Fall 2009, Vol. 18, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Immigration and the American Experience

An Interview with Daniel B. Cornfield and Gary Gerstle


Daniel Cornfield (left) and Gary Gerstle

The 2009-2010 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, "Immigration and the American Experience," will focus on the culture and politics of immigration as it relates primarily to the U.S. experience from the early American period to the present. Using a comparative-historical approach, the Fellows will draw on the humanities and social sciences, as well as studies in international human rights, transnationalism, and international migration in world regions other than North America. The co-directors are Daniel B. Cornfield, professor of sociology and political science, and Gary Gerstle, the James G. Stahlman Professor of American History. Letters met recently with Professors Cornfield and Gerstle at the Vaughn Home to discuss the program.

LETTERS: Could you talk about this project in terms of what you hope to achieve within the next year? How did the project come about?

CORNFIELD: It came about because we are friends and colleagues and we share a common interest in the topic, and although Gary is a historian and I am a sociologist, we have a tremendous amount of overlap in our substantive interests. Also, this seminar coincides with the recent growth of a critical mass of Vanderbilt faculty in several disciplines who have an interest in immigration, and we are very fortunate to have many of them in our seminar. But if I may just back up a century or so to talk about the timing of the issue of immigration—immigration as an issue tends to come in waves because immigration, at least to the United States, has come in waves, and we are presently in a big wave. The last big wave, when much scholarship, literature, poetry, and political conflict emerged, occurred in the period of 1880-1924. Many of the debates that we are witnessing now in the United States, and elsewhere, regarding immigration, and immigration as a so-called national "wedge" issue, were partly defined in that previous era. To me as a sociologist, immigration as a historical, cyclical process poses enduring questions about community identity, about individual identity, about the nature of group relations in society, and about the mission and definition of the entire nation and its place in the world.



GERSTLE: One of my favorite passages from a work on immigration history is from Oscar Handlin's classic, The Uprooted (1951). At the beginning of the book he states, "once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." That last line has long stuck with me. This country has always been a country of immigrants. To study immigration is not just to study those who came to the United States from elsewhere and made homes here. It is to study the very processes through which the United States constituted itself and reconstituted itself as a nation. As Dan suggested, we are in the midst of a major wave of immigration and, I would add, a major reconstitution of how we think about ourselves as a nation. Immigration density in America is approaching the all-time peak achieved early in the twentieth century (about fifteen percent of the total population). It seems, then, so important to understand this moment both on its own terms and in relation to earlier waves and reconstitutions. It seems important to assess how immigrants are experiencing this moment and how that experience is similar to, or different from, the experience of immigrants in earlier generations. We want to know what impact the immigrants are having on American society and what impact that society is having on them. We seek to understand this moment by drawing on, and drawing together, the various disciplines—history, sociology, anthropology, political science, literature and cultural studies—that have become interested in immigration and have contributed to a common fund of knowledge about it. It is that understanding and drawing together that we hope to achieve in this seminar.

CORNFIELD: The sociological and historical understanding of migration has been linked in part to labor issues. Many labor sociologists and labor historians would have had some connection to immigration because those two issues, theoretically and in practice, were tightly linked. When I was in graduate school as a labor sociologist in training, our chief nemesis in the interdisciplinary field of labor studies would have been economics. As labor sociologists, we were developing an institutional understanding of the pathways to the American dream—what do they look like? Was it individual choice, as the economists were arguing, that accounted for why some people attained the American dream more rapidly and at a higher level than others, or was it the institutional opportunity structures—the kinds of workplaces, and labor markets, and the way we organize our communities, that made the American dream more accessible to some groups than to others?

