The Golden Age of Immigration Is Now

By Nancy Foner

New York, as we all know, is in the midst of a profound transformation as a result of the massive immigration of the last four decades.

We are talking about remarkable numbers. Close to three million immigrants now live in New York City -- more than a third of the city's population. According to one analysis, it has reached 40 percent -- but we will have to wait for the results of the 2000 Census to know for sure. What we do know is that the new immigrants are transforming the city -- the schools and colleges; the hospitals; the social services; the political landscape. Whole neighborhoods are changing before our eyes. The city now boasts three Chinatowns, a little Odessa-by-the-Sea, Caribbean Brooklyn, and a Dominican colony in Washington Heights. And the commentators and analysts, popular and academic, in the press and in the journals, are comparing the new immigration with the old. There is hardly an article about the present influx that does not mention, even if only in passing, the earlier great wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century.

This is not surprising. Few events loom larger in the history, indeed the very personality of New York City, than the wave of immigration which peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century. Between 1880 and 1920, over a million and a half immigrants arrived and settled in the city -- so that by 1910, fully 41 percent of all New Yorkers were foreign born (the highest percentage in the twentieth century). The influx changed the way New Yorkers lived, the shape of their institutions, the flavor of their politics, the very food they ate. The new arrivals, mostly eastern European Jews and southern Italians, left a living legacy as well, since a large and influential part of New York's current citizens are their descendants. (Where else but in New York can you find, in an ad for a major gourmet food store, a Passover recipe for Matzo Lasagna?)

A whole mythology has grown up about the immigration at the turn of the last century, and perceptions of that earlier migration deeply color how the newest wave is seen. For many New Yorkers, their Jewish and Italian immigrant forebears have become folk heroes of a sort, and represent a baseline against which present-day arrivals are compared . A series of strongly held, if contradictory, images have come to characterize the earlier immigrants. They worked hard, they strove to become assimilated, they pulled themselves up by the dint of their own Herculean efforts. They were, in the case of Jews, the people of the book, they had strong family values, they had colorful roots.

Against this image of immigrant giants of the past, present day arrivals often seem a pale imitation. A common popular fear is that they will have trouble fitting in, that they come here for government handouts rather than to work, and that their origins in non-Western cultures are poor preparation for American life.

The real story is something very different, as we can see with a careful examination of three myths about New York immigrants then and now: immigrant quality; racial differences; educational success.

IMMIGRANT QUALITY

We have heard the words of Emma Lazarus, "the huddled masses" and "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" so often that it is hard not to think of immigrants in these terms. But this characterization was overdrawn for the past. It is even more misleading today. It is true that most immigrants today come from relatively poor and developing nations, but that does not mean, as many Americans believe, that the immigrants themselves are uniformly poor and uneducated.

Who were the immigrants a hundred years ago -- and who are they now? At the turn of the last century, they were, overwhelmingly, Jews and Italians. In 1920, after several decades of heavy immigration, nearly half a million Russian Jewish immigrants lived in New York City and about 400,000 Italian immigrants. With their children, Italian Americans numbered over 800,000; the Jewish population had soared to over 1.6 million -- together, in other words, 43 percent of the New York City population of 5.6 million.

Italian and Jewish immigrants a century ago did not come from the depths of their societies. It is true that the Italian immigration was primarily a peasant migration of farm or common laborers from the agricultural regions of the south. Even then, however, the Italians most likely to have left for America were in the middle or lower-middle levels of the peasantry rather than the landless. As for eastern European Jews, an exceptionally high proportion -- fully two thirds of the previously-employed Jewish immigrants arriving in the US between 1899 and 1910 -- had worked in skilled trades before they emigrated.

Although these newcomers were thus more skilled than we may recall, professionals were scarce: Of those arriving in America between 1899 and 1910, less than one percent of the Italians and only 1.3 percent of the previously employed Jewish immigrants were professionals.

This is a far cry from today, when the new immigrants include a much higher proportion of professionals -- and when they are more diverse in nearly every way. No two groups dominate today. Most immigrants come, not from Europe, but from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean -- and there are substantial numbers from an extraordinarily wide variety of countries. The top nine groups in New York City in the late 1990s, according to Current Population Survey estimates, are, in descending order, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, former Soviet Union, China, Jamaica, Mexico, Guyana, Ecuador, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago. To give a few numbers, there are over 400,000 foreign born Dominicans; about 240,000 former Soviets; almost 200,000 Chinese.

