America, the Not So Promised Land

tags: immigration

Tara Zahra, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, is the author of “The Great Departure: Mass Migration From Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World.”

One of the great myths Americans have about their country is that everyone wants to come here. Advocates and enemies of immigration share this assumption, which dates at least as far back as the turn of the 20th century. As reports of “American fever” circulated in Eastern Europe, one Polish economist, Leopold Caro, claimed that entire villages were becoming ghost towns. “Many houses stood empty, and in many others only old women and small children remained behind. In some villages the entire young generation left home.”

“Everyone,” he concluded, “believed that America was the Promised Land, a true paradise.”

In the meantime, we have forgotten the agonizing debates migrants had with their families, friends and neighbors about whether to stay or go. We’ve also forgotten the many individuals who came to America and lived to regret it.

These stories are worth recalling as the number of migrants in America reaches rates last seen a century ago. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, there are now 45 million immigrants in the United States, accounting for 14 percent of the total population.

On the surface, it might appear that we have returned to a world in which America represents a promised land of freedom and social mobility. This view has certainly been a powerful incitement to many migrants. But the reality — then and now — has typically been far bleaker. Contrary to popular imagination, 30 to 40 percent of immigrants from Europe before the First World War ultimately returned home. For many this was always the plan. But others returned disappointed and disillusioned. They found little reward for their hard work, lack of support in times of illness and old age and questionable moral values in an ego-driven society. ...

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