In the process of developing an institutional approach to understanding social mobility and the pursuit of the American dream, sociologists began to query, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, a little bit more about how institutions matter, and where they come from. So that is when sociology as a discipline became much more comparative-historical in its approach, opening up, to me, the possibility of having even more dialogue with historians on the history of immigration, labor and the American dream, the impact on identity, the capacity to build new communities, and, not least of all, the capacity to build a dynamic labor movement. In the late nineteenth century, immigrant labor intellectuals defined some of the parameters of our contemporary policy debates about inclusion and exclusion of immigrants in society and in the labor movement. There are three immigrant labor intellectuals of the 1900-era who are illustrative, namely, Daniel De Leon from Venezuela, Morris Hillquit from Latvia, and Samuel Gompers from London, England. As labor leaders they were organizing immigrant and native workers to help them to accomplish the American dream, each with a different strategy and philosophy. De Leon represented the most inclusive, internationalist orientation toward immigration—he favored almost completely open borders and the inclusion of all workers regardless of ethnic background in the U.S. labor movement. Morris Hillquit was one of the co-founders with Eugene Victor Debs of the Socialist Party of the United States of America. Hillquit represented a middle ground between the completely inclusive approach and the completely exclusive approach. Samuel Gompers was the forty-year president of the American Federation of Labor, which is the forerunner organization of the AFL-CIO that plays a major role in contemporary labor and immigration policy debates. Gompers represented what was called the restrictionist approach, a very exclusive approach, and was one of the forces behind the famous 1924 federal legislation which curtailed immigration from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, effectively ending the previous wave of immigration to the U.S. Gompers felt that immigrants from low-wage nations would undermine the wages and working conditions and bargaining strength of skilled, unionized U.S. workers—who, at that time, were not typically immigrants, and therefore he took an exclusive approach to both trade unionism and immigration. That whole debate had remained dormant for a while because immigration all but stopped for about the next forty to fifty years, except for the immigration of Mexican agricultural workers. Then with immigration reforms beginning around 1965, and then later in the 1980s and 1990s, many more immigrants started coming to the United States, this time from many different parts of the world, especially the global south, and, not least of all, Mexico.

LETTERS: Could you discuss, on a local level, Nashville's relationship to immigration and the recent rejection of the English-only law? An off-shoot of that is the differentiation between assimilation and upward mobility. How do you differentiate between those two terms and how important is such a differentiation?


CORNFIELD: Between 1990 and 2006 the average annual unemployment rate for Nashville was a very low 3.9 percent, so we had full employment locally. During that period of time, absorption of newcomers from any background was relatively smooth because under those conditions individuals can picture a pathway toward the American dream. As the economy began to slow down in the early 2000s we started to see more evidence of what is called "nativism," the expression of anti-immigrant attitudes by some members of the local community who became less welcoming, and in some cases hostile, toward immigrants. The 2008-09 English-only mobilization that you are referring to occurred at a time when the economy was slowing down as the population was diversifying dramatically. In 1990, at the beginning of that full-employment period that I described before, there were hardly any immigrants living in Nashville. Two and a half percent of Nashvillians were "foreign-born," the expression of the U.S. Census. By 2007, that percentage had climbed to about twelve percent who were foreign-born. In sociological terms, and in everyday terms, that is considered dramatic social change.

As the economy worsened while this dramatic social change was occurring, for some Nashvillians, the American dream appeared to be increasingly opaque. So the English-only mobilization occurred at a time when that perception of blocked mobility was presumably brewing in Nashville. But the coalition that mobilized to oppose English-only consisted of a wide range of segments of the community. It included a large group of people who philosophically took an inclusive approach to immigration—the same inclusive perspective that would have been taken in the nineteenth century that I described before. And there was another group, sometimes overlapping with the first, who were very concerned about the investment potential and economic future of Nashville as a city. These groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, view anti-immigrant mobilizations as an ugly deterrent to new business investment in Nashville. From that perspective, and from a philosophical perspective, a fairly wide coalition of people that ordinarily would not coalesce on political issues came together on this issue to oppose English-only. The net result was fifty-seven percent of the voters opposing English-only as a way to define Nashville.

GERSTLE: The defeat of the English-only law was a great victory for Nashville, and an important piece of good news for the nation as a whole during a period marked by growing hostility toward the immigrants in our midst. Throughout American history two rival conceptions of what this nation should be have battled each other for supremacy. One conception put forward America as a refuge for the world's poor, persecuted, and dispossessed. This America welcomed newcomers, promising them the kind of opportunity and freedom denied them in the Old World. From this perspective, America was a place where the poor could become prosperous, where the religiously and politically persecuted could become free, and where the masses could become sovereign. America was a place, too, where any individual could reinvent him or herself in the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment. We should never underestimate the pull of this American dream, and its influence on generations of immigrants, including those who live among us today. At various moments (most of the nineteenth century, for example), too, the United States backed this vision of an inclusive and opportunity-filled America with one of the most liberal immigration policies of any nation in the world.

