Immigration in America: Past, Present, and Future

By Caitlyn Ewers

On November 2, Creighton University’s Phi Beta Kappa Chapter welcomed Visiting Scholar Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University. Ngai is a legal and political historian with interests in American immigration, nationalism, and citizenship; she has also organized labor unions in New York and authored numerous publications. Her lecture, “The United States as a Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea,” briefly outlined the history of America’s immigration policies and offered an evaluation of the perception of immigration introduced by her lecture title. 

The perception of America as “a nation of immigrants” was a relatively new one as recently as a half-century ago. Oscar Handlin in The Uprooted (1951) was one of the first to promote the notion of America as “a nation of immigrants.” Handlin begins the volume with theses words: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” A few years later, then-junior senator John F. Kennedy further promulgated the idea in his A Nation of Immigrants (1958), which was written with the encouragement and support of the Anti-Defamation League. While Handlin and Kennedy served to highlight an important facet of America’s past and present, Ngai noted that it promoted, at the same time, a normative historical theory that not only fails to address several major events in American history, but overlooks entire ethnic groups.

Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants divides the history of America into two periods: colonization and everything following. This implicitly gives special status to European colonists as the “first” to arrive, equalizes all the groups that came after, and effectively negates the role of the Native American population. Mexican and Asians too are barely mentioned. Ngai’s proposed periodization of American immigration history comprises five intervals: the period of colonial settlers and slaves (from first European colonization up until the 1820s), continental expansion (1820s-1880s), the mass movement of immigration which fueled and was fueled by the Industrial Revolution (1880s-1920s), the age of high nationalism (1924-1965), and the period of globalization (1965-present).

The two greatest waves of immigration to the United States occurred at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Ngai described and analyzed the similarities and differences between the groups, from the economic and social conditions which they met upon arrival to the demographics of the immigrants themselves. Both waves came from new sending regions, concentrated in particular areas, and exhibit a lack of enculturation at least within the first generation; however, in comparison to immigrants of the early 20th century, the immigrants entering the United States in the late 20th and early 21st century are characterized by a far greater incidence of undocumented immigration and far less social and economic mobility for the second and third generation.

Ngai explained numerous factors effecting mobility, including the distribution of wealth, the political climate, and the availability of job opportunities for persons with no more than a high school diploma. In each case, she demonstrated how America today is a more hostile environment for immigrants. Despite this, Ngai asserts that immigrants will play an exceptional role in the continuing course of American history; the notion of the United States as a country of immigrants is indeed normative and inadequate to describe the entire history of a nation, but it is also a statement by which immigrants assert their significant role in America’s past, present, and future. Although a number of factors must fall into place before immigration reform occurs, Ngai believes that the demographic trends point toward an inevitable change. 

Caitlyn Ewers is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Latin and art history. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.