The remarkable ethnic diversity of immigrants today is matched by the variety of their occupational and class backgrounds, from poor farmers and factory workers to physicians, engineers, and scientists. As before, large numbers of low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants continue to arrive. In 1990, almost a fifth of working-age immigrants in NYC had less than a ninth grade education; another 22 percent had gone beyond the eighth grade but had not graduated from high school.

At the same time, the proportion of professional and highly-skilled arrivals today is truly astounding. Just consider a few figures: In 1990, the census reported that 16 percent of New York City's working age foreign born residents were college graduates -- more than a third of the college graduates had a masters degree or more. The best educated groups are from Asia, Africa, Western Europe, and the Middle East. Most remarkable are Filipinos: in 1990, nearly two thirds of the post-1965 working-age adults had college degrees, putting them way ahead of non-Hispanic white New Yorkers (42 percent).

Many of these highly skilled, middle-class immigrants cannot get comparable work here -- because they cannot meet U.S. licensing requirements or lack English, U.S job experience, and network ties that connect them to the mainstream economy. The Korean grocery store owner is likely to have a college degree; the Bangladeshi cab driver may have been a teacher. The point is that the job an immigrant holds in New York is not necessarily a good measure of his or her skills and education.

So much then for views that the immigrants of today are of worse "quality" than those who came before.

RACE

A major difference between immigrants of the two eras, it is often pointed out, is that those in the current wave are mostly nonwhite whereas in the past European arrivals were white. This seems like an obvious fact. But, in truth, it is not a fact at all.

Race is a changeable perception, what social scientists call a "social and cultural construction," and our views of race have changed enormously in the last hundred years. Although we think of European immigrants of the past as being white, they did not look this way to commentators at the turn of the last century. There was considerable prejudice against Jews and Italians and, to a surprising degree, it was put in racial terms.

A century ago, the difference between a "swarthy" Italian and a "white" German was every bit as visible as the difference today between an "Asian American" and a "European American." What Jews and Italians looked like has not changed much; what has changed enormously is people's perceptions of Jews and Italians. Race today is basically a color word, but it was not that way in turn-of-the-century New York. Jews and Italians were thought to be of a different race than people from northern and western Europe. They looked different to most New Yorkers, and they were believed to have distinct biological features and innate character traits. The courts recognized them as white, and they were seen as superior to black and Asian groups, yet they were not the equals of northern and western Europeans. To use the terms recently coined by historians, Jews and Italians were "inbetween peoples," "probationary whites," and "not-yet-white-ethnics."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, full-blown theories about the racial inferiority of eastern European and southern Italians were well within the mainstream of the scientific community. They were propounded by respected scholars and given the stamp of approval by public intellectuals and opinion leaders. Madison Grant, a patrician New Yorker and founder of the New York Zoological Society, wrote in his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, of southern and eastern Europeans of inferior breeding who were polluting the nation's Nordic stock, and sweeping America toward a "racial abyss." This theme was picked up in speeches by figures of the stature of a future president, Calvin Coolidge, who wrote, in a popular magazine in 1921, that "America must be kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races."

Articles with titles like "Are the Jews an Inferior Race? and "Will the Jews Ever Lose their Racial Identity?" appeared in the most frequently read periodicals. Jewish racial features, according to an article in the New York Sun (1893), made then unassimilable: "The Jewish face and character remain the same as they were in the days of the Pharaoh. Usually a Jew is recognizable as such by sight.... After a few generations other immigrants to this country lose their race identity and become Americans only... Generally the Jews retain theirs, undiminished, so that it is observable by all men."

Or listen to what volume nine of the Dillingham Commission's Report on Immigration, A Dictionary of Races or Peoples, had to say about Jews: "The Jewish nose and to a less degree other facial characteristics are found well nigh everywhere throughout the race."

In everyday life, there was a racial vocabulary to describe the new immigrants. Italians were often described as "swarthy," and a common epithet for them, guinea, connected them with Africans. As late as the 1930s, a second generation Italian in New Haven told a researcher that "our skin gives us away... it is dark and oily." Another described a conversation with his employer, who called Italians names. When asked why he felt this way about all Italians, the employer said: "I don't mean you, Henry. You're white." An American history textbook, again as late as the 1930s, asked whether it would be possible to absorb the "millions of olive-skinned Italians and swarthy black-haired Slavs and dark-eyed Hebrews into the body of the American people." (As an aside: The Times obituary for Joe DiMaggio quoted a 1939 Life magazine article that described DiMaggio as speaking English without an accent: "Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he [DiMaggio] keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic....")

