About our writer
Naomi Foster is in her second year studying Engineering Science at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Naomi was a Mentor for Cambridge Immerse in 2017.
The United States has one of the largest immigrant populations in the world. For decades, have Congress have battled to reach an agreement on a comprehensive immigration policy that will benefit both American people and immigrants.
On 4 December, the Supreme Court approved American President Donald Trump’s controversial travel band. The order will forbid people from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, North Korea, Chad and government officials from Venezuela from travelling to the United States.
The move has been described as a victory for the safety and security of American people.
French immigrant, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur had famously claimed in 1782 that in America “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men”. This idea was popularised by Jewish immigrant Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play ‘The Melting Pot’. It symbolised the transition from a heterogeneous society to one that was homogenous. If everyone was similar and had the same values, theoretically, democracy would be easy.
Roosevelts’ enthusiasm for the play had also endorsed the idea that America was truly the land of opportunity and success. People could come from all over the world and immerse themselves in all things ‘American’. Claiming himself that the world’s greatest people had emerged from melting pots, Roosevelt adopted all the characteristics of a civic nationalist.
Previously, immigrants who still identified in multi-faceted terms were problematic. Today, you see many dual identities such as African-American, Mexican-American and Italian-American. In the last decade or so, people have started to conceptualise the identities based on their ethnicity first and nationality second.
This is a prime example that throughout the time the United States has steadily developed to define America on the basis of shared values. Following this, she has had to accept and adapt to a form of multiculturalism that manifests in different ethnic groups.
The idea that various ethnic and national identities simply melted away emerged as a favourable outcome of assimilation. America was viewed as the magical place of free customs and traditions that were lacking in Europe. The idea of the ‘Melting Pot’ sustained debates regarding nationality and immigration. In shedding cultural rituals and nativity, immigrants were expected to become true Americans. A new alloy had been forged in commonalities of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility.
The premise of assimilation coincided with debates regarding racial superiority which served to lament ‘Anglo-Conformity’ as the norm and aspirational goal. Milton M. Gordon described Anglo-Conformity as a “broad term used to cover a variety of viewpoints about assimilation and immigration”. Discourse assumed that the desirability of maintaining the English language, cultural patterns and institutions sustained American nationality through Anglo-Conformity.
The concept of assimilation and logic behind nativist ideas was challenged by Randolph Bourne who critiqued the premise of a homogenous America. He argued that America “is coming to be, not a nationality, but a trans-nationality” whereby its influences had more cosmopolitan roots. Transnationality suggested the breakdown of physical borders and a focus on phenomena involving popular culture, politics and the migration of people.
Technological innovation now allowed concepts and people to escape their local context and transcend national boundaries. It would now seem regressive for historiographical accounts to focus on the homogeneity of America when it was clear that vibrant immigration communities, such as Chinatown in San Francisco and a huge black community in Harlem, continued to monopolise despite efforts to Americanise.
Are immigration policies inherently racist?
During the nineteenth century, the Irish were targeted because their destitution and Catholic faith were greatly feared. This was continuously reinforced by drunkenness, illiteracy, crime and illness which all became painful truths of immigrant life. In New York, 55% of criminal arrests were Irish, 10% German and 23% natives of all ancestry. As a result, the Irish were seen as incapable of assimilation.
The Anti-Asian sentiment, particularly on the West Coast states, was equally as troublesome. With the growth of Chinatown in San Francisco in 1898, Chinese migrant workers were used as a scapegoat for worsening economic conditions and low wages. The Chinese suffered various legal discriminatory acts placed against them with the ‘Page Act’ of 1875 becoming a key factor in the separation of families and institutional sexism. To the majority, it also worked as a form of assimilation as it prevented polygamous relationships with second wives and female prostitutes. Such steps were leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1902) and the Asiatic Barred Zone (1917).
Looking forward to the present day, the policy has been dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ making it difficult to deny the obvious discrimination faced by migrants and refugees from those countries. On 8 December 2017, it was announced that thirteen judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be tasked with deciding whether the ban discriminates against Muslims. Or, whether it is necessary for the protection of national security.
America, as it is known today, had been largely influenced by its racialised hierarchy due to immigration. As a result, diverse forms of nationalism and movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and environmental laws often ground their identities outside the nation-state.
Debates about immigration and nationality have now addressed the fact that immigrants are not just subscribing to forms of Americanisation. The idea of Americanisation is the assumption that immigrants could automatically adjust to American life and become citizens. Racial hierarchy still persisted, therefore, ideas such as the ‘Melting Pot’ were idealistic and false. It conjured the view that America was a classless society where everyone was freely liberated – Trump’s ban is a clear example that this is not the case.