When Immigrants Were WelcomedRoundup
tags: immigration, Trump
Now that the Senate has failed once again to produce an immigration bill that the president might sign, it’s time for those of us who’d rather welcome newcomers and deport xenophobes to rediscover an old and, for many progressives, scary word: “Americanization.” This is what Progressives did that a century ago, and, with some fortuitous twists and turns, it worked.
They weren’t all “progressives” in today’s vaguely democratic-socialist, multiculturalist sense of that term. In the 1920s, members of the Progressive Party considered American national identity and what Herbert Croly called “The Promise of American LIfe” a true vessel of democracy, and some of them used commercial advertising to draw immigrants toward citizenship. Frances Kellor, head of the Progressive Party’s research and publicity department, and, later, of the “Americanization” programs at the federal Bureau of Education, also had brands such as Mazola Oil and Washington Crisps Cereal place ads in the immigrant Italian Il Progresso, the Greek Atlantis, as well as Yiddish newspapers. “One million dollars… spent in selling American goods to the foreign-born in America will do more good than all the investigations [of foreign subversion] ever set on foot, simply because [immigrant newspaper] publishers will feel that America… wants them to make good, and they will return it,” she wrote.
Yet the idea wasn’t just to draw immigrants into vapid consumerism. It was to use capitalist and civic “carrots” instead of the nativist “stick” of resentment to get people from often-hostile Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, and Hebrew “races” to accept one another as fellow Americans. (Later, building on that precedent, many would of these groups would come to join the African-American and Latino civil-rights movements.)
Now that the current occupant of the White House and his party are fanning and re-institutionalizing racial resentments, it’s time to retell this century-old story. (I told it 20 years ago in my paper, “Should American Journalism Make Us Americans?” for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for The Press, Politics, and Public Policy.)
In 1921, the conservative, Anglo Saxon Daughters of the American Revolution published a manual for immigrants, in 18 languages, that began:
To the men and women who come from far-off lands to seek a new home in America,… the DAR extend a cordial welcome. We ask you to make yourselves worthy to become a citizen of our country, to study its history, to become acquainted with its literature, its traditions, and its laws… It is a proud honor to have American citizenship conferred upon you. It is more honorable to deserve such citizenship…. We offer you these opportunities.
A welcome like that would prompt justified skepticism today: To whom, really, was the DAR promising equal opportunity? And at what cost? Still, it presented citizenship not as an exclusive ethnic or economic club but as a democratic project to achieve common ideals that Americans couldn’t achieve by acting alone or apart….When the late Barbara Jordan, an African-American congresswoman from Texas, chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1995, she said that the word “’Americanization’… earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s….
When the late Barbara Jordan, an African-American congresswoman from Texas, chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1995, she said that the word “’Americanization’… earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s…. But it is our word and we are taking it back.” We should take it back, too, not only from white supremacists and other ethno-racial extremists but also from technological and commercial currents that are fragmenting our citizenry into vapid consumerism and niche markets. If Congress keeps on betraying DACA dreamers, families seeking reunification, and cities that are trying to offer sanctuary to immigrants who really need it, it will also have betrayed the kind of “Americanization” this country badly needs.
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