Eventually, of course, Jews and Italians became unquestionably accepted as white. Just as this happened, so, too, there is speculation that at least some of the immigrants now viewed as "nonwhite" will become white. According to one scenario for the future, increased intermarriage and intermingling will expand the category "white" to include Asians as well as lighter-skinned Hispanics. In another scenario, the category "white" will cease to be significant because a black/non-black racial order will emerge -- with a white-Asian-Hispanic melting pot offset by a minority consisting of those with African ancestry. Still, another, more optimistic, forecast sees black-white relations evolving in a different way: increased intermarriage and social mixing , in this forecast, will reduce the salience of current racial/ethnic boundaries, including the black-white divide. Just which scenario will triumph is hard to say -- and something altogether different may emerge -- but it is a safe bet that the racial order will look very different in forty or fifty years than it does now.

EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS

If it is wrong to set up a simple dichotomy between "white" immigrants then and "nonwhite" immigrants now, there is another set of myths: about immigrants and education.

In looking back to the past, Jewish immigrants are commonly viewed as the archetypal success story, pictured as making a miraculous rise through education. Against this image, there is a fear that the immigrants of today are not taking advantage of the educational system the way newcomers did in the past. If my grandparents and great-grandparents could succeed in New York City schools a hundred years ago, without special programs to help them adjust, why -- many people say -- can't today's immigrants and their children do well when they get so much more assistance?

Once again, the realities are very different from the popular images.

Inspirational tales about the rise through education of eastern European Jews in the so-called golden age simply do not stand up against hard facts of the time. In the years before World War I, most eastern European Jews did not make the leap from poverty into the middle class through education. Those who made substantial moves up the occupational ladder in this period generally did so through business -- garments, fur, retail trades, and real estate. It was only in later decades that large numbers of eastern European Jewish children used secondary and college education as a means of advancement.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, school was a short term affair for most immigrant children. Most Jewish immigrant children left school with at best an eighth grade education; few went to high school, even fewer graduated. In 1908, well below five percent of the Russian Jewish children in the city graduated from high school. As for college -- going to college was exceedingly rare. Less than one percent of Russian Jewish young people of college age in the first decade of the twentieth century ever reached the freshman year of college. City College may have already become a largely Jewish school -- in 1908, three quarters of its students were listed as Jews, mainly of Eastern European background -- but Jewish undergraduates at CCNY and other New York colleges were a select few. Only a tiny number made it to graduation. For example, the entire graduating class of City College in 1913 had only 209 students. Fewer than twenty five of them were eastern European Jews.

It was not until the 1930s that there were big graduating classes at City College that contained large numbers of Jews of Russian and Polish Jewish origin.

One reason, of course, that so few Russian and Jewish children made it to high school and college is that there were not many high schools -- or colleges -- at the time. A high school degree was not necessary for the jobs employing most New Yorkers. An eighth grade graduate could even get a white-collar job. A business career did not require four years of college nor did teaching or the law.

In any case, extended schooling was a luxury beyond the means of most newly-arrived families who needed their children to contribute to the family income.

Furthermore, the city's elementary schools did a poor job of educating Russian Jewish immigrant children so that many were not prepared or motivated to continue beyond the elementary school level. The schools were severely overcrowded, as a result of the enormous immigrant influx and the inability of school construction to keep up with demand. In Brownsville, for example, the most congested district in 1910, some classes had as many as 82 students. Educators at the time joked that teachers should have prior experience in a sardine factory.

There is a nostalgia for the "sink or swim" approach to learning English, but unfortunately, many in the past "sank" rather than "swam." Most non-English speaking children were placed in the lowest grade regardless of their age. ( The special "steamer" classes introduced in 1904 -- in which students were totally immersed in English for a few months -- catered to a mere fraction of students needing them. In 1908, for example, there were only enough classes for 1500 students in the entire city.) Teachers made promotion decisions, and many children who could not do the work were left back. In 1908, over a third of the Russian Jewish elementary school pupils in New York were two or more years over age for their grade.

If Russian Jewish children in this early period were not the educational exemplars often remembered, they did do much better than Italians, the other "greenhorns" of the time. Undoubtedly, this favorable comparison is one reason Jewish academic achievements have stood out and received so much attention. However, compared to native white New Yorkers [native whites with native white parents] Russian Jewish students progress was fairly similar at the elementary school level -- and, higher up the educational hierarchy, Russian Jews did much less well than native whites in making it to high school and college.

What about today? Today, of course, more education is needed to get ahead. High school education is universal, college is no longer an institution for a tiny elite. How are the children of the new immigrants doing? Admittedly, there are many dropouts and failures. I do not want to minimize this. Many, perhaps most, immigrants go to New York City schools where skill levels are low, dropout rates high, and attendance rates poor. Once again, the surge of immigrants has led to serious overcrowding.

New language programs are inadequate to meet the enormous need, when, according to a Board of Education count, more than a hundred languages or dialects are spoken by students from over two hundred countries. When high schools were institutions for a minority of the better and more motivated students, violence, crime, and student indifference -- and hostility -- were not issues the way they are today.

For all the problems, though, a substantial number are making it, and some are doing remarkably well. Partly this is a matter of new opportunities and programs. There has been an enormous expansion of higher education; the creation of a host of programs for teaching students English; and even special immigrant schools designed specifically for newcomer children. Also, large numbers of immigrant children have highly educated parents, and some, themselves, have previous experience in fine schools in their home country -- and this has translated into academic success for many newcomers.

Available data on immigrant students in New York City show immigrants comparing favorably with other students in a number of ways. For example, students who were recent immigrants to the public school system in middle school graduate from high school on time by a slightly greater percentage -- and have lower dropout rates -- than their native-born peers. Immigrants are a high, and growing proportion, of the City University of New York population. They made up about 40 percent of the freshman class in 1992. National studies based on large representative samples show immigrants out-performing their native-born peers in the same ethnic group. When immigrants and the native born are compared in four different ethnic groups (Asian, white, black, and Hispanic), immigrants are more likely to follow an academic track in high school than their native-born co-ethnic counterparts; once graduated, immigrants are more likely to attend college and to stay for four years.

Like the Jews of an earlier era, the educational exemplars of today are Asians (white European immigrants are also doing comparatively well.) In a national study of tenth and twelfth graders who were followed for six years, Asian immigrants and natives did best on every measure of preparation for college and success in college, followed by whites and then blacks and Hispanics. In New York City, in a variety of Board of Education studies, Asians do better than blacks and Hispanics. Most striking is Asian overrepresentation in the elite public high schools of New York. In 1995, an astounding half of the students at the most selective high school of all, Stuyvesant, were Asian; at the Bronx High School of Science, it was 40 percent. This is at a time when Asians were 10 percent of the city's high school population. So many Korean students now attend Horace Mann School -- one of New York's most competitive private secondary schools -- that there is a Korean parents group there.

Why Asian students are doing so well is a subject for another article. Let me just mention, briefly, a few of the reasons. For one thing, there are social class factors. Like Jews before, Asian students often have a head start. A major reason why Jews did much better than Italians was that they arrived with higher levels of vocational skills that gave them a leg up in the New York economy; today Asian students have an advantage in that relatively high proportions have highly-educated parents. If Jewish cultural attitudes toward education played a role in their educational achievements, so, too, culture enters into the equation with Asians, who not only place a strong emphasis on hard work and discipline but have also imported after-school institutions that prepare their children for high-school admissions and college entry exams.

Today, race is important, too, in that Asians have more freedom than black and Hispanic immigrants to move into heavily white neighborhoods with better schools, and their children are less likely to feel an allegiance with native minorities and to be drawn into an oppositional peer culture that emphasizes racial solidarity and opposition to school rules and authorities.

And this brings me back to where I started. Whether we look at immigrant quality, race, or education, it is misleading to judge the immigrants of today by a set of myths and images rather than against actual realities. There is a tendency to exaggerate immigrant successes in the good old days -- just as there is a tendency to exaggerate immigrant failures and problems now. We place an added burden on the newest arrivals if we expect them live up to a set of folk heroes and heroines from a mythical age.

Nancy Foner, professor of anthropology at the State University of New York, Purchase, is the author of From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration, newly published by Yale University Press, from which she adapted this essay. Her next talk, "What's New About the New Immigrants?" will be delivered at The Gotham Center for New York City, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, on December 12.

###

Check out the Feature Archives!