotland, Mexico, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, France, Greece, Wales, Japan, Turkey-in-Asia, Portugal, China, Belgium, the Atlantic Islands, Cuba, Bulgaria, Australia, the many nations in South America, Montenegro, Newfoundland, India, Serbia, all of Africa, Luxemburg, Pacific Islands, and Central American nations. In that descending order of origins — the German-born in the lead. Perhaps your ancestors are included in the tidal wave of people that reached our shores before WW I.
But even in the early-1900s there was a slowing of certain nationalities — notably, Germans and Irish. But those earlier waves of immigrants were having families, and so by 1914 there were 19 million people whose parent or parents were foreign born. And so an astounding 32 million of our citizens — one third of the total population — was either foreign-born or children of first generation immigrants who were foreign-born.
Stats Tell a Story
The earliest reliable statistics tracking immigrants to the U.S. are from 1820 forward. In 1887, there were almost 500,000 new arrivees. As the 19th Century turned to the 20th, the one million mark was reached (in 1905); heading toward 1914, the flow had reached 1.2 million — and then dramatically declined to 100,000 by 1918. The Great Migration to our shores was ending.
In 2016 we are a nation of three-plus times the population of those years (100 million then / 324 million today).
And the migration of the legally-admitted today is …. still about one million (2014 data).
What About The Un-Documented Among Us
The issue that irks many Americans, as evidenced in the political campaigns, is the presence of the “illegal or undocumented or illegally-admitted ” non-US citizens” among us. That could be as many as 11 million (but dropping), according to The Washington Post story earlier this year, citing the data of the Center for Migration Studies (of course, it’s a New York-based think tank.) Trending Down: illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America with sharper declines from South America and Europe.
Today’s Immigrant Population
With changes in American law, “immigrants” today include such classifications as those who are lawful residents; tourists, students and workers admitted on a temporary basis; those who apply for asylum or refugee status; and the “naturalized” of the foreign-born.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act governs immigration policy. There is a limit set of 675,000 permanent immigrants allowed per year (with some allowance for close family members). Non-citizens are also allowed on a temporary basis.
Our public policy accommodates family-based immigration; employment -based immigration; and, permanent immigration. There are country ceilings (limits). And allowance for certain refugees and asylees, and vulnerable populations (think: today’s Syrians, Iraqis, etc.) The latter totals just 85,000 per year.
There is a Diversity Visa Program. Remember the German and Irish and Italian flows more than a century ago? They are not coming in such numbers now, so the Immigration Act of 1990 created a system of allowing immigrants from low-number countries to immigrate to the U.S. — about 55,000 persons per year.
Remember the excitement about President Obama’s “Dreamers,” a program designed for immigrants who might become eligible for citizenship? There are about 1.8 million eligible, including many who are between 15 and 30 years of age. The Dreamers are mostly young, of various ages up to 30 and are those brought here as children by their parents entering the country without permission (“illegally” here in popular rhetoric). Half of the Dreamers live in California and Texas; New York has 89,000; Florida, 106,000. About half are female. Seven-out-of-10 came from Mexico. They anxiously await the changes that may take place in public policy when President Obama leaves office.
As We Await the Trump Administration
All of this is interesting to say the least for us to think about, as we await the Trump Administration and the 115th Congress coming to Washington — with immigration reform high on the agenda.
One element of the running conversation on immigration is that of the Muslim population. Should those applying to come here who are of the Muslim faith be denied admittance if they come from certain majority-Muslim nations? Should Muslim citizens (and non-citizens) among us be required to register and a special database kept (their whereabouts, activities, and so on to be tracked and charted)?
We had somewhat of the same question raised a century ago, back in that 1914 era, when people of German origins comprised a very large part of the American population. (Donald J. Trump’s grandfather among them). If America went to war with the Kaiser’s Germany, the discussion of the day was, would the German-Americans / or / American-Germans be trusted in the U.S. military? Would they fight their cousins on European battle fields?
Loyalty of New Citizens
This was an important question. The American ambassador to Germany at the time, James W. Gerard, delivered a speech on the subject in April 1918 – a few months before we went to war with Germany.