The other conception of America was radically different: this conception stressed America's exclusivity rather than its inclusivity. America, from this point of view, was a proper destination only for certain kinds of people—Protestants, Europeans, and whites—and should close its doors to other kinds of people—Catholics, Christian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Africans, Asians, and other nonwhites who, by reason of religion and race, were deemed unfit for life in America. From this perspective, the American "genius" for liberty, prosperity, and self-government was thought to be rooted either in religion (Protestantism) or in race (whiteness) or both. Groups whose religion or race put them at too great a distance from the Anglo-Saxon ideal were judged incapable of assimilation, of cherishing or practicing American democracy, and of pursuing the American dream. Anti-immigration groups undertook major efforts to exclude these "inferior" and "un-American" peoples from entering the United States and they were frequently successful: The Congress passed laws that excluded East and South Asians from the 1880s to the 1960s, and Eastern and Southern Europeans and Africans from the 1920s to the 1960s. Meanwhile, an obscure naturalization law passed by the first U.S. Congress in 1790 limited citizenship to those immigrants who were "free and white." This law remained in effect for more than one hundred and fifty years, and was used at various times to exclude African, Asian, and Arab immigrants already resident on American soil from becoming citizens of the United States.

The Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s did a great deal to affirm the universalist conception of America and to undermine the restrictive and racist conception. Indeed the Civil Rights Revolution triggered a remarkable rewriting of the country's immigration laws so as to open the United States to the peoples of the world in ways never accomplished before. The result has been a wave of immigration as significant as any in American history and unprecedented in its racial, religious, and geographic diversity. We are living through, as a result, a major moment of national reconstitution. Any such moment is bound to shake up older notions of national belonging, of what it means to be an American, and of what it is that binds together those who live alongside one another into one nation. These moments are both exciting and stressful times; they inspire hope and generate fear. It is not surprising that both the hope and fear are intense in the South, a region that is rapidly changing but that still has less experience than many other parts of the country have had in terms of diverse groups of Americans learning to live among each other in conditions of equality. Hope and fear battled each other in the Nashville English-only referendum of January 2009, and hope won. It was a good day for Nashville. Perhaps we will one day look back on this moment, too, as putting efforts at immigration reform in the nation as a whole on a more positive foundation.

LETTERS: Are there any other foundational immigration laws established in the early American period that have changed drastically recently? Are there other laws that were amended or changed between immigration's first wave and the current wave?

GERSTLE: There have been two foundational changes in American immigration law. The first I have already addressed: the elimination of racial restrictions on naturalization and immigration that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s and the consequent reaffirmation of America as a universal nation, welcoming people of every race and nationality. The second has been the abandonment of an almost completely "open borders" approach to immigration and the embrace instead of an immigration regime grounded in restriction. For much of the nineteenth century the United States, then a labor-hungry nation (its economic and political systems still unproven) pursued an open borders approach: the government placed no limits on the number of immigrants who could enter the United States in any given year, and barred almost no groups from immigrating. Quotas did not exist; the illegal alien problem did not exist. In fact, the very category of the "illegal alien" had yet to be invented. That began to change with Chinese Exclusion in 1882, a movement culminating in what Dan has referred to as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which limited the number of immigrants outside the western hemisphere who could come to the United States to one hundred and fifty thousand per year, an eighty-five percent reduction in the numbers who had been arriving annually until that time. Those one hundred and fifty thousand slots were distributed among the various nations of the world, with most slots being reserved for the "racially superior" peoples of northwest and northern Europe.

