Today’s Struggle Mirrors Past
Immigrants at Ellis Island stand in ethnic dress in this 1908 photo.
By Brian M. Rafferty
He knew he had no opportunity in the town where he lived.
The political climate was changing; the family no longer made enough money from the farm to keep in business; his father was getting too old to work and there simply were no opportunities for him in his home country.
But America – that was where he could find a job that paid an hourly wage, where he could send money home to his father, where he could raise his children. They weren’t going to turn out like his father had – like he was sure to become if he stayed.
So he set off to America, paying a man he knew for some papers with writing in a foreign language on them. He didn’t know what the words said, but he knew that when he was asked, he should show the papers and they would let him in. From there, he was on his own.
When he showed up in the United States he found himself in a foreign land, so he gravitated to a small neighborhood where the people spoke the same language, where he felt comfortable. He got a job working in a fish market – the most money he had ever seen in his life. He met a girl from his country, got married and had a child who grew up to speak well, who was well educated, who earned money for college and who made something out of his life.
In short, his American Dream came true.
This is such a common story that is could have been played out 200 or 2 years ago. The tale of the immigrant who seeks a better life for his children is such a rich part of our history because it so accurately portrays the history of this country.
According to the Catholic Campaign For Immigration reform, the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born now stands at 11.5 percent, down from the early 20th century when it was approximately 15 percent.
Yet the impression second-generation (or later) Americans have had toward the new wave of Americans has remained as constant as the tale of the immigrant itself.
“Irish Need Not Apply” read the signs in store windows in the 1840s. Russians fleeing the upheaval of their country’s revolution were viewed with scorn in the 1910s.
Similar scorn is heaped on today’s immigrants, even though those of 100 years ago initially often settled in mono-ethnic neighborhoods, spoke their native languages, and built up newspapers and businesses that catered to their fellow émigrés, according to the Catholic Campaign.
They also experienced the same types of discrimination that today’s immigrants face, and integrated within American culture at a similar rate, according to numbers provided by the U.S. Census.
“If we view history objectively, we remember that every new wave of immigrants has been met with suspicion and doubt and yet, ultimately, every past wave of immigrants has been vindicated and saluted,” the Catholic Campaign wrote on its Web site.