The German-Americans embraced their new nation’s cause unconditionally, he told the German leadership. And he warned them of what would happen to any German-American who betrayed America. The German foreign minister had told the ambassador that [Germany] had 500,000 “German reservists” in America who would rise in arms against the United States if our country made any move against Germany.
So, the ambassador said in his comments: America would have 500,001 lampposts in where the “reservists” would be hanging the day after they tried to rise. And if there were any German-Americans who were so ungrateful for the benefits they received that they are still for the Kaiser (the German leader) there is only one thing to do. Give them back their wooden shoes and the rags they landed in, and ship them back to the Fatherland.
And for good measure he added: “I have traveled over all the United States — through the Alleghenies, the Catskills, the Rockies (etc.). And in all these mountains, there is no animal that bites and kicks and squeals and scratches, that would bite and squeal and scratch equal to a German-American, if you commenced to tie him up and told him that he was on his way back to the Kaiser [and the former homeland].”
The Question Arose Again in 1941-42
The question was again raised in 1941 as the military-led Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and declared war on the U.S. (and we immediately declared war on Japan). In what is now acknowledged by many to be a shameful period in American history, Japanese-Americans (“Nisei”) were rounded up and sent to internment camps — up to 120,000 men, women and children.
But the young men joined the military to fight for their country, the United States of America. More than 30,000 Nisei served in the U.S. Army, a good number fighting bravely as members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, one of the most decorated units in all of U.S. military history. While they fought in Italy, the young Boy Scouts back in the internment camps in the U.S. conducted memorial services for the fallen.
The Nisei were Americans first in the 1940s, as were the German-Americans before them in the early 1900s. Oh, and the Nisei soldiers were among those liberating Jews at the Nazi slave camps, including Dachau. Wonder what they were thinking as they remembered the fate of their families back home in western U.S. internment camps.
About America, the Melting Pot, America, the Crucible
The originator of the “Melting Pot” and “The Crucible,” Israel Zangwill was a British-born teacher, author and playwright (1864-1926) who was an ardent supporter of 19th Century “Zionism.” While championing a Jewish homeland, he had strong thoughts about America. Look at the words his character says in the famous play:
“America is God’s crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your 50 groups with your 50 languages and histories, and your 50 blood hatreds and rivalries.
“But you won’t be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to — these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians. Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
“The real American has not yet arrived. He is only in the Crucible, I tell you. He will be the fusion of all races, the common superman.”
Lessons for 2017
What are the lessons of all of this for we Americans in the last weeks of the year 2016 — and looking into what might happen in 2017? When the first European explorers reached the North American shores, the land was sparsely settled — estimates range from 7 to 18 million indigenous peoples were here. America as we know it is an immigrant nation.
Of course, every nation must be able to secure its boundaries, its borders. We are a nation of laws, based on our wonderful Constitution and Bill of Rights as foundation, and it is not unreasonable to expect that people arriving here will do so within the framework of the law — “legally,” if you please.
The questions to be addressed going forward are: (1) what should our legal immigration policies be? (2) What do we do — humanely — about those that did not follow the rules but now live among us? (3) What do we do about asylees and refugees who want to come to our country? (4) What do we do about citizens born here, and protected by our Constitution, if their parents came without permission when they were children? (5) What should our conversation be about immigrants and immigration and so on, so that those we welcome here….feel welcomed!
Stay Tuned — the answers should be coming in early-2017.
* * * * * * * *
Check out The Washington Post story about illegal immigration at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/01/20/u-s-illegal-immigrant-population-falls-below-11-million-continuing-nearly-decade-long-decline-report-says/
About author Israel Zangwill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Zangwill
More background on “The Crucible” and playwright: “American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century” by Gary Gerstle (published by Princeton University Press, 2001).
I’ve commented in this blog about immigration and the wonder of our Immigrant Nation — see my Thanksgiving 2014 post: http://www.hankboerner.com/staytuned/happy-thanksgiving-tomorrow-yes-it-will-be-heres-my-why/