Rep. Steve King’s tweet in defense of Geert Wilders, the anti-immigrant Dutch politician, won the Iowa Republican praise from white supremacists but a put-down from his colleagues. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” King wrote. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa Republican chairman, appeared to speak for the consensus in answering the notion that children of foreign-born parents are not quite American. “We are a nation of immigrants, and diversity is the strength of any nation and any community,” Kaufmann said.
But in one small way, King was on to something: Immigration does change a nation’s culture. It has altered America’s national identity, and the transformation has been stressful.
Fifty years ago, only about 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, and the newcomers were almost entirely from Europe. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act opened America’s doors to people of all nationalities, with dramatic effect. By 2010, immigrants made up about 13 percent of the population, and nine of 10 were coming to America from outside Europe. These Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Hispanic immigrants bring rich diversity to American music, architecture, cuisine and sports; they contribute mightily to growth and innovation in science, technology, medicine and other sectors of the economy.
They have also forced us to revise our thinking about what it means to become American. Gone is the “melting pot” idea, with its assumption that immigrants can become indistinguishable from natives. This is not a concession to some politically correct celebration of differences; no matter how willing Nigerian Americans or Korean Americans may be to melt into the broader population, they cannot change the color of their skin. Patriotic Muslims and Sikhs can’t do anything about a religious heritage that does not fit with the notion of a Christian America.
The more diverse immigrant influx of recent decades has brought new life to an old debate over America’s national identity. From the time of its founding, the United States has been a nation defined, at least in theory, by a political ideal rather than by a particular people. John Quincy Adams said that Americans “look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors.” The French travel writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans in this regard were “quite exceptional” compared to Old World Europeans.
That understanding of the American nation was not really tested, however, because in practice the country existed only as a slightly more open European state. Diversity in early America meant the presence of German immigrants in addition to the British and French who had arrived earlier. The limits of that idealized identity became apparent when the immigrant pattern diverged from the original profile, first with the arrival of a largely poor Irish population, then with Chinese laborers and finally with a big influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans.
Each new wave was met with hostility. A Massachusetts official, writing in 1857, informed the state Legislature that the Irish immigrant population was characterized by “wretchedness, beggary, drunkenness, deceit, lying, treachery, malice, superstition.” Chinese immigrants in California competed with white, Mexican and black workers and faced violent attacks as a result.
The Harvard-trained lawyer Prescott Hall, co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League, posed this question in 1897: “Do we want this country to be peopled by British, German, and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin, and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic, and stagnant?” Congress offered an answer in 1924 by enacting national-origin quotas, allowing Northern and Western Europeans virtually unlimited entry while restricting immigration opportunities for Southern and Eastern Europeans and effectively excluding Asians, Africans and Middle Easterners.