By the 1960s, this "racial quota" system had come to be despised and was scuttled in favor of a system that gave each nation the same number of slots, with preference going to those who had skills that the United States needed or family members in the United States with whom they wished to be reunited. However, the 1960s reformers gave no thought to returning to the open borders approach of the nineteenth century. They remained committed to the principle of restricting entry; and while they doubled the number of immigrants who could legally enter each year, they put enormous pressure on the available slots by bringing western hemispheric nations under the umbrella of restriction for the first time. Latin American peoples now found their entry into the United States restricted; in some countries, such as Mexico, those desiring to come to the United States from the start vastly exceeded the quota allotted to them. They came anyway, giving rise to the problem of the illegal alien. Today the presence of an estimated ten to twelve million illegal aliens on U.S. soil reveals how much our immigration system has failed; solving the illegal alien problem presents the greatest challenge to U.S. policymakers. The problem emerged as a result of the United States embracing, almost a hundred years ago, an immigration policy grounded in the principle of restriction, meaning that the U.S. would admit only a small portion of those desiring to come to America. In restricting immigration in this way the United States departed in a fundamental way from the open borders policy it pursued for much of the nineteenth century.

One law that profoundly affects the immigrant families in the United States has not changed since its inception. This is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868. Section one of that Amendment states that "all persons born…in the United States…are citizens of the United States." Soon after this amendment passed, this question arose: if an immigrant mother who was barred from becoming a citizen by reason of race or illegal entry to the United States gave birth to a child on U.S. soil, was this child nevertheless a citizen of the United States by the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment? In the 1890s the Supreme Court answered this question with a resounding yes. Since that time groups of immigration critics have often protested this Supreme Court decision and the language of the fourteenth Amendment on which it is based. One hears this criticism today when a Pat Buchanan or Lou Dobbs talks about a Mexican mother illegally entering the United States simply to give birth to a child on U.S. soil, thus giving that child U.S. citizenship—and the family a lasting claim on America. But I think we are actually much better off having had that law on the books, because over time it has been a spur toward integration and belonging, toward making Americans out of groups whose initial arrival was greeted with suspicion and disdain. It has certainly been preferable to the situation that prevailed in several European countries across the middle and late decades of the twentieth century, where groups of non-European immigrants (such as Turks in Germany) were barred from citizenship and belonging across generations. There the children and grandchildren of immigrants had no more chance of becoming citizens than the original immigrants themselves. The creation of a caste-like group of perpetual outsiders generates deep alienation and rancor over the long term, to the detriment not simply of the ethnic population, but of the entire society in which they reside. The Fourteenth Amendment has made it possible for the United States, for the most part, to escape this "perpetual outsider" phenomenon.

Permit me, if I may, to use the reference to integration and belonging to return to a question you presented to us early on about how to understand the relationship of assimilation and upward mobility. To rephrase that question: is assimilation necessary to upward mobility? In other words, must one conform fully to the culture that one, as an immigrant, finds in America in order to enjoy the fruits of America—first and foremost, economic prosperity and security, and second, a satisfying sense of belonging? Immigrants have always understood that to make it in America, one needed a certain amount of assimilation, especially fluency in English. That is why America has long been the place where foreign languages go to die, making America more of a monolingual society than almost any society on the face of the earth. Ethnic groups have only rarely carried their Old World languages into the third generation. The pattern of striking gains in English fluency and loss of one's mother tongue is even apparent among Hispanic immigrant communities today, if we measure these patterns across generations.

But if immigrants in past generations were willing to assimilate up to a point, they often resented the heavy-handed assimilationist pressures brought to bear on them by the native-born: Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century hated Protestants for trying to force their children to learn from the King James Bible in public schools. Theodore Roosevelt believed that the celebration of St. Patrick's Day was an unacceptable affront to American patriotism. Immigrants were pressured to change their names; to hide their religious practices or else make them conform to the traditions of American Protestantism; to abandon ethnic and food cultures to which they were deeply committed; to conform to images of beauty and comportment that blond-haired, blue-eyed Anglo Saxon Americans were thought to embody. A hundred years ago Henry Ford dramatized the transformation expected of immigrants by staging theatre shows in Dearborn, Michigan, in which his immigrant workers would enter a huge melting pot in the dress of their native lands and emerge at the other end dressed and looking the part of one hundred percent Americans.

Few immigrants became the one hundred percent Americans of Henry Ford's imagination. Most found ways of maintaining treasured aspects of their ethnic cultures. But most had to do so quietly; few felt able to escape the judgment that somehow they were lesser Americans. Among them resentment at the harshness of the assimilatory pressures directed at them smoldered.

That resentment helps to explain the big cultural change that the civil rights revolution set in motion in the 1960s and the 1970s. The impact of the slogan "Black is Beautiful" was huge, not simply among African Americans but among all Americans whose skin color, religion, or national origins marked them as different from the mainstream. If the group in America that had suffered the worst discrimination and cultural denigration could declare its beauty to the nation, then why could not Latinos, Asians, Italians, Poles, Jews, and others do the same? And if one's culture was beautiful and valuable, then why should it be scrapped? Should not aspects of it be preserved and melded with the broader American culture? Or perhaps the broader mass culture should be resisted in favor of cultural particularity and diversity? Out of these questions emerged a deep and wide-ranging conversation about the proper relationship between immigrant cultures and national culture, about the virtues and vices of assimilation, about the value of homogeneity versus multiculturalism. The conversation sometimes became angry, even rancorous, but it was never dull, and out of it across the last forty years has emerged a superior understanding of the value of cultural diversity and a belief that America can accommodate a variety of cultures, and indeed, is a richer nation when a variety of cultures flourish within it. Diversity is not a substitute for assimilation; there must be common political principles and a shared culture that bind us together as Americans. But the space for particularity and difference is much greater than previous generations of Americans thought it could be, and our expectations for how immigrants should and will assimilate have correspondingly changed.

CORNFIELD: The individual and group struggle about identity and how far to assimilate, versus retaining one's traditional cultural identity and traditions, is like the "fiddler on the roof." In Nashville, we not only have many fiddlers in the music industry, we have many fiddlers on roofs in the Nashville immigrant communities, who are basically playing the role of defining social identities. My department colleague Professor Jennifer Lena and I have done some local research on the role of immigrant artists in this very process that Gary is talking about, dual identities. We have found that there are two types of immigrant artists' roles—performing and visual artists. Some immigrant artists are cultural preservationists. For these immigrant artists and groups, the threat to immigrant identity is hyper-assimilation into the U.S. pop culture by the youth of that immigrant group. In this case, the older generation of the immigrant group plays a role of imparting to the younger generation of that immigrant community some of the cultural traditions—language, religion, and food—of the homeland culture. That is the immigrant artist's cultural-preservationist role.

The other role that the same immigrant artist could play, might be called the cultural ambassador, in which case the immigrant artist displays, with great dignity, the cultural traditions of his or her ethnic group in venues of the so-called native or mainstream community. Basically, the ambassador role becomes important to those immigrant groups who experience the most hostile reception from natives, in which case the immigrant artist assuages the hostile native community in order to improve the comfort level and incorporation of the immigrant group in their new home. The immigrant artist is a way for an immigrant community to empower itself and to fend off either hyperassimilation and loss of the traditions on the one hand, and to fend off hostile receptions from the native community on the other, to try to maximize a mutually beneficial incorporation of newcomers in their new home.

LETTERS: Your plan for the upcoming year seems both thoughtful and clearly structured—is there anything that you are excited about that you have not mentioned?

CORNFIELD: Are we going to do field trips? We should!

GERSTLE: I agree! My hope for the seminar is that it will reenact intellectually the creativity that often results from many different immigrant groups coming together and interacting with each other. My hope is that the diverse disciplinary backgrounds and interests that seminar participants will bring to our discussion will yield new ways of thinking about immigration in the past and in the present, and in the United States as well as other parts of the world.

CORNFIELD: I look forward to a spontaneous, dynamic interchange. I have a fascination with the intellectual history of different disciplines because to me each discipline represents a way of thinking, and what better way to try to discern that, even to assimilate it to some degree, than through a discussion of immigration?

LETTERS: This has been a fascinating look into what your seminar will feature. Thank you for your time and best wishes for your seminar in the coming academic year.

Letters Archive Index

For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

[ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

[ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | | Help ]

Created by Vanderbilt University Design & Publishing.
Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

Copyright © 2001, Vanderbilt University
URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
Last Modified: Monday, 1 October 2007
For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu